Racist Woke-Washing

An unwashed dirty white shirt on a clothesline.

In 2020, renewed national attention on race relations has triggered a dramatic departure from brand imagery that promoted negative Black stereotypes for far too long. Aunt Jemima, Cream of Wheat and Uncle Ben’s are scrambling to rebrand in an attempt to recover from the stigma of bigotry that these relics from the Old South perpetuated.

Earlier this year, Minnesota-based Land O’Lakes retired its 100-year-old logo featuring a Native American woman in a submissive pose wearing a caricature of Native American dress. “Mia” was offensive, not only because of the stereotype depicted, but because she epitomized cultural appropriation – the unapproved adaptation of indigenous peoples’ image by members of the more dominant society.

Globally, marketing efforts are under the microscope. Successful companies are leading with a sense of urgency, purpose and authenticity. For example, Unilever is the parent company of nearly 1,000 brands used by 2.5 billion people worldwide. According to a 2019 Forbes report, CEO Alan Jope announced plans to ditch products under the Unilever umbrella if they don’t commit to a valid social mission in accordance with company standards by the specified deadline. He warned that Unilever plans to “carefully scrutinize marketing efforts for ‘woke washing’ – the meaningless catchphrases about a noble mission without action to back it up.”

A wise decision…

L’Oreal’s marketing alignment with Black Lives Matter backfired when outraged Black model Munroe Bergdorf called them out. After she spoke out against white supremacy in 2017, her contract was terminated. She accused L’Oreal of “throwing her to the wolves.”

In his book Marketing Rebellion, Mark Schaefer offers survival skills for avoiding woke washing and other missteps:

• Be authentic: “Create rock-solid alignment” internally and externally with your purpose and ethical values. Assess and correct any deviations – immediately.

• Take measured risks and be prepared for heat. Nike’s decision to promote Colin Kaepernick was calculated based on diligent research. Their move initially resulted in a market loss of about $4 billion. But only a week later, revenue was even higher than when the campaign began.

• Be first. Being last looks cheap, desperate and phony.

• Have a crisis plan. Keep pros on standby to navigate rough waters.

Consumers are no longer accepting shallow, anemic, agnostic platitudes. Marketing in the new era demands integrity – truly aligning values with actions for social change.

This article was originally featured in The Journal Record on July 24, 2020.

Written by Shannon Warren

Shannon Warren is a former HR executive, business ethics professor and nonprofit CEO. She is president of the Women’s Diversity Initiative of Oklahoma. Visit the About page for more info.

July 24, 2020

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