Urban Dictionary defines “woke” as follows: “Although an incorrect tense of awake, a reference to how people should be aware in current affairs. ‘While you are ob[s]essing with the Kardashians, there are millions of homeless in the world. STAY WOKE.’”
The first session I attended at SXSW reminded me that being woke is not an agile or adaptive marketing strategy for brands—not a good one, at least. Instead, it is an identity or worldview that informs our purpose from the ground up. Brands don’t have the luxury of choosing to be woke some of the time and not all of the time. As Jay-Z famously wrote, “you was who you was ‘fore you got here,” and consumers are smart enough to tell if your brand is faking it.
The keynote was delivered by Josephine Goube, CEO of Techfugees. Techfugees is a brand with a purpose—the global non-profit exists to empower refugees with technology, and they’ve been doing it since way before it was cool. Their hackathons have developed affordable, mobile routers for refugees; the language training they provide helps displaced individuals monetize their current skills via apps like Skype; their coding camps help refugees learn new, employable skills; and they work tirelessly to help refugees locate and reunite with family members using technology that we often take for granted.
As I considered Goube’s impassioned lecture, it occurred to me that Techfugees has successfully galvanized a global community of tech philanthropists by authentically pursuing a woke brand purpose, not by selfishly chasing the whims of the latest social wave or trending topic. The well-being of refugees across the world will undoubtedly fade in and out of our collective consciousness, and Techfugees will continue to serve its purpose through it all—with or without fanfare.
Today, consumers don’t need or want brands to insert themselves into each and every topic of national conversation; but increasingly they do want to support brands that have a purpose. The most successful brands of tomorrow will be the ones that treat their employees with respect, brands that promote diversity and inclusion, and brands that improve societal conditions more than they burden it.
To this end, brands should examine their existential purpose and ask themselves if that purpose is sustainable. If so, great—do what needs to be done to advance that purpose as much as possible; but if your brand purpose is not sustainable, then it may be time for your brand to evolve. This could be as simple as redefining your communications platform, or as ambitious as reinventing your product or service completely.
If we step outside of SXSW for a second, a great brand example that comes to mind is Volvo, whose stated mission is to drive prosperity through transport solutions. As part of that, the brand has honed in on environmental concerns. And years earlier, Volvo invented the three-point seatbelt and forfeited the patent so its competitors could use the innovation to make their vehicles safer as well. Volvo is a progressive brand, not because it latched onto a trending topic, but because it has acted like a progressive brand for a long time.
Or take Seventh Generation, a brand whose name reflects its purpose: to inspire a consumer revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations. Whether trying to keep harmful chemicals out of our homes, producing and selling only 100% recycled tissue paper, or evangelizing the need for ingredient disclosure—Seventh Generation’s authenticity is above reproach because being woke is in its DNA. They walk the walk while others simply tweet the tweet.
With these examples in mind, let’s encourage our brands to identify and serve a purpose that is genuine, not just tactics that help them fake it. Your brand may have nothing to do with aiding refugees, reducing carbon emissions, or developing alternatives to toxic chemicals—and that is perfectly fine. Just be yourself, but be your best self. After all, it’s better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for something you are not.