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Transformative branding

Without crossing the woke-washing line

4 minute read
Paintbrush painting pride flag

From sports brands to well known confectionery favourites, companies are shifting their attention towards transformative branding as sociopolitical issues become more prominent in the social debate.

But what is transformative branding and is it viable to engage with societal problems as an organisation?

Auckland University of Technology Marketing Senior Lecturer Jessica Vredenburg said transformative branding was a process that enabled brands to collaborate with stakeholders to change aspects of their business landscape, and it starts at the top with transformative leaders.

“We look at what a transformative leader is and that really involves things like building a vision for the longer term,” she said.

“It requires leaders to think really flexibly and creatively to stay attuned to changing market ideologies, in terms of what’s important and what is relevant.

“It’s about using those tools to reimagine what branding can do beyond making money and market-orientated goals.”

Trending social issues

While some companies might jump on the bandwagon to promote the flavour-of-the-day sociopolitical issue, Dr Vredenburg said it was important for organisations to align their internal values with their chosen campaigns.

“It’s really about the balance of societal goals to create that change from within,” she said.

“So, when businesses have those two elements together – transformative leadership and the vision of adapting to the marketplace, plus being able to call on the stakeholders to collaborate on the project – and collectively throw their weight behind the goal of transformation, it not only signals a commitment to it in the first place, but also distributes resources to achieve that meaningful change.

“It’s not necessarily something one brand can do alone, but it’s actually bringing in the different actors in the marketplace – whether that be customers, competitors or stakeholders –to distribute their resources to make that change.”

Beware of woke-washing

A term with similar connotations to greenwashing, woke-washing involves how ethically problematic companies use social movements to increase sales without addressing how their business is aiding the solution.

However, Dr Vredenburg said woke-washing was not always out of purposeful deceit or maliciousness, sometimes it was just pure ignorance or misinformation.

“If a company is promoting International Women’s Day on their social media but they are simultaneously profiting from labour practices that might exploit women that is, in fact, woke-washing,” she said.

“There is misalignment between their messaging and practice so, in their minds, they’re doing something good but they haven’t really understood the work that needs to come behind that.”

Dr Vredenburg said times were changing and brands were becoming increasingly aware of their corporate responsibility.

“Brands are feeling the pressure – from consumers and the industry more widely – that their competitors are taking a stand and they feel like they need to do something too,” she said.

“There is also this notion of being silent versus being complicit.

“Brands are still learning what needs to come from within and we’re still seeing brands go through that process and get called out.

“A company might take a parental leave stance and then people want to know what parental leave policies are available to various genders.

“To avoid being labelled as woke-washing, companies need to align their values to their messages.

“A message to reveal that companies are adapting to new practices is also key for consumers to identify when something is authentic and when something is woke-washing, virtue signalling or an empty message.”

Building meaningful brands

Beyond profiteering, many brands are altering their influence to be purpose led to create positive change.

According to Tank Managing Director Jim Antonopoulos, this is something every company should strive for.

“As far as meaningful brands go, we feel as though every brand should be ethical and purposeful, and part of our journey is to help leadership get there,” he said.

As a strategy and innovation consultancy, and a certified B Corporation, Tank works with organisations to build strategy that is meaningful and relevant in a changing world.

“Our work begins with deep listening, which is often forgotten – people forget to just be quiet and listen to another person’s experience,” he said.

“Deep listening allows us to develop empathy for the audience, community, customer, culture, leadership and employees.

“We interrogate an organisation’s purpose and values, and we connect that with the behavioural principle of the organisation across marketing, culture and leadership.”

Mr Antonopoulos said it was important for organisations to make changes within their own company before they committed to any sociopolitical goals – inclusion and belonging being top of that list.

“A good starting point is picking one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and, where possible, focusing efforts towards that goal – whether it’s quality education, zero hunger or reducing inequality, for example,” he said.

“Imagine owning a business that reduces inequality – that is impactful.

“So what can businesses do? Pick one of those goals and do it.

“Change your business model, check yourself, embrace diverse modes of thinking, embrace diversity and inclusion at all levels and then change towards one impactful goal.”