Social purpose or woke-washing: How to walk the creator tightrope in 2022

Spreading positivity and social awareness through influencer marketing is an effective approach that builds trust and engagement for brands. But when these campaigns lack real substance, brands risk further alienation from their customers, writes INCA’s Arthur Altounian.

Arthur Altounian

On April 22, scores of APAC influencers posted their greener lifestyle goals and dreams under the trending hashtag #EarthDay. Rallying against climate change and environmental destruction, these influencers revealed themselves as a source of clarity, education and inspiration for today’s generation. They command trust and respect among their audiences—but they also carry a heavy responsibility. 

Today, influencers and brands that spread positive and activism-led messaging risk an audience backlash over claims of disingenuousness and woke-washing. It’s a fine line to tread for both influencers and marketers. However, for marketers prepared to put in the work, the long-term payoffs of socially conscious influencer campaigns far outweigh the risks.  

Strength in storytelling 

APAC audiences already have a strong awareness of climate action and a varying knowledge of initiatives like the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). 

However, awareness does not always translate into action, and this is where influencers help. Many widely-known APAC influencers use their gigantic followings to educate and challenge consumers over climate action. Stars like K-Pop talent BlackPink and Red Velvet, Singapore-based actress Nadya Hutgalung and Australian cricketer Pat Cummings play a key role in engaging audiences on subjects like renewable energy, ecology and plastic-free living. 

Influencers’ key strength lies in storytelling; they draw on numerous and creative ideas to communicate effortlessly with their audiences without appearing sales-led or preachy. Followers are drawn to their content, niche interests, lifestyles and, above all, their supposed authenticity. After all, it’s content, not advertising that builds relationships.  

Endorsements from influencers appear closer to peer recommendations than those from their celebrity counterparts. Influencers are therefore a natural fit for marketers promoting their brands’ SGD and climate action initiatives.  

However, often this invaluable authenticity unravels when influencers begin working seriously with brands. This has been heightened over recent years with the emergence of ‘woke-washing’, a term applied to brands that cynically use progressive values in their advertising to score points with certain consumers.  

Consumers are quick to spot anything they view as inauthentic or virtue-signalling, potentially spelling damaging ramifications for both the brand and influencer. 

So how can brands in APAC avoid this? The first step is to use homegrown influencers or those with a strong local presence in each country, The second is to research an influencer’s background and posts in order to ensure alignment between a brand’s messaging and their social history. 

Filipina-Australian actress Jasmine Curtis Smith, for example, has a long social media history of sustainability and anti-poverty advocacy. Indonesia’s Ayu Maulida, meanwhile, uses her platform to promote her non-government organisation #SenyumDesa (Smiling Village), which aims to provide education, healthcare, electricity access and internet access to remote areas.  

This kind of research will help marketers avoid influencers who are an unnatural fit for their cause, thereby lessening the chances of a woke-washing backlash. 

A selective approach 

However, previous content is not the only criteria for selecting an influencer. Marketers need to be equally discerning over who they have posted for and how often. What has become apparent over the years in Asia is that many influencers might say ‘yes’ to any brand or organisation that offers them a deal without first determining if they are a good fit. 

This has led to the perception that influencers are promiscuous and non-selective in who they choose to work with. Critics argue financial gain has become more important to an influencer than staying true to their own brand and their audience.  

Indeed, influencers taking this approach are less credible and have a lower trust factor. On the flip side, influencers that truly care about their authenticity and audience relationships should evaluate every approaching brand or agency to ensure that their values are compatible with their niche. Consistency is key: influencers that continuously work with brands that align with their values, whether that’s social or environmental, will likely be a safe bet. 

To make influencer diligence easier, brands can use data to identify both relevant trends, talking points and the right influencers with whom to promote these. Using data effectively will not only help target appropriate influencers but help bring a local touch to a global issue or campaign. Influencers have huge potential to make a tangible difference across an array of SDG issues in local Asia Pacific communities. With the right amount of research, discernment and local nuance, brands can likewise be part of that conversation, becoming a force for good to a new generation. 

Arthur Altounian is vice president of client strategy and growth for APAC at GroupM’s INCA.

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