An era of woke-washing
But is this woke-washing working?
Numerous research studies suggest it isn’t. Marketing is less trusted now than it’s ever been. Today’s cynical consumers, it appears, trust “almost nothing” and, while almost half of us distrust brands, over two-thirds of us distrust advertising.
Brand ‘arrogance’, and the appropriation of lofty but ill-fitting causes, are a large part of this. People see straight through it. But, from Cambridge Analytica to VW’s diesel-gate to £350m-on-a-bus, shouldn’t that now be obvious? Consumers are now so much more literate about the methods through which they’re targeted, and so much more cynical about the claims thrown at them.
Of course, if brands can make people like them whilst doing good, everyone benefits. But brands are rarely honest with themselves or their audience about this contract. As with the emperor’s new clothes, even those of us with influence are afraid to question what’s happening because everyone else seems to think it’s good and important.
But, as this earnestness drives consumer cynicism higher and higher, there appears to me a simple and obvious antidote: to not take yourself so seriously.
Your brand isn’t going to change the world
Rather than claiming more, wouldn’t it be better to recognise your true place in the world? To be honest that your brand isn’t going to change the world. To be honest about what most brands want and need, which is just to be liked a bit more. And to communicate with people normally, honestly and light-heartedly.
We all know this intuitively from the real world. But there is academic evidence to support it: a bias called the Pratfall effect, discovered by psychologist Elliot Aronson. Put simply, you become more appealing if you exhibit a weakness.
Some great ad campaigns have used it: Volkswagen admitting it’s ugly, Stella Artois admitting it’s expensive, Marmite admitting some people hate it, Avis admitting they’re not as popular as Hertz.
But these are rare industry exceptions. And they’re rare because the approach appears to drive a perilous conflict of interest between the brand and the marketer. Imagine you’re the Marmite Marketing Director and you’ve made a campaign celebrating the fact that half the population hate the taste of your product. If the campaign bombs, your CEO, who won’t know or care about Aronson, will say ‘no shit, Sherlock’ and you’ll lose your job.
But such boldness has an obvious benefit: so few brands use it that it will always feel distinctive, fresh and surprising. In a world of over-claim and over-inflated purpose, people stop trusting your messages. If you admit a weakness, or just own up to the game you’re playing, everything becomes a bit more believable.