How the push for anti-‘woke’ advertising could create controversy for brand startups

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Recently, purpose-driven and inclusive marketing has found itself under fire, with “woke” advertising from Bud Light, Miller Lite and Adidas in the spotlight. It’s left marketers of all sizes questioning the future of inclusivity-themed campaigns, partnerships and imagery.

But marketers at startups and direct-to-consumer brands in particular, have mixed opinions on whether to push forward with purpose-driven marketing as the stakes for losing business may be a bit higher when it comes to boycotts and bad press.

For some companies, like LGBTQ+ healthcare brand Folx Health and August, a period care company, inclusive marketing is a no-brainer. But for others, like Glamnetic beauty brand, the public pushback to so-called woke advertising creates uncertainty and fear of upsetting potential shoppers. 

The startup, which launched back in 2019, has had Pride-themed initiatives in the past, including launching rainbow colored beauty products and donating to gender-inclusive non-profit organizations. The latter of those efforts will continue, per Ann McFerran, CEO and co-founder of Glamnetic, but promotion won’t be as visible as prior years. 

“You have to tread carefully there,” said McFerran. “As a brand, we’re not a political company.” Seemingly, there’s been a pendulum swing from brands presenting themselves as not “woke” enough to too “woke,” she added. 

Marketers have been flocking to the idea of deeper meaning behind the brand, or purpose, even before the pandemic. But after Covid-19, the murder of George Floyd, the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, voter suppression and other societally pivotal moments, the idea of brand purpose was revisited as a must-have marketing strategy. 

Strategists, however, warned brands of the dangers of lauding positive campaigns for good PR and in hopes to be on the so-called right side of history. (Read more on that here.) Case in point: Pepsi’s brand value dropped by 4% to $18.3 billion after its Kendall Jenner campaign disaster back in 2016, as reported by Marketing Week. Albiet, Pepsi’s initiative was critiqued as a shallow commitment–a danger zone for brands, per strategists.

According to agency executives, brand purpose is a long game that takes commitment, especially as each passing generation has higher expectations of brand beliefs and values. 

“The leaders of these big portfolio companies, they’re obviously driven by revenue and commercial success,” said Akbar Hamid, founder and CEO of The 5th Column communication and marketing agency. “It’s important to create specific campaigns that build your community, not your consumer.”

It’s a message that the team at Folx and August have taken to heart, albeit their companies are founded on ideas of inclusivity and gender non-discrimination. Even in the face of potential backlash, inclusivity is paramount. 

“From a business perspective, we stand for inclusivity,” said Nadya Okamoto, co-founder of It’s August period care and wellness company. “We stand for these things because we believe in it. We know that backlash might come about.”

In talking about how period care extends to all genders, Okamoto said she often gets death threats. Still, she said, “I’m taking my bets as a business owner that we are going to stand for what we believe in.” Consumer trust is at an all time low, but brands can benefit from being strong in what they believe in, she added. 

The three-year-old company is still sorting through what Pride campaigns look like in the future. But for now, work is inclusive year-round, per Okamoto. 

It’s a similar notion that Liana Guzman, CEO of Folx Health, holds. “Consumers today are much more sophisticated around wanting to make sure that companies are not just talking the talk, but they’re walking the walk as well,” Guzman said. 

And the numbers speak to that; 94 % of consumers say that “supporting brands that care about environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues is as important as it was 12 months ago, despite inflation,” according to research from Barkley ad agency.

For Pride this year, the health company is partnering with the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition for a one-month fundraising campaign to improve the lives of 491 trans people for a year. It’s a push to show that purpose-driven marketing isn’t synonymous with propaganda. Also that brands should be leveraging social moments and their position of power to drive change, she said. 

“When you think about purpose-driven marketing, what is the purpose? That, you have to ask yourself,” Guzman said. “And if the purpose is to leverage the social moment to drive growth, that is a selfish purpose that is not really about the community.” 

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