Doing the wokey-cokey: corporations beware …

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Mark Lehain
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On my way home to write this piece, I grabbed some cash from an ATM and popped into the supermarket to buy some essentials: ice cream, vodka, and cola.

Please don’t take this as evidence of my decadence. On the contrary, it demonstrates how virtuous a citizen I am. You see, by using HSBC and Sainsbury’s, and buying Ben & Jerry’s, Smirnoff, and Coke, I’ll be getting stuffed & sozzled courtesy of companies that have emphasised their worthiness in recent months. I’ll still get hammered, but I’ll have a hangover with a halo. Amen!

Let’s be honest – it’s all got a bit silly, hasn’t it? People want a drink, not a diversity diatribe. And yet it feels as though companies right now want to turn every consumer choice into a statement on the world today.

Don’t get me wrong – to some some extent ‘twas ever thus. Brands exist to change people’s perception of products and boost sales or prices – and ideally both. Associating brands with causes and values has gone on forever, whether it was slavery-free sugar, love’n’peace Coke, “fairtrade” coffee and so on.

However, what we’re seeing right now goes way beyond previous moves.

For a start, companies are aligning themselves with radical political movements that are fundamentally opposed to their existence. A quick examination of the stated aims of, say, Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion should make any CEO or marketing manager think twice before jumping onto those particular bandwagons: an organisation that wants to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement” and “dismantle capitalism“ is unlikely to look kindly on overpriced ice cream or usury. 

On top of this, we’re even seeing certain brands square up to elected politicians and taking positions on issues that are contrary to public opinion – like Ben & Jerry’s lecturing Priti Patel on Twitter about refugees and migration. Yes, it earned them praise from the wokerati, but also derision and pushback from many more.

They know that these radical left ideas are no friends of theirs, and that if you go woke you always go broke. So why are smart companies sleeping with their enemy? 

They’re doing it for two simple, and very blunt, reasons.

First of all, they’re tapping into an upsurge of interest by the wider public in issues that until now have largely stayed on university campuses and fringe parts of social media.

People are flawed but overwhelmingly kind. When genuine concerns about the environment, race inequality, or economic unfairness are brought to their attention they want to know and do more to help. It’s therefore no surprise, and only natural, that consumer-focused companies will turn this trend to their advantage – where’s there’s guilt, there’s gold!

The second, more cynical, reason is that companies with pretty dodgy track records of their own are trying “wokewash” their reputations.

Maybe you’re a supermarket with a record of squeezing suppliers. Or a consumer goods firm with shaky labour and environmental credentials. Or perhaps a bank that’s recently gone along with an authoritarian regime as it removed human rights.

Whatever – splashing some cash on initiatives that trumpet your do-goodery is a cheap way to look kind without risking the bottom line.

Saying to customers in rich countries that black lives matter is a great way to distract from the fact that you’re not so fussed about lives in poorer ones – or at least not in China.

Celebrating diversity is good at diverting people from looking too closely at your tax habits, board makeup, or simply your day-to-day products. Lending isn’t cool – LGBTQ+ campaigns are.

But companies doing the wokey-cokey need to be careful, or they’ll upset the significant chunk of their customers who are hostile to these ideas. They’ll also put off talented people from working for them in future.

In addition, they risk drawing attention to their less-PC activities. Heck, I wouldn’t haven’t bothered reading up on these companies’ habits if I’d not be mildly irritated by their superior tone. I’m not likely to chain myself to the doors of their HQs any time soon, but their new-found leftie friends might.

There are good reasons why companies traditionally left politics to others. It’s not cost-free, and probably alienates as many customers as it attracts. We laugh at politicians who adopt and drop values like fashion accessories – and companies who do the same face similar scorn.

In the end, I predict that woke corporations will follow shellsuits and mullets and become a thing we look back and laugh at. I sense that things could already be shifting that way, and look forward to getting back to activism-free alcohol.

Mark Lehain


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