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  • Writer's pictureAude Villebrun

The great "Awokening"

The current international context of Putin's invasion and war in Ukraine is revealing cracks in the well-oiled luxury brands engines and exposing what might be their biggest challenge in the coming years. I am talking about how the well-established luxury brands will decide to address (or not) and embrace (or not) Gen Z's woke culture. Either decision will have a cost, and it seems clear now that there will be no possible neutrality anymore.

As I was watching the news yesterday, I remembered attending a fascinating conference about future megatrends in London more than 12 years ago. There, a 20ish yo explained to everyone in the room that he believed his generation - who called themselves the "Born Activists" - would force mega brands to bend, to adapt, and to demonstrate social responsibility - or, if they didn't, they would disappear. At the time, I remember thinking he was certainly a bit overly confident, but truly bold and fascinating at the same time; I had never heard of that new gen's activism before that day and yet, I could see how - unfortunately - after decades of excess at so many levels of our society, it could unfold into some sort of global moralising, value-driven movement. Turns out, the guy was right. And so it started, innocently and quite mildly in a way, with younger consumers demanding action and accountability from companies to fight the climate crisis. Sustainability as it appeared, was GOLD for luxury brands (or any brand really) because, in a way, it was not divisive. Inclusivity or gender parity were some good causes to support too - not too controversial, not political - just the right level of "morally-right" and socially-responsible kind of topics.

However, what most brands might not have seen coming was that those topics were only the tip of the iceberg of a new culture emerging, called Woke, led by a socially-minded generation. If we thought we could get away with that, well, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter (the pandemic to a certain extent) and now the war in Ukraine have showed us that we won't.

In the woke mindset, everything is deeply interlaced, business, society, politics, people, brands. And yet today we keep hearing/reading people saying "artists shouldn't have to talk about politics"; "companies do not have to make a statement about #metoo"; "brands do not have to take a stand on social matters". Well, actually, now they do. And will be expected to, more and more.

"[In 2020] Gen Z accounted for 40 per cent of global consumers, with a full 94 per cent of Zs surveyed believing that companies should address social and environmental issues." - Cone Communications 2017 Gen Z survey

The major difference, with this generation, is that they grew up with a limitless source of information, internet, being available instantly, everywhere, at any moment. They are able to contact brands, companies and have access to several plaftorms to call them out when action is expected. They research, enquire, ask, compare, and value tangible proof and actions over words. Long gone is the time of beautiful promises. They were raised in the world we know today, they have seen every shocking image, they have developed a sense of urgency and want change now. From ethical sourcing, sustainability, transparency on working conditions and living wages, mental health support, gender parity agenda, showing diversity, defending LGBTQIA+ rights, to fighting body shaming or creating better policies - they select their brands based on how they align with their values. There is no taboo and everything is worth fighting for, because it is how one builds their identity. Some rare companies (outside the industry), led by a true and genuine mission, started leading the charge a long time ago : Patagonia, who have been pledging 1% of their total sales to the preservation of the natural environment ever since 1985; in the fashion industry, Stella McCartney was one of the leading figure building such committed / activist brand.

Credit : Stella McCartney

Now most brands have embarked on that "purpose-led" journey. The thing is, those consumers are also allergic to marketing when done the wrong way. They would rather see brands owning their imperfections or mistakes and working on them than ignoring them, changing the conversation, or making fake commitments (aka "woke-washing") - or just staying at the surface. They're a mix of ruthless realism and utter idealism.

Two years ago already, an article by Vogue Business identified that 2019 had been the year of the change. That year, as they pointed out, "fashion communications around International Women’s Day 2019 increased by 45 per cent year-on-year [whilst] themed merchandise and rainbow products dedicated to last year’s Pride increased by 25 per cent year-on-year." They described that shift in a very clear and unambiguous way:

"This is a significant change from the past. Brands used to avoid political messaging for fear of offending clients with different views. The danger now is not being committed enough.

If we apply the above rule to our industry, one could say that whilst the previous decade was all about creating emotions and telling beautiful stories, this one promises its fair share of political partisanship, and of morally-driven, social justice action, with the risk of being scrutinised and called out when not walking that (thin) line "properly". What some call "the great awokening".

However, despite all this knowledge, despite COVID19 being some sort of great rehearsal, despite George Floyd’s killing and Back Lives Matter movement shaking the corporate world and demanding action, the current war in Ukraine seems to have caught the industry off guard. All major companies or brands - except one, Balenciaga, led by their designer Demna Gvasalia, whose personal story echoes what is happening in Ukraine today - have showed an extreme reluctancy to make a statement and to take a stand. After 10 long days of silence and a "business as usual" attitude, most of them have now made a statement... Some more genuinely than others. But very few have really taken a stand. Most of them still seem reluctant to name it a "war" or "agression" or "invasion" - and have been called out for that (and some major companies caught deleting negative comments on LinkedIn was the worst). It seems that there is no such thing as neutrality anymore.

Credit : Balenciaga

Looking back at what has happened in the past few days, I have observed a few things which I am sharing below. Have you observed similar situations and reactions? In both cases, leave me a comment, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

It seems that:

- a brand can still make a statement and not take a stand as long as it is done quite quickly and does not seem to wait for others to do it first. When brands or companies did that, it may have seemed calculated and not authentic, which may be why the audience called them out immediately.

- a brand can take more time to make a statement as long as it is a way to properly understand and aknowledge the situation AND as long as they actually take a stand.

- courage, new ideas and leadership are qualities that are rewarded by the audience. Hermes, the first company to announce closing temporarily their stores seemed to get more positive reactions; Balenciaga was also acclaimed for their decision, fast, radical, and unambiguous;

- a pause in social media posting along with an honest and genuine statement simply acknowledging the situation may be rewarded as well, as people may feel heard and seen.

- deleting negative comments is the worst thing to do. Do not delete negative comments, EVER. Acknowledge them, hear them, take some time to reply to them. If there is a conversation, be part of it. Don't just brush objections and comments off.

And finally, it sems that in the future, brands could have some (difficult) decisions to make - having to choose between their clients and their audience. Clients represent the image and current business, whilst the audience is the reputation and possibly their future business. Both won't always be aligned, and brands may have to prepare for that.

In all cases, companies can expect consumers to closely examine the continuity and consistency across campaigns and the nature of their decisions, as well as their tone. As we navigate through more crises, brands and companies may have to think about "demarketing" campaigns as part of a transformative branding journey where they may need to work with their communities and customers and most importantly with their competitors to lead on both business and societal fronts and create change from within.

Let's brace ourselves as Colin Kaepernik's "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything" famous quote may well be this new decade's motto.



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