Woke Isn't a Bad Word in Marketing After All

Woke Isn't a Bad Word in Marketing After All

Consumers react poorly to brands that back down from their commitments, a new report finds

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While “go woke, go broke” certainly rhymes, it doesn’t have any bearing on reality. Yuri_Arcurs/iStock

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By Jason Notte


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It isn’t the term “woke” that cost Target and Bud Light a bunch of money in 2023: It was those brands’ failure to stand by their commitments to social causes.

At the Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) Masters of Marketing conference in Orlando, Florida today, its Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing (AIMM) released the results of a survey of more than 9,000 consumers conducted with the Cultural Inclusion Accelerator looking at perceptions of inclusive marketing practices.

As it turns out, when a brand backs away from its commitments to groups and causes—as Bud Light did with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney and Target did with its Pride merchandise—77% of shoppers would immediately stop buying that brand’s products or find another brand more aligned with their values.

More importantly, 76% won’t come back unless a brand changes its practices. That’s the same percentage of shoppers who are comfortable with representation and culture in brand marketing.

As the NHL, Target and AB InBev stumble in their support, Gen Z consumers say they’ll reward courageous companies.


According to Lisette Arsuaga, co-founder of AIMM, the study came about after CMOs within AIMM expressed concerns about their social causes and worries about being the next brand targeted by protests. The group commissioned the survey and weighted it against Census results to get a clear picture of what consumers actually expect from brands and their marketers. Fear wasn’t on their wish list—nor was the silence brands offered in the face of backlash.

“The first thing we want marketers to understand is, you’re better off moving forward than stepping back, and you’re better off speaking up than staying silent,” Arsuaga said. “So let’s stop being silent and let’s stop being fearful of stepping forward.”

While “go woke, go broke” certainly rhymes, it doesn’t have any bearing on reality among those who know what the term actually means. The report found that for every consumer who knows the true meaning of woke and won’t support the brand because of it, there are two others who’d support the brand.

Meanwhile, for every consumer that would reward a company for caving to backlash like that faced by Bud Light and Target, another four to five consumers would reward brands for standing by their commitments despite criticism. Only 23% keep buying from brands that backed away from social causes.

“As brands are under a watchful eye, it’s important now more than ever to have a pulse on where consumers stand when it comes to a brand’s representation of diverse consumer segments,” said Bob Liodice, CEO of the ANA.

Your woke audience

The report acknowledges why some brands might be nervous about being labeled “woke.” Roughly 63% of consumers feel the term “woke” has been politicized. While that sentiment varies significantly among generations—81% of Baby Boomers feel that way, compared to 55% of Gen Z—only 34% of shoppers overall feel that the term is important to advocating for social justice.

According to the report, 64% of consumers are motivated or strongly motivated to support brands that sponsor multicultural events or create inclusive ads. Another 62% feel similarly inclined to back brands that offer products, services or experiences targeted toward specific communities.

Creators and marketers say Bud Light's response to the Dylan Mulvaney controversy demonstrated 'shallow advocacy'


There’s similar support for brands that treat all employees and consumers equally, regardless of gender (71%), race/ethnicity (72%), abilities (72%), age (68%) and sexual orientation (66%).  

In a breakout session at Masters of Marketing focused on gender equity, 4A’s president and CEO Marla Kaplowitz focused on her former career as a media planner and noted that many brands started their plans with a “general market” and would have to justify including Black, Hispanic, Asian and LGBTQ+ audiences. Despite the report’s findings, it’s an issue that persists in the marketing industry.

“If we live in a world of inclusion, why do we still have to justify including other audiences?” Kaplowitz asked. “Why don’t we start from a place truly of inclusion and have to justify exclusion?”

The case for inclusion

By the study’s own numbers, approximately 12% of people are actively against inclusion, with a quarter feeling indifferent. That inspired AIMM to present brands with a multistep plan to align their data, invest in multicultural marketing, dig into representative research, build diverse teams, identify strong partners, commit to education and recommit to plans made after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

“Does that mean that that small minority is going to stop speaking loudly and stop screaming ‘exclusion’? No—they’ve already been empowered by the silence that they’ve heard so far, so we know they’re going to continue that—but if we stand for inclusion together, we’re going to be moved forward much better than when we step back.”

Booking.com is one of a few brands actively prioritizing investments in understanding the LGBTQ+ community.


The 7.2% of people in the United States who identify as LGBTQ+, according to Gallup, is almost double the percentage it was a decade ago. It’s far higher among millennials (11.2%) and Gen Z (20%). That isn’t a statistic: It’s a growing market that speaks with its dollars, and one of several that the marketing industry’s own data suggests brands should do far more to support.

“Supermajorities of Americans believe in equality for LGBTQ people and believe companies should include our community in ways that support equality,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD. “Consumers and employees who expect companies to support our community are only growing with younger generations, so marketers should be leaning in and standing up for inclusion, not walking away.”

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