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The truth about ‘woke’ brands and companies getting ‘political’

‘Woke’ brands are nothing new. They’ve been around long before anyone labeled it controversial.

There’s a common thread of opinion that I see in comments sections of various articles. Mostly its for companies receiving backlash for specific inclusive campaigns.

The sentiment of the complaints centers around the premise that consumers don’t want companies to be political. They want them to focus their efforts on just selling their products and services.

But companies have been engaging in politics for what seems like forever.

Brands have a long history of being ‘political’

A very common way brands engage in politics is through lobbying.

For instance, in 2022 Apple, Facebook/Meta, Google, and Amazon spent a combined $69 million dollars lobbying the US Federal Government. That was a 5% increase from the year before.

If you’re curious, here’s a list of the publicly traded companies in the US that have spent the most in lobbying since 2009.

But you don’t have to invest in lobbying to be political. 

Other companies watch and react to what’s happening in the political arena. They they respond based upon their values.

In 2021 lawmakers in Georgia passed restrictive voting rights laws that many felt would restrict voting access to people of color. Major League Baseball responded by moving the scheduled All-Star Game out of Georgia in protest. They also moved the MLB Baseball draft.

Here’s what the MLB Commissioner had to say about the move and how they arrived at the decision:

“I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft.

“Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box. In 2020, MLB became the first professional sports league to join the non-partisan Civic Alliance to help build a future in which everyone participates in shaping the United States. We proudly used our platform to encourage baseball fans and communities throughout our country to perform their civic duty and actively participate in the voting process. Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.”

Even if you don’t go this far as some of these other companies, you’re probably engaging in politics. Many people don’t realize how often employee policies and communications are political.

The decisions to go along with prevailing laws, or to put in policies that go beyond the law are political stances a company takes. Some of those stances are for their team’s benefit and others are not.

In 2022, some companies implemented policies to cover costs of traveling to a different state to have an abortion after Roe v. Wade was overturned. That was political.

It’s a political decision when companies offer paternity leave and extended maternity leave benefits beyond government requirements.

When a company offers transgender employees benefits related to them transitioning, that’s political.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundations tracks whether major employers rated in their Corporate Equality Index. The index is a benchmarking tool that evaluates and measures policies, practices, and benefits for LGBTQ+ team members.

In 2002 when they started tracking companies on these measures, there weren’t any that met their guidelines. In their 2022 report, 662 major businesses adopted gender transition guidelines. Their review also showed 91 CEI-rated businesses offered at least one transgender-inclusive health care plan option.

When I worked at J&J, as we approached big elections, we’d get an email from the CEO’s office. Those emails explained the company’s interests and priorities. Then they highlighted there was one candidate who was better for the company’s interests and priorities than the other.

I hated those emails. It really bothered me that the company wanted me to use my vote to advance the company’s interests, rather than the issues most important to me. 

That was a company imposing their political values on me their employee. No me gusta.

Companies have been engaging in politics long before people had objections about them seemingly taking sides on issues of diversity and inclusion in their marketing and internal policies.

And now, more companies are engaging in inclusive marketing. And as a result, they’re labled as ‘woke’ brands.

What it means to be ‘woke’

These days, when people call a brand “woke,” they don’t mean it as a compliment.

Florida Governer Rick Desantis who is currently running for President of the US – has an anti-woke agenda.

It is very likely that many people who are using the term woke don’t fully understand what it means. Many using it in a negative way based upon the context they’ve grown accustomed hearing it used by people they follow.

Here’s how Desantis’ team defined ‘woke’ in a federal courtroom in Florida in late 2022.

“The belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”

As you hear that term thrown around and used, it is important to ask yourself first if you agree. Do you believe that there are systemic injustices in American society and that they need to be addressed?

If your answer is yes, then in my book, you are pro-woke.

If you don’t believe there are systemic injustices in American society and that they need to be addressed, then I encourage you to go listen to this episode of the Inclusion & Marketing podcast, Factors Influencing Your Customer’s Success You Should Be Aware Of. It will give you some common examples of where they do exist.

So that’s the Desantis team’s definition of woke.

But where did the term ‘woke’ actually come from?

The term originated back in the mid-1900s within the Black community in the US. Back then it meant the same as what it means to the Black community now: to be informed, educated, and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality.

I’ve heard the term plenty in my life. Usually when I heard it, it was as a phrase “stay woke” – as in “don’t fall asleep” to the racial inequalities, systemic barriers, and social injustices that are in effect all around us.

The term came back in the mainstream in 2014 as part of the Black Lives Matter movement during protests after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

But in recent years – the term started being used by those who are “anti-woke” in more of a political context.

Recently, investor and entrepreneur Mark Cuban made headlines when he said “call me woke.” He went on to say, “you don’t need to call it DEI, you can call it whatever you want – I call it good business. It means taking the people that you’re selling to and making sure your workforce looks like them, and making sure you can reflect their values and being able to connect to that. That works for me.”

In a separate interview, Cuban commented that many top companies in the U.S. can be considered “woke” brands.  He said “There is a reason almost all the top ten market cap companies in the U.S. can be considered ‘woke. It’s good business.’

Whether or not they call themselves that, there are a lot of woke brands, business leaders and marketers out there. – And they’ve been there doing their ‘woke’ work long before it became a political buzzword.

Woke is good business 

To be woke means to see the people you serve. That includes both your team and of course your customers. To be woke means to understand that many of them have been on the receiving end of racial injustice, systemic barriers, and social justice inequalities that have slowed and/or negatively impacted their ability to achieve success. 

To be woke brand means that we have a responsibility to address those challenges. That’s not only help the people you serve achieve success, but more broadly to make life better for the people you serve.

Now I’m not saying that every brand needs to become a social justice warrior, and you need to redirect your energy and resources there.

But I do want you to awaken and spend time understanding how the journeys of the people you serve may be different, and get a deep understanding of the various factors that influence their success – so that you can build an informed plan to ensure that everyone you serve has the same opportunity to achieve the same degree of success with your business – no matter what their identity is.

You cannot assume that everyone’s experience is the same. Doing so is the equivalent of staying asleep.

Your customers and the people on your team need you wake up. They need you to stay woke. And they even need you to be political at times. They need you to, so that all of them can achieve the success your business exists to deliver to them.


Get the full Transcript of the episode here

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