March 23, 2021
The ‘Woke’ Brand Trap.
If you spend too much time, as I do, on Twitter then you’ve come across “extremely online” brands: SteakUmm, Moonpie, Wendy’s. These companies employ clever young people to tweet jokes, make fun of their competitors, and use the brand’s handle to be entertaining and personable rather than faceless, bloodless corporate entities. Many of them are good at it.
Inevitably, however, all of these brands bump up against the limits of this schtick. Because no matter how clever their online presence may be, the end goal is always to sell you something. Generally, it works well when these brands are being funny and playful, but when they get political or sentimental, that’s where things get tricky. (For an example, see the entirely unnecessary and horrendously tone-deaf communications that brands put out, as reliably as clockwork, every September 11.)
Recently, Oreo—as in the cookie—tweeted the following: “Trans people exist.”
I am glad, as I’m sure my colleagues at Impact North are, that the folks at Oreo are willing to publicly acknowledge this. Transgender people do, in fact, exist and I think it’s an indictment of our society that to say so is considered a brave stance or whatever.
But—marketing professionals that we like to think of ourselves—we would humbly suggest it’s worth examining why a cookie company (or any company) would tweet something like this.
First, the people at Oreo understand the political and cultural context. They understand that many would applaud them for their stance, that a certain number of backwards-thinking individuals would dislike them for it, and that a certain number would be suspicious of their motivations and probably write a blog about it (hi, hello).
In other words, they knew people would talk about it. As of this writing, the tweet has been shared nearly 100,000 times and garnered over 500,000 likes. If you believe any publicity is good publicity (which, for the record, we at Impact North do not) this is an unmitigated success.
But I don’t think the people at Oreo believe any publicity is good publicity, at least not based on this tweet. They tweeted this because they knew this opinion was both safe and controversial enough to accomplish the goal of all brands online. It was perfectly calibrated by their vast marketing machine to get people talking without getting them in trouble. I’m sure they really do believe in the sentiment, but I also know that their beliefs didn’t factor heavily in the decision to tweet about it.
The problem with these kinds of tweets is not that they are wrong or bad. They might even be good if they encourage people to have conversations about these topics. If more people accept that “trans people exist,” that’s a good thing.
The problem with these tweets is that they are empty. It is part of larger politically and ethically ambivalent mission to win market share. We know this because Oreo wouldn’t do anything that cost them market share or made people talk about Oreo less. It’s contrary to their nature, like asking the bear to do its business somewhere other than the woods.
Some of you may object to the implications of this. Are brands supposed to avoid talking about any political or sentimental issue? Are brands always obligated to stick to trying to sell us stuff and never talk about anything else?
As a rule, yes. But there are exceptions.
People can usually tell when brands are being authentic. They can tell because they know the people behind those brands believe in things other than making money. They are people after all.
If those people/brands are going to continue to say woke things online in order to boost their business (which they will) it matters that they really believe in it and act accordingly. That means taking risks. That means going beyond corporate platitudes and taking political stands that may upset people. That means using their corporate influence to help the causes they claim to care about.
Imagine, for example, how differently Oreo’s tweet would read if it came from people at the company whose loved ones had struggled with discrimination because they are transgender; or from people advocating, explicitly, for more equitable treatment of these communities; or from people who instituted new hiring practices to encourage transgender applicants and ensure they got a fair shake.
How do I know none of those apply to Oreo? Because if it did, that’s what they would be talking about, perhaps not in detail, but certainly not in vague clichés.
I’m not suggesting anyone say or do anything that hurts their business. But, if you’re writing tweets like this, maybe consider whether “raising awareness” is something you’d be doing if it didn’t help your business.
Your move Chips Ahoy.
—Tristan Bronca, Lead Copywriter