In the past few years, and in particular since 2020, after the death of George Floyd, brands showed signs of wokeness by taking a stand on important socio-political issues. Brands are responding to movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Me Too. In the past brands not only took a stand, but also proactively advocated for a change. Brands got behind the movements like BLM. Launching ad campaigns, criticising the system, engaging in political issues, trying to unseat certain congressmen and congresswomen.
However, with the recent overturned Roe vs Wade abortion law, brands are offering a uniformed response. It seems safe and less risky. Focusing on what can be done to help, offering specific action items. This is rather than expressing direct opinion on what is right or wrong, and fighting the law. This is what is making the response to abortion different to how brands have responded to previous social issues.
But what are the reasons brands are responding with a cautious approach this time?
Joining either camp can be risky
One key lesson brands have learned from the past experiences engaging in social issues is the risk of alienating parts of the target audience. Brands can be accused of woke washing, resulting in backlash and boycott. Recent surveys show that regardless of political ideologies, the public is divided on this issue. It is not a clear cut, even among those with progressive values.
Therefore taking any clear position and stand can lead to anger in 15-30 percent of the population. Reflecting on their response to previous issues, brands have realised intervention in high tension issues may again come across as opportunistic. It could be seen as having profit seeking motivations. Therefore brands have decided to focus on what can be done to support the affected employees, rather than why the law has been overturned.
Lack of a clear and well publicised movement to join
A simple message associated with a well publicised movement was perhaps among the reasons brands more specifically supported the BLM movement. There was no grey area. Brands and consumers united behind one key message: a movement. Moreover, with BLM, no other movement was contesting and competing at the other end of the spectrum. However with the abortion debate, there are two clear ends of spectrum: pro-choice and pro-life. Both equally proactive in pushing arguments. This can mean that some brands will find it a riskier statement.
Existence of a less bumpy solution (than public lobbying and becoming social justice warrior)
Instead of taking the risk of alienating the target audience, or fighting the supreme court, and the state governments, brands have found comfort in a response that focuses on a solution that is not controversial/partisan. This has come in covering the costs of abortion procedures for staff. Also, covering the costs of traveling to states where abortion is legal.
Not emotional but practical, not controversial but safe. It minimises the chance of counter arguing. This would also reduce the risk of being penalised and stripped from potential corporate benefits. These can include state tax benefits due to taking a side on hot button sociopolitical or environmental issues. For instance, Florida governor DeSantis signed a bill stripping Disney of special tax status. This was after the company’s public opposition to a Florida bill that limits classroom instruction on gender and sexuality.
Financial constraints post-Covid
In the pre-covid era brands like Patagonia could afford overlooking almost half the US population (Republicans) to take a stand with its corporate values. Patagonia was known for being at War with the former US president Donald Trump in the past election. The adventurewear brand tried to unseat Republicans, running political ads.
However, in the post-Covid pandemic era, with record inflation rates and rising interest rates, brands don’t have the luxury of choosing who to sell to, or who to impress. Brands need all potential consumers with different social and political ideologies.
Lack of an outlier woke response: Even woke activist brands have taken a safe approach, why shouldn’t we (the rest of brands)
Brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Nike have been positioned as woke brands that are prepared to make financial sacrifices. These brands take a bold stance and express opinions on hot partisan issues. Such brands leading the woke mindset in the context of business are not characterised as the ones that take a calculated risk, and make a safe move. However, on abortion, we see a different tone, and a less emotional response, somewhat steering clear from making an explicit statement on the fundamentals of abortion law.
Instead, brands have adopted a ‘best support response’ approach. Comparing brands’ response to the issue with AOC’s response who asked people to come out and protest. This highlights brands’ change of tone on this issue. When those known social justice warrior brands offer a different set of responses, it gives historically lesser vocal brands no option but to just follow the leaders.
With any woke move brand move, there is always a risk of alienating vs letting down parts of the community. While in the past we have seen more of the alienation, in this case, those expecting the corporate world to offer a greater support, and be critical of the law overturn, may feel let down, and left alone to fight for human rights. This perhaps can be seen as the great backflip towards a more neutral and impartial response.
Abas Mirzaei is a senior lecturer in Marketing at Macquarie Business School.