Ten ways brands can avoid 'woke washing'

The public's trust in brands is broken; nearly four fifths of consumers say they don't know any brand that keeps the best interests of society in mind.

Applying an editorial lens to your story telling helps avoid the ‘woke washing’ trap, argues Tim Weber
Applying an editorial lens to your story telling helps avoid the ‘woke washing’ trap, argues Tim Weber

As any visit to the Cannes Lions shows, to bridge this trust gap many companies and their marketers are now betting on corporate social responsibility projects: find a good cause, throw some money at it and hope the accompanying tear-jerker video will go viral.

Consumers, however, see through this cunning plan; more than half criticise brands for using societal issues as "marketing ploys".

'It's time we called out buzzworthy marketing dressed up as purpose': PRWeek @ Cannes on 'woke-washing'

Alan Jope, the chief executive of Unilever, is more scathing. He calls this behaviour "woke washing".

Here are 10 tips how a brand can avoid woke washing and still be heard:

1. The starting point, of course, is to imbue your brand with real purpose. Define it through the role of your products and services in society. Bake social purpose into your brand values, behavior and – ideally – even your business model.

2. Understand that advertising doesn’t build trust. About three-quarters of the public now actively avoid it.

3. Focus on storytelling instead. A good story well told is incredibly powerful; it generates empathy, credibility and respect.

4. Don’t be a fake. An idea may be creative, but does it truly connect to what your brand does and how it operates? Your story must be about a credible contribution you make and address a real social need.

5. Getting media coverage is great, but not good enough. We live in a world where brands operate either in information deserts where it’s a struggle to secure the attention of the few journalists still left, or in information jungles where media and influencers are so thick on the ground it’s difficult to stand out. Always complement any "earned" media coverage with your own storytelling. That gives it depth, texture and allows you to tell your story on your own terms.

But there’s a 'but':

6. Bring a journalistic mindset to your storytelling. You have to earn your audience’s attention; you can’t demand it. Forget the marketing speak and tell your stories with honesty, realism and root them in verifiable facts.

7. Find the story first, identify the audience that you want to reach, and then produce the story tailored for the right platform and channel. "Let’s do a blog, op-ed or white paper" is rarely the right (or only) answer.

8. By applying an editorial lens to your storytelling, you will avoid the ‘woke washing’ trap.

9. This editorial approach to storytelling can’t be the be-all-and-end-all of your communications strategy, but it should be at the core of everything you do. All media pitching, social amplification, SEO PR and advertising can naturally flow from your stories.

10. Finally, never make the story about you. It has to be your customers’ and partners’ story. If it’s relevant to them, their work, life and values, then it will resonate and earn your brand the trust it needs and deserves.

Tim Weber is editorial director at Edelman UK

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