Should businesses steer clear of politics? That’s the argument a UK government minister made last month, following a string of high-profile backlashes against brands for weighing in on social issues.
“I’m uncomfortable, instinctively, to see big businesses appropriating the views of their customers to make a political point,” Conservative MP John Glen said in August. “If they want to get into politics, then stand for election.”
Going by a number of recent uproars, many appear to agree. Costa Coffee and Dr Martens faced social media pile-ons for including images of transgender people in their marketing, while NatWest’s CEO stepped down after the bank closed an account belonging to right-wing politician Nigel Farage.
Each of these backlashes attacked companies for being “woke”: essentially, taking insincere stances on social or ethical issues, such as sexuality or racism, that are (supposedly) at odds with what most of their customers believe.
But do these extreme reactions reflect the views of the majority of consumers today? To find out, Raconteur surveyed 1,000 nationally representative people in partnership with Attest, a consumer research platform based in London and New York.
What do consumers think of ‘woke’ brands?
One of the difficulties of talking about ‘woke’ companies is that the word can have very different connotations depending on who you ask. Of the consumers we surveyed, almost a third said it meant “someone who is aware of social inequalities such as sexism or racism”.
But a quarter agreed with the definition “someone who wants to appear better or more progressive than others”. Meanwhile, 16% thought it was “someone who is pretending to be a victim of social inequalities”. Opinions were divided along political lines, with people identifying as right-wing more likely to choose the more negative meanings.
Those with conservative politics were also more likely to say they would be less interested in buying from “woke” brands than centrists or left-wingers, the survey found.
Ioannis Ioannou, an associate professor at London Business School, says it’s important to note that the majority do not have strong feelings either way. More than 50% of respondents said whether a brand has been called woke has no effect on their purchasing habits.
“For the time being the ‘anti-woke’ backlash is strongly a US phenomenon,” Ioannou says. “In the UK, despite differences of opinion on some of these issues, they are not part of a deep social division.”
The term itself may be inflaming negative feeling. Just 11.3% of those surveyed said they would be ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’ less interested in buying from a brand that takes a stand on social or political issues. That more than doubled to 26.1% when they were asked instead about ‘woke’ brands.
The ‘anti-woke’ effect also becomes stronger with age. Only 18- to 24-year-olds reported being more interested than not in buying from ‘woke’ brands.
Is ‘go woke, go broke’ a real concern?
Many outcries against ‘woke’ companies call for a boycott to damage their profits. People burned Nike shoes after the sportswear company supported protests against police killings of Black men, while Disney’s opposition to an anti-gay law in Florida had customers cancelling their streaming subscriptions.
But until recently, there was little evidence that these protests had any actual impact. Some studies even suggested they could lead to sales uplifts.
But then Bud Light posted a dramatic 30% fall in operating profits after conservatives led a campaign against an ad starring a transgender influencer. Amid widespread economic pressures, should brands approach divisive topics with more caution?
Half of the consumers Raconteur surveyed said they had never stopped buying from a brand because of its stance on a social or political issue. However, a not insignificant proportion reported that they had, with many doing so more than once.
“A lot of people are either indifferent, or their beliefs are not going to change what they purchase,” says Valeria Piaggio, head of diversity, equality and inclusion at market research firm Kantar.
“But when you look at younger generations or people of colour, [brand values are] important to those consumer groups. So it’s no surprise that brands like Dr Martens or Costa, which cater to a younger, urban consumer base, are leaning in on topics such as LGBTQ+ issues.”
That’s backed up by the survey data. Younger and left-wing respondents surveyed were more likely to have avoided businesses, implying that they had stopped buying from companies that do not support progressive issues.
Piaggio says this illustrates how staying on the sidelines can also be a misstep. “Backlash could come from anywhere, and sometimes it comes from brands being silent.”
When should brands weigh in on a divisive issue?
One brand that is rarely silent is cosmetics retailer Lush. It has repeatedly been called woke for drawing attention to issues from animal testing to refugees.
Its ethical director, Hilary Jones, says the brand deliberately does not analyse the commercial impact of its campaigns. “We wanted to have the courage to speak out when needed without thinking, ‘Oh, no, we’re going to knock sales again,’” she says.
But can all brands be so bold? Our survey did not reveal strong feelings about whether certain industries are more or less entitled to communicate their views on social issues. Only those which provide public services, like education, were generally thought to have more of a say.
It is clear, though, that some issues are more divisive than others. For instance, three-fifths of respondents agreed that businesses should be able to publicly express their views on the environment, with a slightly smaller percentage in favour of discussion of human rights.
There was also a majority in favour of speaking up about racism, while feminism had about equal proportions for and against. But brands’ opinions on gender identity, abortion and religion were least likely to be welcomed – perhaps because these are more politicised topics.
For Roz Sheldon, managing director at reputation management agency Igniyte, “It’s always going to be a risky strategy to go out there and target one social issue that isn’t really integral to your brand. It tends to divide people.”
Others feel that brands can discuss any topic, but must be prepared to stand behind their beliefs if they do face a backlash. Ian Morris, communications director at SEC Newgate, points to Costa Coffee’s response to complaints about an illustration of a transgender person they used in marketing material.
“You could tell it wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan thing for them,” he says. “They’ve been talking about support for LGBTQ communities for a long time, in many different ways. So it’s clearly something they’ve considered carefully and could defend robustly.”
On the other hand, US retailer Target arguably did worse damage to its reputation by removing LGBT Pride merchandise and displays from stores this year after protests. Its market value also dropped by $4bn (£3.1bn).
Jones says that although Lush has pulled a campaign just once – when protests against its posters drawing attention to unethical undercover policing turned violent – she would not criticise brands who do hold back from communicating on hot-button issues. “It is horrible when you’re on the end of a backlash like that – it is a very, very frightening thing. So I can see why companies would fold.”
However, she believes it’s important for brands to have a voice in such matters.
“The last few years it’s ‘woke’, before that it was ‘bunny huggers’, before that it was ‘hippies’. When you’ve been campaigning long enough, you know that the name has changed but the attacks don’t,” she argues. “You can’t take it personally – you have to keep doing the things you think are right.”