3 times big brands tried to be woke and failed miserably

Being woke is all the rage. Seemingly every brand these days thinks it's woke, and wants to convince us to get woke. But what does it all actually mean, and why have some brands got it all so catastrophically wrong?

Once a term reserved for black activists, the need to 'stay woke' to the inherently oppressive nature of the establishment – and fight against it – spread globally as the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction. 

Since being assimilated into mainstream culture, however, the word's sharp revolutionary edge has dulled into something more generic to refer to an awareness of social injustice and inequality, and a passion for standing up for what's right. 

Brands aligning themselves with a cause, and making that cause part of their design thinking is a trend that shows little sign of abating. But the uneasy balance between progressive values and corporate profitability means it's all too easy to miss the mark, and do more damage than good – to the brand, and sometimes to the cause in question, too.

Pepsi's Live For Now campaign

If only a can of Pepsi really could save the world (Image credit: PepsiCo)

The undisputed 'woke-washing' figurehead of recent years is Pepsi's spectacular own-goal in 2017: its saccharine-sweet attempt to piggyback on Black Lives Matter and other protest-led movements by getting Kendall Jenner to diffuse a potential riot with a can of Pepsi.

That's far from the only example, however – read on for three other global brands that got burned trying to stay woke, and three award-winning campaigns from which they could learn a thing or two...

01. Gillette splits opinion on toxic masculinity

Rather like Black Lives Matter for Pepsi, the enormous groundswell of engagement behind #MeToo proved irresistible for certain brands to wade into, or try to surf on. Both movements tap into deep-rooted, long-running injustice and inequality and a genuine need for us all to 'get woke' and embrace systematic change. 

They are enormously sensitive topics that demand authentic, meaningful engagement. It's hard for anyone to miss the mark as dramatically as Pepsi, but Gillette's much more well-considered contribution to the #MeToo debate still managed to split opinion and cause a backlash.

Turning the razor brand's long-established tagline 'The Best a Man Can Get' on its head with 'The Best Men Can Be', the ad is an ostensibly heartwarming, tear-jerking challenge to entrenched toxic masculinity in its various forms.

But while it received its share of praise for championing compassion and humanity rather than excusing deplorable behaviour as 'boys being boys', many were quick to deride it as a multinational brand cynically jumping on a bandwagon without any deeper engagement with the topic. 

Others saw the ad, helmed by This Girl Can director Kim Gehrig, as patronising and an affront to traditional masculinity – but the less said about Piers Morgan's insecurities the better.

02. BrewDog fails at feminist satire

Brewdog's Pink IPA

Beer for girls! BrewDog missed the mark entirely with its 'satirical' attempt to challenge gender inequality (Image credit: Brewdog)

Parody can be a razor-sharp tool for making a political point, but clumsily done it will blow up in your face. A case in point is BrewDog's 2018 attempt to make a joke at the expense of brands that try to attract women.

The overwhelmingly negative response to the so-called 'Pink IPA' – a play on the brand's signature Punk IPA – was swift and brutal. This tweet was the final nail in the coffin: "This is not ‘beer for girls.’ This is beer for equality.”

BrewDog's pleas that it was all deliberate satire as part of a campaign to close the gender pay gap fell flat. Most people missed the satire entirely – if it needs a press release to explain it, it doesn't work – and the story became about the patronising, tone-deaf branding of the new beer, rather than the donations that BrewDog was making to gender equality charities from its sale.

03. Starbucks plays lip-service to race relations

Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign

Fancy a chat about racial oppression with your friendly neighbourhood barista? Didn't think so (Image credit: Starbucks)

While the generic, anodyne 'march' that Kendall Jenner attends in Pepsi's ill-fated ad makes only a loose allusion to the Black Lives Matter protests, two years earlier Starbucks had attempted to engage with the topic head-on.

In 2015, the coffee chain encouraged its baristas to write 'Race Together' on cups before serving. The idea was to stoke face-to-face debate with its customers about racial oppression following the police shootings of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the subsequent civil unrest.

It backfired horribly, with critics deriding the idea as superficial, ill-judged and simply playing lip-service to a serious social issue – particularly when spearheaded by Starbucks' then chairman and CEO Howard D. Schultz, a white billionaire who couldn't be further removed from the issues at hand. 

And spare a thought for the poor baristas, who were woefully ill-prepared for the potential onslaught of opinions on such an inflammatory, hugely sensitive topic.

These campaigns show how it's done...

01. Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty

Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty

Ogilvy & Mather challenged the conventions of beauty advertising in this long-running campaign for Dove (Image credit: Dove)

Heralded as one of the most influential campaigns of the 21st century, Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty launched in 2004 – long before 'woke' entered many people's vocabulary. Shaking off the 'ideal' body image of impossibly thin and blemish free, Dove proudly populated its ads with women of all shapes and sizes.

As Ogilvy & Mather's campaign continued in different iterations over the next decade and beyond, it tackled various entrenched practices in the fashion and beauty industries, including how rampant Photoshopping can contribute to self-image issues – and picked up countless awards along the way. 

There were troughs as well as peaks – the 2017 'body shape' shampoo bottles in particular were much ridiculed – but the bravery, integrity and longevity of the campaign made a genuine impact, and drove countless other brands to question the long-term negative impact of maintaining beauty establishment ideals.

02. Nike's Dream Crazy

If Pepsi has become the figurehead for doing 'woke' wrong, Nike is the poster boy for absolutely nailing it. Picking up a coveted D&AD Black Pencil for Nike and Wieden+Kennedy in 2019, Dream Crazy is a masterclass in how a brand can join the conversation in a meaningful way.

While the campaign features a selection of awe-inspiring, visionary athletes whose dreams were 'just crazy enough', it grabbed the headlines because of its starring role for disgraced American football player and Black Lives Matter activist Colin Kaepernick, giving him the rousing tagline: 'Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.'

Nike took a bold risk by playing an active role in a hugely contentious debate, and nailing its colours to the mast on such a divisive issue mobilised plenty of haters. But no one could ever argue that the brand was only playing lip-service to it all: it waded right into the front line.

03. Fearless Girl

Fearless Girl

Another D&AD Black Pencil winner, McCann NY's Fearless Girl became a much-discussed symbol of female empowerment (Image credit: McCann NY for State Street Global Advisors)

The most awarded campaign in the history of D&AD with seven Yellow Pencils and one Black Pencil – also cleaning up at Cannes and the Clios – McCann New York's Fearless Girl installation for State Street Global Advisors became a red-hot talking point all around the world. 

Unveiled on International Women’s Day 2017, the statue of a young girl standing defiantly with hands on hips as she faces off Wall Street's infamous charging bull became a potent symbol for a new generation of female leaders, challenging toxic masculinity in a more abstract, less literal and prescriptive way than Gillette's attempt – and all the more powerful for it.

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Nick Carson

Nick is a content strategist and copywriter. He has worked with world-class agencies including Superunion, Wolff Olins and Vault49 on brand storytelling, tone of voice and verbal strategy for global brands such as Virgin, Pepsi and TikTok. Nick launched the Brand Impact Awards in 2013 while editor of Computer Arts, and remains chair of judges. He's written for Creative Bloq on design and branding matters since the site's launch.