On this side of the ocean, we sometimes look at it with wide-eyed wonder, but in the US, a veritable culture war seems to have developed between the classically right-wing, conservative side and the progressive and often very activist side of society. Fueled in particular by the latter – popularly christened woke – group, the wildest debates about inclusion, racism, social class, ethical and social issues are springing up everywhere. It seems as if an entire society is massively struggling with its past and determining the way forward to do good for the world on the one hand and holding on to traditional values and cultural achievements on the other. And brands are also increasingly interfering in the debate, often with dire consequences. Meanwhile, the slogan “go woke, go broke” is circulating on the internet.

US brands caught up in culture war

Consider the situation AB Inbev recently found itself in. Spurred by activist executives and supposed public pressure, the global beer conglomerate embraced transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney with personalised cans of Bud Light to celebrate the anniversary of her transition. A short video on social media, not even an elaborate advertising campaign in, was all it took for many traditional and loyal Budweiser customers to vilify their favourite beer.

AB Inbev shares plummeted 20% and have still not recovered. In the US the Bud Light brand, lauded by sports fans, has to forfeit the game and leave market leadership to Mexican rival Modelo Especial. The beer giant harshly misjudged the values to which their loyal consumers attached importance and underestimated the reaction to an initiative too woke for many conservative Americans.

AB Inbev harshly misjudged the reaction to an initiative too woke for many conservative Americans.

Classic family brand Disney has also been in turbulent woke waters for a while now. After fans worldwide frowned upon a live action remake of the classic The Little Mermaid early this year, in which a relatively unknown black actress played the title role of Ariel, controversy erupted again in recent weeks as a thoroughly reworked version of Snow White was now also in the pipeline. In it, Snow White was not only played by a rather outspoken activist Latina actress, the seven dwarfs were also replaced by a motley crew of actors from minority groups. The internet was once again in an uproar, criticism of the film expected for 2024 was so fierce that Disney recently decided to postpone the launch indefinitely. In between, the company is fighting one political row after another with Ron De Santis – governor of Florida and Trump adept – over the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, among others. Meanwhile, since early 2021, Disney’s share price fell from over $200 to just under $80 today.

When brand purpose becomes misplaced activism

The conclusion for several international observers is therefore unequivocal. To a greater or lesser extent, they agree with the statement “go woke, go broke”, freely translated as “those who act too activist go broke”. The urge of some brands to push to the absurd their well-intentioned and admirable purpose, and in some cases forcing it down the throats of loyal customers, does not go down well with them. In their attempts to assume a social responsibility, many brands, including those in our region of the world, are perhaps somewhat thoughtlessly brutal in scolding their existing clientele.

Certainly, a purpose-driven brand actively pursues equality, inclusion, ecological evolution and social justice. However, the common mistake made here is to lapse so drastically into activism that no longer has any connection to the original objective, that even a target group that fundamentally agrees with the brand strategy is put off. Those who buy from Disney are looking for escapism in magic, not yet another debate about the race of a fairy-tale character. Those who consume a Bud Light at a baseball game want to cheer for a home run with friends, not get involved in a discussion about their own sexuality in relation to that of transgender people.

Encouraged by political protagonists looking for votes in a polarised landscape, the end of this trench war in which their own dogmas seem irrefutable is not yet in sight. Whereas with us the pendulum seems to swing to the extremes of the spectrum only on very rare occasions, American citizens and businesses have become massively divided in debates that border on the absurd to a European observer. That it does not reach such proportions in our rather sober society should not surprise us as obedient Belgians.

Buying from a brand that wants to do good for the world is something we are happy to do. Buying from a brand whose activism touches on sacred cows, is a completely different matter.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from the US stories for our brands as well. For whereas US citizens are manning the barricades with loud voices and waving local and federal ordinances, we are more likely to make our opinions heard behind closed doors, or even vote with our wallets and ignore brands that seem to be moving away from what we hold dear. Buying from a brand that wants to do good for the world and play a constructive role is something we are happy to do and thankfully increasingly aware of. Buying from a brand whose activism touches on sacred cows and (inadvertently or not) blames us for who we are however, is a completely different matter.

Let there be no mistake. We may be largely spared the mawkish discussions from the US, but public opinion here also feels that a social divide has emerged. Comments like “we are no longer allowed to say anything”, “problems are covered up for politically-correct reasons” and “our cultural values are being further eroded every day by progressive forces” are not a rarity here either.

Balancing on a social tightrope

As I already wrote in 2018, it confronts brands with a precarious balance here too. Having made massive efforts in recent years to operate in a more ecological, inclusive and politically correct way, and to consider their brand purpose as core of their DNA, fear strikes many a heart in our boardrooms too. Recent discussions about our colonial past or equal rights for transgender people also make us question the extent to which brands should play a role in these social discussions. It causes many of them to balance on a wobbly social tightrope.

Unfortunately, there is no conclusive solution. Some purpose-driven brands (consider examples such as Nike, Patagonia, Hema or Ben & Jerry’s) have thrived over the years because of their activist stance and their intentions to create a better world with some pushing and shoving if necessary. At the same time, we see today’s purpose-driven brands, the more recent converts so to speak, making attempts to catch up at all costs. Under pressure from what they deem dominant social movements (organisations like BLM or the climate activists, for instance), they have become so imbued with a self-imposed feeling of guilt that they tend to lose sight of their target audience and choose activism in full force. In my opinion, the price they pay for unleashing these revolutions does not outweigh the benefits of a steady evolution.

Brands have a social responsibility, and their customers require them to take a clear stand. But that doesn’t necessarily means that those same customers may feel alienated in their relationships with their favourite brands tomorrow. Lead by example, make smart choices and recognise that your target audience may not evolve at the same pace as your activist marketeers. Slow and steady wins the race, our American friends might say in a cruel twist of irony.