The latest marketing strategy or the latest marketing trap? Should a business be a ‘woke’ brand and, if so, how? Or is ‘woke’ just a big hole for unsuspecting marketeers to fall into and take a brand with them? Here are my thoughts.


What is ‘woke’, what does it mean? The origin is exactly what you would think, it is a slang version of ‘awake’, as in ‘I’ve woke up’. The word has been adopted to mean being awake to social injustice or threats to social wellbeing. Awake means two things, that you are aware and that you are active. There is no such thing as an armchair woke. To be woke, you must be an active supporter of change, committed to the change. That means you don’t just think woke but you act woke as well.

In a business, brand is not the logo, name, tag-line or colour scheme, those are just triggers to the brand. Brand is everything a business is and does, what it stands for, what it promises and what it delivers. To build a lasting brand that commands loyalty and trust takes products and services that meet needs and are valued, behaviour that builds relationships, reliability and consistency.

Is there any such thing as a ‘woke brand’, or is it just another marketing ploy?


If you have ever learned one thing about marketing, it is likely to be the 4 P’s, Product, Price, Promotion and Place. This was the basis of Philip Kotler’s book Marketing Management, first published in 1967 and now in its fifteenth edition. Kotler is known as the ‘father of marketing’ and his ideas are universally accepted and followed. He argues that marketing has evolved through a number of stages. Stage 1 was to appeal to the rational human, to explain the benefits of the product and help the customer make a rational choice. Stage 2 was to appeal to the emotional human. Products were described with emotive associations, love, happiness, warmth, fear and so on. Think Andrex puppy, incredibly emotional appeal, but nothing to do with the product.

Stage 3 marketing is to appeal to human purpose. All people have purpose, things they want to be, have or do. People like to associate with other like-minded people who share a common purpose, it makes us feel good, it’s where we belong. The same thing works with business, we will want to have relationships with those businesses that share our purpose. We can only do that if businesses share their purpose through marketing. This view is shared by many, including Simon Sinek, author of several best-selling books including Start with Why. The ‘why’ that he talks about is purpose. Both Kotler and Sinek are well worth watching on YouTube to learn more.

To understand the idea of purpose, think about some well-known brands. We know what they do, but what is their purpose, why they do it? Facebook’s purpose is to connect people digitally. Starbuck’s is to connect people through coffee. Disney’s is to make people happy. Nike’s is to keep people fit. Apple’s is to make life easy. If you share one of those purposes, you will likely favour the brand, as long as the product stands the test. The job of marketing is to make the purpose known.


The idea of ‘woke branding’ takes us to another stage of marketing, involving another P, ‘principles’. Every individual has their principles. Principles are why we do things the way we do, whereas purpose is why we do what we do. This extends to society which has its equivalent which we call morals. In business, they tend to call them values. Whatever they are called, they guide our behaviour, the way we do things. Society enforces its morals on business through laws, regulation and professional bodies. These set the minimum behavioural standards for business at a point in time. But moral standards change, often as a result of pressure from individuals and groups who feel that they are not fairly treated today. This is especially so in modern democracies where we have seen huge changes in human rights, equality and anti-discrimination laws as well as the growth of welfare states with open access to education, health care and benefits.

If everything in society was perfect, then we wouldn’t have ‘woke’. Woke people see inequality, unfairness and discrimination that offends their principles. They see risks to nature, the environment and sustainability that threaten our survival. They seek, through political action, to change society’s moral view, its laws and its behaviour. That is their right, they are free to do so as long as they do not behave in ways that infringe society’s current morals. The question I have is should businesses be ‘woke’, can they be, or is it a red herring?


For me, the primary role of business is to improve people’s lives through innovation. If a company does that well, meeting people’s needs and improving their lives through the efficient use of resources, it will be profitable and grow. A business decides for itself what it does and why. For a very limited number of businesses, their purpose will automatically align with the purpose of ‘woke’ political activity. For example, many charities share ‘woke’ purposes and, for them, having ‘woke’ principles and behaviour is an absolute necessity for their brand. They are expected to campaign on behalf of disadvantaged people, nature and the planet. If they don’t do that well, they probably won’t survive for long.

If a business chooses a purpose that has social impact, such as health care or renewable energy, then it seems logical for them to have values that are consistent with their purpose. For example, you might expect a health care business to look after the health of its employees, or a renewable energy business to buy its electricity from a renewable source. In the information age where nothing is secret, any company not matching its purpose and principles will be exposed and its brand will suffer.

For every other business, its values are what it decides they are and they should complement its purpose. Hopefully, the stated values are real, not made to be what someone thinks they ought to be. The way a business behaves must be determined by its true values or it will be found out. Consistency and reliability are easy if behaviour is natural, impossible if fabricated. For a business, being a ‘woke’ brand is not a necessity. Woke people are not your only possible market. If you are, you are. If you’re not, then don’t try to be. Being authentic is far more important than being ‘woke’.

Jumping on the latest marketing bandwagon, following the latest marketing trend can be counter-productive if it is not real. Trying to persuade people that you are something you’re not won’t work. Today, everyone knows everything and bad news about brands spreads like wild-fire on social media. Getting it wrong with people who are ‘woke’, who are aware and active, is the worst strategy ever. There’s a name for it, it’s called ‘woke-washing’.


The practice of adopting a social issue with the intention of endearing a brand to a market sector when the business has no real interest in the issue or, in practice, acts in ways that make the problem worse. A good example was the Spice Girls selling T-shirts in support of ‘gender justice’. An excellent idea until it became known that the T-shirts were made in sweat-shops in Bangladesh where women work 16-hour days for far less than the living wage.

Another example is Lacoste replacing its normal logo with ten of the most endangered species, with profits going to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Probably not a smart move for a company selling deer leather gloves.

Can it work?

What works for business is having real values and purpose that work together to produce a brand that shares the purpose and principles of its target market. If business shifts from being profit driven to having a genuine desire to improve society, then that’s fine. I think that is to be expected in a social democracy and welfare state where society, in general, shares the same desire. After all, the people leading and working in business are part of that society too.

What won’t work is claiming a moral position, or using a current issue to promote a brand when it is not backed up by solid purpose and values. Or when a moral position is taken that is at odds with a brand’s products or behaviour. Don’t campaign for gender equality if you have no women on the board and a huge gender pay gap.

Being aware of current social issues is good. Doing what you can to help address those issues is also good. Pretending to support a campaign and using it for gain is not. If it’s authentic, then market it any way you can. If it’s not, then steer well clear.