The Public Are Getting Sick of Brands Pushing Woke Causes and It’s Putting Them Off, Survey Finds

There follows a guest post by Chris Bullick, CEO of the Pull Agency, a creative branding agency and consultancy, on his recent survey, which found that the public are much less enthusiastic about brands supporting woke causes than the marketers pushing the agendas. 

As a marketer who started my career at fast-moving consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble (Ariel, Fairy Liquid, Olay etc.) in the 80s, I have watched the saga around what is called ‘brand purpose’ unfold with weary amazement over the last decade or so. What I saw from the start were brand managers, typically just custodians of brands that others had built (they were standing on their predecessors’ shoulders) bringing their personal worldview, or even their politics to the brands they were advertising. This could never have happened back in the day, it would have been seen as laughably unprofessional. But in some major brand houses it has not only become the norm, but preached as best practice. What on earth has happened?

What is brand purpose? It used to simply mean what a brand was there for. You know: Hellmann’s Mayonnaise (Unilever), put on your salad; Gillette razors (P&G), give you a good shave. But then brand purpose got redefined. Mayonnaise? Fronting the war against food waste. Razors? Fronting the war against ‘toxic masculinity’ (no, don’t ask, women can’t be toxic).

The most notable proponent of brand purpose has been Alan Jope, who became CEO of Unilever in 2019. He has said that brands with ‘purpose’ increase sales twice as fast as those without. Jope capped his first year as CEO with a profit warning that wiped more than £8bn off Unilever’s market cap. Since then its market cap has fallen 25% while P&G, Nestle, and L’Oréal values have all increased around 50%.

Quick definition of ‘brand purpose’ to save time: Picking a woke, unrelated cause and using your brand’s marketing budget to promote it. Case in point: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (yes you guessed it – Unilever). The causes it supports?

  • LGBTQ+ equality
  • Black Lives Matter
  • Climate justice
  • Refugees
  • Female body confidence

Okay, you’ve probably got the idea.

Consumer research – ‘Is your brand too woke?’

It was this background of our own unease with the way marketers talked about ‘brand purpose’, the investing world’s attack on it, and marketers generally doubling down and defending the approach which made us think: Would it be possible to get a reading on what consumers think of brand purpose? Mindful of course that we were doubtful that real people – acting as ‘cognitive misers’ – actually thought about it at all.

As a consumer you may not have even noticed ‘brand purpose’ in action. But you might have noticed that ads are no longer funny, for instance. Research shows that over the last 10 years, the number of people who find ads ‘annoying’ has doubled to 50%. So what we wanted to know at the Pull Agency (a brand agency and consultancy) was: What do consumers think of ‘brand purpose’?

We decided to find out. But we instinctively knew that some of our marketing colleagues would be uneasy about us asking. So we ran the survey we had in mind past a few marketers.

“We advise strongly against it.”

“It could be seen as divisive – we’re not sure it’s a good idea.”

“It isn’t inclusive enough.” (No, we never understood this comment.)

The plan was to create a survey of what a fully representative panel of over 2,000 U.K. consumers thought about brands supporting ‘progressive’ causes. The survey itself didn’t actually use the W-word, and we had gone to great lengths to create a balanced range of answers to the questions. However, our fellow marketers thought we were on very dangerous ground which we were advised to stay off.

We went ahead with the consumer survey – and held our breath.

“Loved it.” 

“Very good survey.” 

“This has educational purpose.” 

“It’s got me thinking.” 

“Interesting topic and very relevant…” 

“I am pleased to see this survey subject is being considered.”

Of all the agency and client research we have done, this research into consumer’s attitudes to brands that take a woke stance got the most free text comments: 20% of participants commented, and 25% of those comments were overtly positive feedback about the survey itself. Something strange was going on here. Marketers didn’t want us to ask the question, consumers said they were very happy we did.

In a sense I could stop there. This revealed perfectly the issue about brands and social purpose. As a guest panellist at our survey report launch event pointed out: marketers are WEIRD (from a Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic elite) and consumers are not. 

So in this article I will address, firstly, what did we find out about what consumers make of what marketers refer to as ‘brand purpose’? Secondly, why are today’s brand managers and their agencies playing with ‘purpose’ in this way?

Experienced researchers will warn you what to expect conducting surveys in a world of social media censoring, cancelling and rampant virtue signalling. More than ever before, consumers want to give the socially ‘correct’ answer, even in the anonymity of an online survey. Toby Young has written about this ‘pro-social bias’.

Andrew Tenzer (researcher for Reach Solutions, the U.K.’s largest news publisher) related at our survey launch event how he regularly asks for a show of hands for the question: “Given the choice, would you prefer to buy from sustainable suppliers?” Almost everyone puts their hands up. “How many have bought something from Amazon in the last month?” Almost everyone puts their hands up. Researchers face a massive challenge in that there is a huge (and I believe increasing) gap between what people say and what they do in respect to all the fashionable issues in particular.

Our consumer research into brand purpose – what did we learn?

68% of consumers are uneasy or unsure about brands supporting woke causes. This should give marketers pause for thought. But on the other hand, and I have to say I was shocked it was this high – it meant that 32% of respondents thought that brands should support as many of our offered list of causes as possible: climate change, BLM, LGBTQ+, equality, diversity and inclusion and female body confidence. At the other extreme, 8% said that they would actively avoid brands that support those causes. Of course, the question that is harder to answer is whether the 32% would go out of their way to purchase brands because of their support for social, woke or political causes. There is no evidence we know that suggests they would. Academic research suggests that the 8% are more likely to act on their sentiment than the 32%.

There are strong generational differences in attitude among sexes and generations. Women were nearly twice as much in favour of brands supporting social causes than men, and Gen Z were three times more in favour of it than Boomers. But again, we don’t know to what extent this translates to buying behaviour. It’s worth bearing in mind that many researchers like to suggest that younger generations have both a better moral framework than older people and are more likely to buy sustainable brands, without any evidence for either in terms of actual behaviour. However, you have to be careful about muddling generational effects with cohort effects. Young people have always been idealistic and cause-driven, but young people grow up. 

Consumers’ trust in brands’ involvement with social causes is shaky. While on the one hand quite a high proportion of consumers say that they want brands to get involved with social (or woke) causes, 58% think that a lot of that involvement is insincere – woke-washing or green-washing. Demonstrating that perhaps it is easier to make enemies of consumers than friends through promoting social causes, 15% of consumers say they will avoid brands that they think are indulging in woke- or green- washing.

Consumers have had plenty of opportunity to say that they endorse brands supporting social causes in research over recent years, but to our knowledge this has never been tested against alternatives. Well, we did. Pro-social bias means that there is pressure on consumers to say they support fashionable causes. But what if they are given an alternative?

Then the picture changes quite rapidly. Can you imagine if Starbucks or Amazon or Ben & Jerry’s put these alternatives to their customers, what their answer might be?

58% of consumers would prefer that brands simply pay their taxes, treat people fairly and respect the environment – almost four times more than want brands to support woke causes.

We know marketers like supporting woke causes with ‘their’ brands; consumers appear far less enthusiastic.

60% of people don’t feel well represented in health & beauty ads; this percentage rises for white people and older men. 29% of people of BAME ethnicity described themselves as well-represented compared to only 19% of non-BAME. Contrary to a commonly expressed view within the marketing community that the industry needs to ‘do a lot more’ about diversity and inclusion, it looks as though it has in fact done enough (but perhaps clumsily) when it comes to representing ethnicity. Research in 2020 by the Creative Diversity Network based on 30,000 TV productions found that both ethnic and LBTQ+ minorities were represented at twice the population rate, and it was older people and the disabled that were the most under-represented. 

Our research mirrored this finding. The unthinking addition of ethnic, and in particular mixed-race couples, is seen by consumers as an ‘easy win’ for lazy advertisers and contributing to the impression that advertising has ‘gone woke’. It was clear from our research and comments we received that people are simply looking for realistic representation of the reality of U.K. population diversity. Advertisers need to be more imaginative in dealing with this. The largest group in our research by far – 43% – chose the option that brands should simply “reflect the real users of the brand”.

The concept of ‘body positivity’ hasn’t been extended to men – 64% of men don’t feel personally well-represented in ads. It seems that the gender equality that so many brands want to be seen to support doesn’t work the other way round. The current practice of using imperfect female models in ads, according to many of our research participants, doesn’t yet seem to have been extended to men.

So what’s going on? From our findings you can deduce:

  1. Consumers want to ask questions about whether brands are too woke – marketers would rather no one did.
  2. Consumers are uneasy about brand support of woke causes – marketers aren’t.
  3. Consumers would prefer companies to pay their taxes, treat people fairly and respect the environment – marketers would prefer to tell you about their ‘brand purpose’.
  4. BAME consumers feel well represented, men and non-BAME consumers don’t. Marketers think that their industry ‘hasn’t done enough about diversity’.
  5. Consumers used to find ads entertaining. Marketers want to tell consumers how they should think.

Would it be fair to say that marketers are out of touch with the people they are marketing to? Yes. So let’s look at more of the evidence. Andrew Tenzer from Reach plc told our report launch event that marketers are WEIRD – that is from a Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic elite. The idea of WEIRD was popularised by the leading social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind. Andrew expands this idea in his paper The Empathy Delusion, showing that marketers tend to think they have advanced levels of empathy and a superior moral framework. Unfortunately, research has disproved the former and of course no research supports the latter.

In addition, research shows that modern marketers self-identify to the Left politically of the modern mainstream, are (for instance) less proud of their country’s history and more likely to believe that women and men have identical roles in society. Translated into the language of the modern mainstream – marketers are woke, the mainstream isn’t. As a result, brand purpose “is highly seductive to our industry on a personal level”, Andrew explains.

My beef with all this is that this brand purpose charade is bad marketing and undermines the profession and the concept of effectiveness in marketing. Even back in my days at P&G, the company would occasionally be berated as the U.K.’s largest advertiser (nowadays that of course is the Government) for such ‘profligacy’. The company defended its large advertising budgets with the logic that good advertising – especially for good brands – was the most efficient way of matching buyers with goods and services. It created efficiencies in the economy. Modern marketers seem uninterested in such commercial logic. They see themselves as on a much higher moral mission. The result is ‘brand purpose’, which in reality is therefore just virtue signalling and an indulgence that they feel they deserve – it’s all about them.  With the likes of Unilever’s Alan Jope egging them on, no wonder they feel unconstrained by thoughts about whether it actually builds their brands or sells their product.

So next time you see a brand clambering onto the latest woke cause, spare a thought for the poor marketers and their agencies. They just can’t help themselves, the poor dears.

You can download the full research report here.

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