On Beyond Branding “Brand Activism” and Whitewashing Critiques of Capitalism

What do investments in the idea of “brands as activists” reveal about the relationship between capitalism, social justice, academia, and branding?

In the years since discourse on so-called “woke-washing” and the dynamics between brands and alleged “wokeness” emerged, diverging perspectives have been put forward by scholars, marketers, media professionals, and activists.

Among such perspectives are nebulous notions of “brand purpose” and the promotion of the precarious and aggrandising idea that brands can be activists, resulting in work that is positioned as offering brands advice to draw on in pursuit of their perceived “activist” endeavours.

Put differently, are we witnessing the branding of “brand activism” occurring, and if so, who and what stands to gain from this? How might academia be complicit in the diluting of radical liberationist politics and the reframing of Black activism to appease marketers and brands (as well as to appease academe)?

While perspectives that promote the idea of brands as activists are not specific to the first quarter of the 21st century, aspects of current ideas about alleged brand activism, arguably, reveal much about the contemporary relationship between capitalism, social justice, academia, and branding.

What I mean by this is that by critically reflecting on various claims and contestations concerning the so-called activist credentials of brands (or their lack of them), we can gain insight into who and what investments in the idea of brands as activists might serve, beyond simply aiding the self-image of brands. *Spoiler alert*: such investments in the idea of brands as activists certainly do not serve efforts to address capitalism and interconnected forms of oppression.

As part of this discussion, which hopefully moves beyond reductive charges of “selling out”, in the paragraphs that follow I reflect on how liberationist politics and the work of Black activists, among others, becomes distorted, not only by marketers, but also, at times, by those who put a scholarly stamp on what does or does not constitute alleged “woke-washing” and so-called “brand activism”.

In other words, moving away from a focus on how brands participate in what, at times, may be termed “woke capitalism” and “woke-washing”, through this discussion (or maybe what is more of a collective of provocations), I seek to consider the following:

  • What are the limitations of critiques of brand engagement with, and responses to activism, that centre the perspectives and modus operandi of perceived “market actors” (including brands) rather than people?
  • How might moving away from the language of consumerism and consumption play a helpful role in efforts to maintain critiques of “woke-washing” and the opportunistic actions of brands?
  • Are we witnessing efforts to cajole brands being reframed as critiques in ways that distort the work of those committed to liberationist politics, and simply uphold the capitalist status quo?
  • How can efforts to defang critiques of brands’ self-serving engagement with, and response to activism, be pushed back against in generative ways that do not fall into the trap of treating perceptions and experiences of brands as fixed and universal?

Such questions have been at the core of my ongoing work on the relationship between social justice, branding, consumer culture, and digital culture, particularly in the years since my first academic article explicitly on the notion of “woke-washing”, written in 2018, was published in the European Journal of Marketing in 2019.

Before I begin to delve into my thoughts on these questions and how they can orient discussions and analysis of alleged “corporate wokeness” and consumerist spun takes on radical politics, it is helpful for me to revisit some of what I was thinking through in 2017 and 2018. Then, I was specifically focusing on “Woke-washing: ‘intersectional’ femvertising and branding ‘woke’ bravery’”, building on work that I shared as a talk in January 2018 on “The ‘Wokefluencers’ of ‘Diversity’ Marketing: The Commercial Co-optation of Free(ing) Online Labour” at After Work: Life, Labour and Automation, University of West London.

At that time, backlash in response to 2017 marketing activity, such as Pepsi’s “Live for Now” campaign featuring Kendall Jenner at a fictional protest, led me to explore “how and why ideas regarding ‘intersectional’ approaches to feminism and Black activism are drawn on in marketing content related to the concept of being ‘woke’ (invested in addressing social injustices)”. My use of the word “woke” here is informed by an awareness of how the term has been misused and appropriated in ways that often actively obscure its origins in Black American culture and Black activist work.

With all of this in mind, in 2017 and 2018, I spent time examining which subject positions and narratives are represented in marketing as part of this and what they reveal about issues concerning advertising, gender, race, and activism. The key themes that I observed across numerous examples included “how marketing simultaneously enables the visibility and erasure of ‘intersectional’, feminist and Black social justice activist issues, with the use of key racialised and gendered subject positions: White Saviour, Black Excellence, Strong Black Woman (and Mother) and ‘Woke’ Change Agent”.

Now, moving away from a focus on the content of campaigns, to a focus on the discursive direction of scholarship and writing on “woke-washing”, “woke capitalism”, and “brand activism”, I am ruminating on how strands of such work may simultaneously enable the visibility and erasure of the work of Black, other racialised, and marginalised folks, as knowledge producers, activists, scholars, and critics of capitalism (particularly the harms of racial capitalism, as the work of Marcel Rosa-Salas highlights).

Where is the “Black Thought” in the “Brand Activism” Literature?

Put bluntly, are there times when matters regarding so-called “woke-washing”, “brand activism” and critiques of it are whitewashed, including due to the actions of both industry and academia (which are often equally invested in acquiring, capturing, and possessing terms, ideas, and concepts in ways rooted in territorialism and the assumed power of institutional validation, rather than a commitment to address inequalities and oppression)? Posing this question does not undermine the potential meaningfulness of conversations such as this one (said in relation to a November 2021 event on “This Conjuncture: Woke Capitalism” with Rosalind Gill, Akane Kanai, and Francesca Sobande), or the work that we and others are doing.

Rather, my words here are intended to emphasise the need for reckoning with examples of so-called “corporate wokeness” to take to task manifestations of it within the increasingly corporatised and marketised context of academia – an environment within which approaches to and discussions of “woke-washing” includes writing and theorising that draws on, without truly acknowledging or substantially engaging with, the work of those seldom societally deemed to be knowledge producers, experts, or authorities.

Relatedly, when thinking with and through the words of Stuart Hall on “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?”, I kept coming back to the following two questions (by now, I’m sure it’s clear that I’m a fan of questions leading to more…):

  • What is the “activism” in brand activism?
  • Where is the “Black thought” in the “brand activism” literature (or how is it discarded)?

The second of these questions is part of a wider critique of mine of elements of marketing and consumer culture studies that engage with Black thought and critical studies of race and gender in extractive and acquisitive ways. To be direct, I’m critical of work in these disciplines and areas that results in a cursory nod to Black and racial justice scholarship as part of attempts to position such longstanding work (including that of Black scholars) as something “newly discovered” and “established” by those whose subject position (for example, race, gender, and institutional status) is more palatable to the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchal purview of much of academia.

When the Call is coming from Inside The [Academic] House

Here, it is beneficial to turn to the recent work of David Crockett on “Racial Oppression and Racial Projects in Consumer Markets: A Racial Formation Theory Approach”. In the words of Crockett (2021: 1):

The dominant theoretical approach to exploring ethnic and racial inequality in marketing and consumer research focuses on discrete acts of discrimination that stem from social psychological causes (e.g., prejudice, stereotypes, and negative racial attitudes). It holds limited explanatory power for meso- and macro-structural phenomena that also generate racialized outcomes. An implication is that ethnic and racial inequality can be portrayed as something imposed on market systems rather than a routine feature of their functioning.

When the starting point for scrutinising the relationship between capitalism, social justice, and branding involves viewing inequalities and oppressions (e.g., racism) as part of the foundations of the market, rather than an external force that seeps into it, ardent assertions of brand activism seem to reflect power dynamics at play.

There is a real risk that in the rush to theorise the tensions, relations, and disconnections between capitalism, social justice, and current branding examples, what is yielded is sometimes more symbolic of who and what academia is compelled to, or even, deems worthy, to respond to and sometimes appease (in this case, brands).

The compulsion across disciplines, spaces, and sectors to support claims of brand activism seems to signal more of a concern with reputational management (on the part of both brands and those who they consult) than a concern with dismantling white supremacy and other forms of entangled oppression.

To me, the potential benefit of critiques of so-called “woke-washing” and alleged “brand activism” is not necessarily the potential to expose the misleading actions of brands or to imply that such a thing as “brand authenticity” is achievable, let alone measurable. Rather, the potentially generative nature of critiques of alleged “corporate wokeness” includes the clear refusal to uncritically accept rhetoric, representations, and responses by brands which appear to do the work of triviliasing and distorting activism as part of the recuperation of the overall image of the marketplace, not just individual corporations.

When union-busting brands and corporations with a track record of exploitation and racism are held up as activists, I cannot help but sigh. Perhaps some of the gestures of brands that aim to be identified as activists (or, at the least, alluded to as being allies) is indicative of a somewhat collective impression management approach on the part of corporations across sectors that are committed to quelling critiques of the capitalist system that keeps them in business.

Essentially, the forms of perceived “corporate wokeness” that have been critiqued, including the attempts of brands to present themselves as anti-racist, are never just about the image of any one brand. Instead, such marketing and branding practices may be understood as an expression of the anxieties and relentless actions of those who stand to gain from the maintenance of capitalism, including by attempting to blur the boundaries between it and social justice work.

This means that what we are dealing with is far from merely being reductive critiques of “selling out”. In fact, sometimes to claim that brands have sold out is to inaccurately imply that they were ever untethered from the market logics that make their business possible. Thus, maybe some of what we are dissecting is contemporary, and often times, digitally mediated, marketplace theatrics and the market-centred staging of a conjunctural moment which some fear may mark the end (or at least, a prolonged period of disruption) to their commerce and complicity in inequalities and oppression.

To bring this back to the question I posed at the start:

What do investments in the idea of “brands as activists” reveal about the relationship between capitalism, social justice, academia, and branding?

In keeping with my approach to this discussion, I am inclined to respond to this question with another:

Why are individuals and institutions, including within academia, invested in the idea of “brands as activists”?

What is at stake if the notion of “brand activism” is let go of, once and for all? The lives of people which have been eroded and lost to the violences of racial capitalism should be enough to make individuals and institutions think twice before positioning brands as activist saviours. This is not to suggest that there is no space to comment on changes made by organisations that some may believe are beneficial to different people. But the insistence on using words such as “activist” feels, to me, as though it forms part of a branding tactic itself – a strategic approach to naming and claiming that reveals more about investments in proprietorial behaviours (a desire to possess activism) than collective efforts to address inequalities.

These particular musings of mine are still in motion, so thank you for engaging with my thoughts and words on this. I’ll finish here…

Sometimes if it looks like a brand, posts like a brand, and profits like a brand…it’s a brand.