What Does Woke Culture Mean for Your Advertising Campaigns?

a cartoon trans man holds a coffee cup wearing beach shorts. Scars are visible under the nipples.

“i [sic] will never buy a costa again they are on my list, the public have the power to bring these organisations down…”

Those are the words of “Cornish dream”, one of hundreds of angry commenters on a recent tabloid article about a “woke” Costa marketing campaign.

The UK coffee chain commissioned – then defended – a cartoon of a trans man with mastectomy scarring, saying it “showcases and celebrates inclusivity.” Some vehemently disagreed, saying it glorified harmful surgery. Thus, Costa became the latest example of cancel culture.

The high street staple is the latest conscript to the culture wars alongside Bud Light, Starbucks, Nike, Adidas, and even Disney’s The Little Mermaid. With many consumers determined to see brands that “go woke, go broke,” online outrage rapidly fuels product boycotts and reputational damage.

a cartoon trans man holds a coffee cup wearing beach shorts. Scars are visible under the nipples.
Costa commissioned the painting to celebrate Pride at its Brighton and Hove branch in 2022.

Yet these controversies keep brand names in the headlines. Arguably, all that free publicity is worth the gamble. As Oscar Wilde put it: “There’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

When an incredible 82% of consumers want their chosen brand’s values to match their own, business leaders can feel an understandable pressure to conform to changing tastes. With the Black Lives Matter movement popularising the idea that “silence is violence,” the line between being relatable and offending sensitivities is often hard to see.

Let’s explore the risks and rewards of businesses taking a public stance on hot button issues.

Culture wars loom large

A growing number of Brits believe the UK is divided by “culture wars” – 54% felt this way in 2022, compared with 46% in 2020. This is the weather system of “wokeism” that means a growing section of society are willing to criticise politicians, businesses, and public figures for offending their social ideals.

You won’t have to spend long on social media listening tools to find evidence of this. Technology like this helps marketers analyse how audiences react emotionally to their brands, major figureheads, and industry events.

What does ``wokeism`` mean?

The atmosphere of progressive liberal or left-leaning ideas which tend to overturn traditional norms about gender, sexuality, civil rights, and social politics.

Now that 84% of the UK is active on social media, brands can expect ready appraisal of digital marketing campaigns that stray into identity politics. Clearly, companies need to be mindful of the potential backlash resulting from opining on gender roles, disability, race, religion or belief systems.

What, then, should business leaders do when it comes to branding decisions amidst the sensitive realm of wokeism?

Tom Bourlet
Image: Tom Bourlet

“It’s inevitable people have personal views, whether that’s on a political stance or on social matters,” shares Tom Bourlet, a brand advisor and Head of Marketing at FizzBox. “But any view you portray will often polarise some parts of your audience.

“Brands can say ‘we don’t care about those customers if they don’t match our values’, but I’m also trying to ensure these brands are profitable, and I don’t think it’s a business’s place to get involved in these matters.”

The epitome of this is Bud Light in 2023.

Bud Light leaves a sour taste with trans influencer partnership

When Alissa Heinerscheid was hired as VP Marketing at Bud Light, owned by brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, in 2022, she was its first female marketing leader in its 40-year history. Tasked with “evolving and elevating” the brand, Heinerscheid led a widely praised ad featuring actor Miles Teller and his wife Keleigh Sperry dancing to “on hold” music while holding beer cans.

Miles Teller holds up a french bulldog in a living room while Keleigh Sperry dances in the background

The ad featured a celebrity couple in their off-screen habitat, enjoying the spontaneity of a shared boogie. Nobody challenged any gender norms, and even the family dog joined in.

“Female representation in this role has been something I’ve been really committed to,” Heinerscheid said in an interview in March. Yet it would soon become apparent how carefully she would need to tread. The brand’s next campaign was about to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Alissa Heinerscheid points to paintings on her wall made by her children
Image: Alissa Heinerscheid, VP, Bud Light | Make Yourself at Home, Episode 21 YouTube

“I had a really clear job to do when I took over Bud Light and it was: ‘This brand is in decline, it’s been in decline for a really long time, and if we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand there will be no future for Bud Light’.”

Just over a week after that interview, transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney posted on Instagram drinking Bud Light. An external agency had sent her (and other influencers) a personalised edition of the beer on behalf of Bud Light.

screenshot of an Instagram post with a Bud Light can with a woman's face on it. Comments visible on the right-hand side: dylanmulvaney • Original audio dylanmulvaney's profile picture dylanmulvaney 22 w Happy March Madness!! Just found out this had to do with sports and not just saying it’s a crazy month! In celebration of this sports thing @budlight is giving you the chance to win $15,000! Share a video with #EasyCarryContest for a chance to win!! Good luck! #budlightpartner isysm1th's profile picture isysm1th 21 w Dylan this is so hurtful to women. esskay1973's profile picture esskay1973 14 w Congrats! You just singlehandedly bankrupted a once-proud brewing company! 195,002 likes 1 April
Mulvaney experienced bullying and transphobia since her sponsored Bud Light post.

Unfortunately, the partnership was a catastrophic failure. Floods of negative messages about Bud Light circulated across social media. Kid Rock filmed himself shooting cases of the beverage with a rifle. A boycott rapidly set in.

Bud Light’s pre-tax profit took a 28% nosedive in Q2 2023, and it lost its 22-year crown as the top-selling beer in the US.

Heinerscheid took a leave of absence from the company in April, and appeared to leave her role soon after.

Mulvaney herself told followers in June: “What transpired from that video was more bullying and transphobia than I could have ever imagined.” The influencer said she had been scared to leave her house.

Customers wise to ‘fake woke’ virtue signaling

The conservative backlash against Bud Light came as no surprise for many. Commentators saw Bud Light as pandering to a woke generation at the cost of brand integrity.

“The target audience for Bud Light are working class white American men who are the most least woke. That’s what backfired on them,” reasons Nick Buckley, who started a web project called Go Woke Go Broke that aims to dissuade businesses from commenting on social issues.

“What companies are risking now is alienating part of their customer base,” he argues. “Because they’ve pushed too far it’s now seen as virtue signalling. People don’t believe they’re sincere – and they’re not sincere.”

In mid-April, Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth published a statement in which he stated “we never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people” and reaffirmed how much he cares for the brand’s “history and heritage”. Bud Light’s May ad featured men handing each other beer bottles. No women featured in it.

Mulvaney said the brand had not reached out to her as of the end of June. “For a company to hire a trans person and then not publicly stand by them is worse, in my opinion, than not hiring a trans person at all.”

Outrage marketing: free publicity at the speed of hatred

Emotions powerfully motivate us. The best social media marketing companies are full of experts that know how to tap into our thought patterns, and position their product or service as the solution. Some strategists use shock tactics to deliberately offend their audience, and provoke a negative emotional reaction. This is known as “outrage marketing” and it’s generally guaranteed to get a lot of engagement (shares, comments, and even media coverage).

Image: Lotti Haxell

“Outrage marketing works, especially on the internet,” asserts Lotti Haxell, Social Media Specialist at Expert Market. “Researchers gauged various online emotions by tracking emoticons embedded in millions of messages posted on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like microblogging platform. Their conclusion: joy moves faster than sadness or disgust, but nothing is speedier than rage.”

“The reason outrage marketing is so powerful as an advertising tool is that negative emotions thrive on the internet. It’s the global town square.”

Haxell describes the outrage marketing strategy as “very risky” and only likely to succeed if a company has enough resources to absorb the fallout. After all, emotive marketing campaigns can go south quickly. “Unfortunately you don’t get to choose the flavour of your attention on the internet,” Haxell adds.

The polarising power of politics

When it comes to emotional discussions, there’s no area of greater sensitivity than politics. When Rishi Sunak paints himself as an enemy of “woke nonsense,” it could be seen by many as a ploy for popularity, and part of a grander narrative he needs to create for his electioneering. Yet the same strategy is best avoided when it comes to business marketing.

Bourlet once handled a client running a skincare brand who was determined to publish their views on Brexit on the company’s social media channels: “I explained that it didn’t matter what their personal opinion was as talking on the subject would instantly split their customer base in two and potentially lead to a loss in customers.”

“We worked on a social calendar, so the owner couldn’t make spontaneous posts. The key was to divert their attention to where they should be focusing on, then handling the posts in a suitable manner with someone else delegated the task of social media management.”

Do what you mean

“Jumping onto an issue you don’t actually care about won’t get you very far in a positive direction,” explains Haxell. “If you attempt to create a false connection over an issue that affects real people’s lives it is likely those people will feel justifiably patronised or used by this. Expect to receive backlash from this community.”

Purpose-driven advertising – where companies focus on spreading a message about a social issue – is fraught with traps. Although it seems like a great marketing tactic due to its popularity, it’s easy to catch a company red-handed if sincerity is lacking.

A quick example of on-again, off-again commitment to a social cause is Starbucks. The drinks giant ran a partnership with transgender charity Mermaids, committing $100,000 to the cause, and even winning a Diversity in Advertising Award from Channel 4 in 2019. Yet 3,000 Starbucks workers went on strike in the US this June partly over claims the coffee chain wouldn’t allow Pride decorations in some stores.

USA TODAY @USATODAY A Starbucks customer returned her drink after seeing the district manager remove a Pride flag from the cafe. Starbucks district manager pulls Pride flag A Starbucks district manager removed a Pride flag placed on the building, prompting a customer to return her drink. 9:00 pm · 15 Jun 2023 · 112.5K Views 31 Reposts 11 Quotes 233 Likes 5 Bookmarks
Starbucks gained some negative news coverage over the Pride flag debacle.

“More and more people are becoming aware of the look and feel of tokenistic support for social issues and are happy to use their personal platforms to call it out, so it’s a risky game,” adds Haxell.

There are plenty of positive ways for a business to express positive values – without seeming tokenistic, shallow, or inconsistent with its wider activities. We recently spoke to Tom Maskill, a director at a sustainable marketing firm who oversaw business emission reductions and the installation of green vehicle charging points at the company’s premises.

“If you are passionate enough to start a business around a product or service, you obviously believe that it deserves to exist. If your product solves a problem for the customer, there will be a social issue that aligns with your vision,” according to Haxell.

“For example, a brand like Dove has advocated for many social issues over the last decade, such as colourism, body positivity, and anti-ageism. Their products are used on the body, so there is synergy between product and marketing when exploring and unpacking issues which affect the body.

“Dove gives money and shares its sizeable digital platforms with members of the community affected by the social issues they champion. It isn’t just ‘lip service’.”

Written by:
Sabrina Dougall
Sabrina is a business journalist whose career began in news reporting. She has a master's in Investigative Journalism from City University London, and her work has appeared in The Times, The Daily Express, Money Saving Expert, Camden New Journal, Global Trade Review, and Computer Business Review. She specializes in writing about SEO (search engine optimization). Having run her own small business, Sabrina knows first-hand how critical digital marketing is to building a client base and local reputation.