This reality can be explained by expectancy theory or, more precisely, expectancy theory violation. A brand makes a promise, it creates an expectation, then it doesn’t deliver at all or underdelivers. M&M’s recently rebranded its much-loved talking M&M’s characters, giving them cute makeovers with ‘wokeness’ in mind, thereby symbolically repositioning the brand as inclusive. In particular, the green and brown M&Ms, both female, traded in their go-go boots and soaring heels, respectively, for athletic shoes and lower heels. As reported by CNN, Mars president Anton Vincent labelled the changes a subtle cue, offering a more representative female character. However, people have had mixed feelings. Some have mocked the move and questioned whether people were still allowed to eat the characters.
Symbolic moves to offer a sense of belonging and community that have no substance and, therefore, minimal impact, cannot and should not be labelled woke, unless they are backed by additional supportive impactful measures, with real influence on people’s lives over the long term. Otherwise, companies may risk being mocked by the public and the media.
Humour, ridicule, and mockery are solutions that the general public, and even the media, use to defend or challenge the status quo, depending on their perspective. If only conservatives are mocking your brand’s moves, then probably coming across as authentically woke. But if your brand makes a move to signal wokeness and is now facing ridicule from those with progressive values, it’s a good sign the move hasn’t been effective in challenging the status quo. In the case of the M&M’s rebrand, even The Washington Post has published an opinion piece ridiculing the move.
Brands trying to be woke by reaching for low-hanging fruit, making light and cute woke moves, turn themselves into easy targets for those trying to maintain the status quo. The outcome can be ‘woke shaming’, which is not exactly what those affected by discrimination want. Trying to make your brand more relevant by just touching the surface and not digging deep to find impactful solutions for socio-political issues can hurt the woke movement.
Practise what you preach
Many brands rushing into wokeness and purposefulness forget that these objectives aren’t just what you communicate in your brand messages. They must be what you actually practise internally. In fact, whatever a brand promises will be added to its target audience’s ‘how to hold this brand accountable’ list.
Every time a brand becomes a social justice warrior, every time it lectures the society about how to be more meaningful and purposeful, every time it seeks attention by making a ‘Look how woke I am’ move, it is creating new expectations that it will need to live up to. Every time a brand makes a claim, the brand public is quick to judge the degree of truth in that claim by looking for tangible cues. If those tangible cues are not easily found, or if there is no substantial proof point, then the brand public not only questions the authenticity, but also calls out the brand on false claims.
Over the last decade, many corporations have made cute moves to signal their support for Black Lives Matter, only to be taken to task for their failure either to hire black people or promote them to senior positions. To use the academic terminology, they created an expectancy theory violation. They rushed to make a cute move, only to find it resulted in scrutiny and criticism rather than free positive publicity and applause.
‘Woke’ spills over from African American causes
The concept of ‘woke’ came from African Americans’ fight against social injustice. The spill over of the word into fights against other types and forms of social injustice and discrimination has been profound. Any inclusion and diversity program is now labelled a woke move, regardless of whether it is associated with African Americans. In fact, any progressive move, no matter what context and concept, is now being labelled woke. From Minnie Mouse’s new pants suit to M&M’s rebrand, to even Neo Green Socialists in Downing Street, ‘woke’ has moved to contexts with no association to African Americans. But part of this migration of the word woke has been fuelled by those opposing wokeness. Opponents mocking and ridiculing the concept have labelled any progressive move as woke, contributing to the expansion of the usage of the word in different situations.
Going forward, woke will become a popular culture product and the umbrella reference to all purposeful progressive moves.
Thus, it is so important for brands to make their woke moves wisely, and consider the potential damage to the woke concept if their move is considered cute and light, without substance. The general public is now so conscious about such moves, bBrands need to be very cautious. Any reference to progressive values in branding campaigns (values like empowerment, transparency, inclusion, and equity) can be linked to wokeness, and will be scrutinised by the public to ensure the brand is not trying to be opportunistic, making another empty, attention-grabbing woke signal.
This article was published in the May 2022 issue of Inside FMCG magazine.