How to communicate in an age of polarisation

Bishan Morgan, Senior Strategist at Wunderman Thompson on how brands can navigate a polarised world

Bishan Morgan

Senior Strategist Wunderman Thompson


With people, politics and opinion growing ever more divided, communicating to a broad church is harder than ever before. As an example of these growing divisions, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, recently declared he would 'wage a war on the woke'. 

With its militaristic rhetoric, the phrase shows the issues that individuals, brands and all communicators in the public sphere now face. To communicate now is to pick a side in a war, to risk waves of backlash from a polarised left or right, without the option of neutrality.

The National Trust, a well-loved and popular charity with over five million members, often finds itself at the centre of controversy in this newly polarised world. After the Trust explored its links to slavery, people threatened to cancel their membership, a polemic whipped up further by the media’s appetite for controversy.

What this shows is that it’s no longer an option for brands to sit quietly on the side-lines. In this contested snake pit, every word or act now has the potential to alienate a vast swathe of people, leading to more cautiousness in the industry than ever before.

For individuals, the toxicity and polarisation of debate has a similarly damaging effect. Every day people of colour find themselves asked the infamous question ‘where are you really from?’, so much so that the phrase received over 13,000 mentions in the last two years on social media, according to new research from Wunderman Thompson during South Asian Heritage Month.

Similarly, the UK’s new immigration policy had over 400,000 mentions on social media with largely negative sentiment in ensuing conversations, where everything from the housing crisis to NHS failures was blamed on immigration levels.

Extreme, hateful, even violent debate endangers all expression in the public sphere. Individuals and brands are drawn into this noxious online environment, where provocation is rewarded over complexity, and dangerous echo chambers eclipse frank discussion.

Organisations are condemned both for using outdated stereotypes or, depending on the accuser, for perpetrating wokeism.

Bishan Morgan, Senior Strategist at Wunderman Thompson

Communicating in the pressure cooker 

For brands, the new phrase ‘woke capitalism’, coined by Ross Douthat in The New York Times, is the crux of the issue. Organisations are condemned both for using outdated stereotypes or, depending on the accuser, for perpetrating wokeism.

How is any communication possible in this pressure cooker? Should brands even risk taking a stand? In the United States, the ‘go woke, go broke’ movement saw brands boycotted for their political opinion, most notably Bud Light, whose sales dropped 10.5% after partnering with transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney.

The bulwark against polarisation has to be authenticity. Backlash, as to Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi protest, is driven by a dislike of grandstanding and virtue signalling. A hint of insincerity, especially when tied to commercial motives, undermines any good a brand might do. We have to be authentic, which means being true to a brand’s values, and practising what we preach.

Organisations must be part of the solution, not merely agitators. Identify how your brand can help with the broader social or political issue and be part of the change. By tangibly challenging unrealistic beauty standards, or supporting diversity and inclusion, brands can still make a difference in this polarised age.

Vaseline’s recent See My Skin initiative is a powerful example of a brand creating change. Less than 6% of search results show skin conditions on people of colour, so to make diagnosis easier, they created a searchable online image library which received over 900 million impressions in two weeks. The idea shows how a brand can form part of the solution, and appear in an authentic, meaningful way.

This is the difference between woke capitalism and genuine change. In this polarised age, the former is quickly spotted and called out, but when a brand is sincere and demonstrates commitment through concrete actions, then it can both earn the public’s trust and change the world for the better. Thinking about the brand in a holistic and consistent way can heal these fractures, and take it forwards in line with its vision.

The stakes are undoubtedly higher than they were. Advertising that might once have been ignored is now threatened by wave after wave of backlash and risks the fusillades of the culture wars. But as long as we stay true to ourselves, and walk the walk (not just talk the talk), advertisers should still be proud and uncynical about their potential to contribute to the public good.

Guest Author

Bishan Morgan

Senior Strategist Wunderman Thompson


Bishan Morgan is a Senior Strategist at Wunderman Thompson. He has worked with some of the UK's largest advertisers as well as national charities on lifesaving behaviour change campaigns. With experience across financial services, retail, technology and government, he is motivated to make both disruptive and effective work that solves business and real-world problems.

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