Social activism : corporate choice or corporate duty ?
Used for the first time in the Assemblée Nationale in February 20211, the term “woke” – from which derived the entirety of “woke culture” – has seeped into the debates surrounding the French education system. This has been undoubtedly been amplified by the aggressive statements of French National Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, leading “woke” to become one of 2021’s most infamous words.
Yet “wokism” is not a new concept, and seems to have originated from the immediate post-war years following the 19th century American Civil War. “Woke” described a state of “awakening” (from the English verb to wake) against the racial injustice tearing the country apart. The social movement Black Lives Matter (BLM) emerged on the other side of the Atlantic in 2013. Since then, the term “woke” has seen a renewed interest and circulated throughout the entire world due to the rise of social media.
Since 2013, the term “woke” has been largely used in French political discourse in order to protest against religious, racial, or gender-based discrimination, and furthermore, strongly resonated within Generation Z. According to a 18th September 20212 poll from Harris Interactive commissioned by the Institute for civil dialogue (IDC), 80% of people under 35 wish for more diversity within brand communication (notably by including diverse sexual identities and ethnicities).
The uneven impact of the initial response to young consumers’ expectations
In the United States, where the movement has its roots, many corporations have understood the crucial need to answer the expectations of younger generations, notably by integrating “social activism” into their brand communication. This has sometimes found to be successful: Nike’s 2018 collaboration with Colin Kaepernic (American NFL player and one of the leading figures of the Black Lives Matter movement) has shot up the brand’s sales by 31% – even as Donald Trump criticized the initiative. However “social activism” has its drawbacks. Brands risk being accused of using social rights activism for their own gain, and if the message seems tone-deaf, consumers are quick to condemn what they call “Woke Washing” (a reminder of the earlier “Greenwashing”). Disney or Apple for example, even while being very popular brands among Gen Z, have not escaped this fate.
Nike choosing to position themselves in favor of Black Lives Matter was their own initiative, but oftentimes, consumers themselves demand for brands to change. In June 2020, Uncle Ben’s, Mars Inc’s subsidiary, found itself at the epicenter of social controversy during the Black Lives Matter protests, accused of reinforcing racial stereotypes with its logo. A few months later, the company redesigned its identity, announcing: “We listened. We learned. We’re changing.” Now renamed Ben’s Original, the brand has also a carried out significant commitments towards diversity. For example, the company has created “Seat at the Table”, a fund dedicated to provide scholarship grants in food science to minority students.
The French brands’ slow and awkward approach
In France, things are moving to a much slower pace. Banania has been convicted by French justice to abandon their “Y’a bon Banania” slogan, but did not go to the lengths Ben’s Original did when it came to the reshaping of its branding. It is the entire visual identity of the company and the name itself that could be accused of continuing to display racial stereotypes.
On the contrary, big French companies have suffered the consequences of good-hearted yet clumsy initiatives. L’Oréal faced several calls for a boycott after their 2020 announcement that they would cease to use certain words such as “white” or “whitening”. In 2021, Christian Louboutin had to clear out the controversy surrounding a photo posted on Facebook by the sister of Adama Traore, a young man who died during his arrestation by the French police. Fist proudly raised, Assa Traore was posing wearing the famous red-soled pumps.
Reinvention: a successful strategy to avoid potential image crises
In France, companies face two important stakes. First, they need to find convincing marketing strategies to justify their “social activism” to Gen Z. Then, they have to maintain a strong bond with the 50 and over clientele: in fact, only 29% of them view social justice as a criteria to adhere to a brand’s values.
The Pacte law (Law for economic growth and company transformation) offers a glimpse of hope. It helps companies to determine a reason to be, as well as to carry, embody, and defend their social and environmental engagements. These actions, which must be carried out long term, have to be detached from political conjuncture and position the brand as a true reference when it come to such important stakes. These engagements need to entail tangible measures as well as mobilize employees, partners, and clients around lasting impactful initiatives. Finally, it helps companies develop a strong image in order to help them grow and resist potential crises.