The Wake-up Call for Marketers from the Woke Generation

In September 2017, Merriam-Webster added ”woke” to their dictionary, defining it as

“aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”

— evidence of how millennials’ activism and terminology are at the forefront of culture.

Millennials show great interest in corporate social responsibility and a brand’s values — we’re speaking up, out and loudly about our ideals and feelings.

Here are some answers to questions marketers might have for leveraging the socially conscious, belief-driven buyer of the “woke generation.”

If I update my buyer persona, how do I reconcile my brand’s longstanding ideals, philosophies and beliefs to those of this young, progressive-thinking cohort?

Solution: Reach into your brand’s DNA to find values that authentically align with those of your customers.

Interbrand CMO Andrea Sullivan said, “CMOs can be the face of an organization. And … in today’s world, you can’t sit on the sidelines.” So, if brands want to succeed, their values should align to those of their customers, or else they risk profits declining as quickly as their brand equity does.

The latest controversy with YouTube’s ad placements speaks to how critical it is that organizations be associated with positive, progressive causes.

Brands like Pepsi have very publicly failed in their attempt to speak to the socially conscious millennial, and this has caused ripples in the marketing world. It’s clear that brands shouldn’t shy away from hot-button issues, but it’s even more imperative that brands approach cause marketing from an authentic standpoint.

“A lot of brands jump on the bandwagon as a shortcut to weigh in on what’s going on and resonate with customers, and Pepsi did exactly that,” said Adam Kleinberg, CEO of San Francisco-based agency Traction. “But people have high BS detectors.”

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to “cause fatigue,” The moment when consumers get so inundated with cause marketing that they become, essentially, numb to its emotional effects.


So, a donation isn’t enough? What do socially conscious buyers deem as authentic forms of support?

Solution: It’s a two-part answer.

1. Initiate your support for a cause.

The most effective philanthropy is built into the brand’s core philosophy rather than jumping on the bandwagon. Bandwagon cause marketing could be seen as fake wokeness, as this article warns. People, especially millennials, do indeed have “high BS detectors,” and Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner controversy is a prime example of this notion.

Digiday reporter Tanya Dua says, “Patagonia’s value proposition, for example, has always been to make quality products in a more environmentally responsible way, and Airbnb has pushed its tagline of ‘belong anywhere’ to promote unity for years. Similarly, Chobani has stood up for and spoken out in favor of refugees, and Kind has focused on building bridges among people through its foundation for years.”

In short, once it’s a hashtag, you may already be too late – which leads to the second half of the cause fatigue solution.

2. Put your own resources at stake to provide that support.

You have to support causes on your own dime, backed by opportunities and involvement that actually change lives.

Outdoor retailer REI Co-op prides itself on the cooperative nature in their DNA. Not only can the general public join the co-op, which boasts that 70% of their profits are given back to the outdoors community, the company also offers other stewardship perks like outdoor classes, outings and events.

The brand takes its support for its members and Mother Nature a step further with community engagement and investments including trail talks, ‘Force of Nature’ grants for nonprofits that connect women to the outdoors, gear giveaways and Rewilding Projects, which help reshape how people living in large urban and suburban areas connect with the outdoors.

As their website says, “We appreciate hearing from our members about their values and how the co-op can continue to reflect those values in our community investment and advocacy efforts.” The brand understands their buyer persona and what buyers need from their outdoor clothiers.

REI Co-op has created an authentic wave of support for their members, the community at large and the environment, setting them apart from the pack. Jim Moriarty, director of Brand Citizenship at 72andSunny, says,

“We all crave authenticity. Brands can and should change the world. And the best way to do that is to initiate, support and amplify causes that are connected to the brand’s business and mission.”

Authenticity is covered by timeliness, motivations beyond supporting causes and the logistics of how you actually support that cause. Take Tom’s business model of buy a pair, give a pair or the educational outdoor classes and resources that REI provides. Millennials, as belief-driven buyers, seek real-world, direct impact from brands’ support of a certain cause, not flowery claims of support.



Organizations with effective branding are waking up to how the average consumer is now thinking and feeling about the world. Understand your product’s place in this new consumer landscape, be aware of the ideals of your updated buyer personas and align yourself with those ideals in a meaningful, timely and impactful way.

So, stay woke before your sales start to slumber.

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