How Americans Really Feel About ‘Woke’ Companies

Brands analyst Ellyn Briggs unpacks what application of the fraught term means for brands
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Kelly Rice
July 11, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • A majority (60%) of U.S. adults said they have seen, read or heard about references to “woke” companies, but views on the term’s connotation are almost evenly split: 36% said they consider a company that’s described as “woke” positively, while 35% said they view it negatively.

  • Celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and promoting diversity and inclusion are the actions most likely to differentiate brands as being “woke,” according to U.S. adults.

  • The share who said they would consider boycotting a “woke” company is low (26%), but in increasingly polarized consumer and media environments, brands must consider their risk appetite when crafting both external and internal communications.

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For much of the 20th and early 21st centuries, the term “woke” was predominantly used by the Black community and labor activists to encourage awareness of oppressive systems. In recent years, however, it’s been co-opted by Republican politicians and political groups to describe organizations that demonstrate support for any number of issues they broadly oppose. 

Since the beginning of 2023, several major consumer brands have found themselves the subject of negative coverage from conservative media outlets for exhibiting “woke” behavior. Scrutinized efforts include M&M’s’ celebration of women, Bud Light’s partnership with a transgender influencer, Target’s Pride Month-related merchandise and Chick-fil-A’s hiring of a diversity and inclusion executive.

As the series of controversies has many in corporate America questioning the future of purpose-driven marketing, new Morning Consult research offers insights into U.S. adults' awareness and interpretation of the term “woke,” as well as their response to it. 

Specific demographics at scale: Surveying thousands of consumers around the world every day powers our ability to examine and analyze perceptions and habits of more specific demographics at scale, like those featured here.

Why it matters: Leaders need a better understanding of their audiences when making key decisions. Our comprehensive approach to understanding audience profiles complements the “who” of demographics and the “what” of behavioral data with critical insights and analysis on the “why.”

Americans are broadly familiar with the “woke” label and associate it most strongly with LGBTQ+ and diversity-related initiatives. But they’re almost evenly split into three distinct camps of opinion — some believe “woke” is good, some believe it’s bad, and some aren’t sure what to believe. 

This varied sentiment places brands in a precarious position. When there is no clear preference among the public, it’s hard for brands to decide whether to participate in “wokeness” or repudiate it. This likely makes taking a social stance forever a thorny issue, and we’ll continue to see more controversy whenever a brand comes across as taking a side. 

“Woke” is now mainstream, but opinions on the term are mixed

Well over half (60%) of U.S. adults said they have seen, read or heard something about “woke” companies, suggesting the phrase is making inroads in popular discourse.

3 in 5 U.S. Adults Have Heard of ‘Woke’ Companies

Shares of respondents who said they have seen, read or heard the following about references to “woke” companies:
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Survey conducted May 31-June 1, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,204 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Awareness is notably higher among men (69%) and conservatives (72%), a skew that closely aligns with the demographics of people who consider themselves fans of right-wing voices like Tucker Carlson and media outlets like Fox News, according to another recent Morning Consult survey. Conversely, approximately half of women and moderates reported being unaware of references to companies as being “woke.” 

In terms of sentiment, nearly 1 in 4 Gen Z adults and millennials said they think companies’ being described as “woke” is “very positive,” and 30% of liberals said the same. Meanwhile, baby boomers and conservatives are far more likely to perceive the term negatively.

U.S. Adults’ Connotations of ‘Woke’ Are Mixed

Shares of respondents who said referring to a company as “woke” is …
Morning Consult Logo
Survey conducted May 31-June 1, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,204 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Given the term’s political salience, sentiment toward “woke” has the potential to shift over the remainder of the 2024 election cycle. However, for that same reason, it’s unlikely a strong consensus will ever build around the meaning, legitimacy and aptness of it as a business adjective. 

A notable through line across every major demographic grouping is the relatively large share of respondents who are unsure about their feelings regarding “woke” companies. These figures are highest among women (38%) and moderates (35%) — the same groups with the lowest overall awareness of the term. 

In a separate open-ended question, respondents were asked to name specific companies they considered to be “woke.” Many replied without naming a company, instead taking the space to note that they feel the phrase, when applied to brands, is unclear, politically motivated or even fabricated. 

As long as “woke” remains nebulous in this context, brands have an opportunity to infuse the term with their own meaning. The first step in doing so is articulating specific values and sticking by them. 

“If there’s one learning that has been reiterated these past several months, it’s that when brands take a position and then backtrack on it in the face of scrutiny from a small group of consumers, they risk appearing disingenuous and angering all parties, including larger consumer groups and employees,” said Lauren Gray, senior vice president of crisis and reputation risk at Edelman. 

Additional survey findings echo this point: When asked how a brand should respond if criticized by a politician or political candidate for being “woke,” a plurality of U.S. adults (32%) said brands should speak out and defend their stance. This is considerably higher than the shares that said brands should “accept the criticism and change their policies” (19%) or “ignore the criticism and do nothing” (21%).

To be most resilient, any public position taken by a brand should possess a clear alignment with both its business objectives and with the values held by its consumer base. Of course, smaller brands will have an easier time identifying these areas of overlap than extremely large brands with diverse customer bases. These companies may consider additional investment in nuanced segmentation research or daily sentiment tracking to monitor where consumers sit on relevant issues. Insights from this work will let internal teams predict reactions to potential creative or communications campaigns, ultimately allowing them to better match any message with a particular moment. 

Inclusive marketing initiatives drive associations with “woke”

Many respondents also replied to the open-ended question about companies they consider to be “woke” with legitimate brand names. Target, Disney and Bud Light were most frequently mentioned — all companies that have recently made conservative media headlines for supporting LGBTQ+ issues in some capacity. 

Among the 12 actions asked about in the survey, U.S. adults ranked celebrating the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month and using LGBTQ+ influencers or spokespeople in ad campaigns as the behaviors most likely to mark a brand as being “woke.”

U.S. Adults Most Likely to View Corporate Actions That Support LGBTQ+ Communities as ‘Woke’

Share of U.S. adults who said companies that take the following actions would “definitely” or “probably” be considered “woke”:
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Survey conducted May 31-June 1, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,204 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

In addition to alignment with LGBTQ+ causes, diversity-related initiatives (either external or internal) are another major barometer of brand “wokeness” in the minds of a slim majority of U.S. adults. 

These associations with “woke” are, again, largely a function of coverage within certain media circles. Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, a not-for-profit organization that monitors misinformation in the U.S. media, noted that right-leaning outlets have been quite successful in conflating “woke” with the topics of LGBTQ+ rights and diversity and inclusion. In turn, they’ve also succeeded in conflating those topics with “broadly unpopular ideas like sexualizing children and racism against white people,” he said.

With discourse heading toward such extremes, brands should expect that celebrations of Pride Month — and likely other heritage events such as Black History Month or Women’s History Month — have the potential to become annual moments of controversy among conservative consumers.

Threat of “woke” boycotts is minimal 

Bud Light is the only major brand that has seen a significant slump in sales since coming under attack by conservatives in 2023. Morning Consult data shows that the brewer’s situation will likely continue to be an outlier, as just 12% of all U.S. adults said they would “definitely” boycott a brand that had been referred to “woke.”

U.S. Adults’ Willingness to Boycott Brands for Being Deemed ‘Woke’ Is Low

Shares of respondents who said whether they would consider boycotting a company if it were referred to as being “woke”
Morning Consult Logo
Survey conducted May 31-June 1, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,204 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Those falling farther right on the ideological scale were most likely to say they would participate in boycotts. However, even among conservatives, more than half said they either would not boycott (31%) or are not sure (22%), indicating that if companies decide to take a “woke” stance, it will not universally deter right-leaning consumers from shopping their brands.

Across other demographic groups, men are more likely than women to say they would consider boycotting a company labeled as “woke.” This aligns with previous Morning Consult research that found that the demographic makeup of U.S. adults who say they’ve boycotted a retailer because of its political stance skews male. 

Moving beyond the “woke” label

Ultimately, as long as the term “woke” remains polarizing, brands will need to recalibrate their risk tolerance to match the boldness of any public claims they choose to make. Bringing in the right collaborators at the right points during the creative generation process will assist with this effort. 

“To succeed in this moment of extreme political sensitivity, the model of the future is one that starts from a place of integration and then builds out — understanding that everything is political and your stakeholders now overlap,” said Ali Rubin, who worked on the Biden-Harris transition and is a co-founder and partner at a new integrated strategy firm that will launch later this summer.

“What was once purely a consumer to be marketed to is now a constituent who buys on belief, so you need to ensure that public affairs is talking to marketing and that corporate communications advice is layered with political insights and so on,” Rubin added.

Beyond eliminating internal silos to ensure better alignment on the purpose, target and acceptable risk level of a campaign, brands may also consider encouraging any ad-buying partners they use to hold media platforms accountable for hosting misinformed “anti-woke” content. 

“Buyers have the power to put some friction into the system, to make media properties change their calculations on how much they lean into brand-damaging narratives,” Carusone said. “It’s not the entire solution, but it’s a start.”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify Ali Rubin's role on the Biden-Harris transition team and remove the name given for her current firm.

A headshot photograph of Ellyn Briggs
Ellyn Briggs
Brands Analyst

Ellyn Briggs is a brands analyst on the Industry Intelligence team, where she conducts research, authors analyst notes and advises brand and marketing leaders on how to apply insights to make better business decisions. Prior to joining Morning Consult, Ellyn worked as a market researcher and brand strategist in both agency and in-house settings. She graduated from American University with a bachelor’s degree in finance. For speaking opportunities and booking requests, please email [email protected].

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