Spark Interview: Marketing to the "Woke" Generation.

Kaitlyn WonJung Chang — COO of KTHE GMBH — discusses how she navigates the intersection of social activism and social media to find authenticity in the age of consumer skepticism.
Rachel Kador
October 7, 2019 - 8 min. read

When it comes to marketing to the younger crowd — the dreaded Millennials, the inscrutable Gen Z’ers, whatever comes after that — it seems like there are more booby traps than a tomb in Indiana Jones (will people under 30 get that reference? Is asking that question offensive to younger people?).

Kaitlyn WonJung Chang, COO at KOBZA AND THE HUNGRY EYES —KTHE GMBH, a Vienna-based creative agency, knows something about marketing to the post Gen X generations. In addition to working 10 years at Samsung, including as Managing Director at Cheil Austria & Switzerland,  Kaitlyn served as jury member at Cannes Lions 2019 for the category Innovation Lions and has won more than 50 international creative and innovation awards including Cannes, Clios, D&AD and Webby. 

This November Kaitlyn will join us at Spark to lead a session all about how to market to the “woke” generation. These are people who grew up with social media — and all the global exposure that contains — and have become some of the most impassioned social activists in decades.  

We spoke with Kaitlyn to get her top tips for marketers who may be struggling to craft messaging and develop campaigns that appeal to this new generation of consumers. 

What does Woke mean anyway?

Join Kaitlyn at #Spark19 and learn even more about how to market to the woke generation.

Q: You ask the question yourself: how can brands market to an audience with a highly-refined bullshit detector? Can you give some examples of what brands shouldn’t do? What are the most common mistakes you see when brands try to appear “woke?”

The entire Pepsi – Kendall Jenner “woke” ad that got pulled down in a matter of days is probably the best example out there of what brands should not do. Hijacking any type of social conversation for the sake of marketing just because it seems “in trend” is a surefire way to get your campaign immediately roasted all over the internet.  

Pepsi’s ad was like an endless string of facepalm moments, especially since they attempted to hijack not even one specific social movement, but “the general movement of movements” – and topped it off with a scene where offering a can of Pepsi resolves all conflict between the protesters and authorities.  

Brands joining in social conversations is great and should definitely be further encouraged. However, before you do that, make sure to do due diligence on yourself first — thoroughly test brand-conversation fit, like you’d test brand-market fit for any other campaign.

Q: What advice do you have for large companies who struggle to find a balance between remaining neutral and maintaining a broad appeal with taking a stance based on their core values? What’s the business case for a company taking a strong, potentially controversial, opinion on a social, political, or global issue? 

Last year Nike started a new campaign, “Dream Crazy,” featuring Colin Kaepernick — a former 49ers quarterback who started to kneel during the American anthem before each game to endorse the Black Lives Matter movement, who was heavily criticized by none other than President Trump himself (“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.”) and eventually lost his contract as a consequence.  

Nike’s ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick is a good example of a brand finding alignment with a relevant social issue.

Nike’s campaign proved to be extremely controversial, sparking a flurry of debate. Right-wing extremists started burning Nike shoes and posting videos of it online, calling for a boycott against Nike. However, that also resulted in much stronger fandom and love from the target group Nike wanted to speak to. As a result, Nike sales went up by 30% afterwards, and its stock prices have been on a constant rise.

Despite the fact that Nike chose to take an extremely controversial political stand, the campaign worked beautifully because Nike took their core belief — “Just do it” – and expanded it one step further to reflect the zeitgeist. The ending copy of the Kaepernick ad (“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Dream crazy. #JustDoIt.”) is a perfect example of great brand-conversation fit. 

The core brand belief – courage and belief in self – is expanded into the political conversation, which can then again be easily distilled back into the brand’s age-old slogan, Just Do It – that helps to provide a quick reason-to-believe for skeptical consumers about why the brand is starting this campaign.

Q: “Be authentic” is a common guideline for marketing to Gen Y and Gen Z. But what is authenticity in the context of advertising or marketing? Do you think those concepts are fundamentally at odds? 

The idea that all advertising is based on lies is a truly outdated, Mad Men-Era concept and should be immediately thrown into the waste bin. Advertising and marketing are fundamentally about communicating your brand, product or service so that more people will get to know about it, form a positive opinion about it, and be inclined to buy/use it in the future. 

Our society started to have the notion that all advertising is based on lies because at some point during the Mad Men Era, heavy competition within limited media soon made it not enough to just talk about product benefits — so advertisers resorted to exaggeration and gimmicks. 

Now, away from the era of one-way communication and limited media placements, this notion does not hold true anymore. Most of the social media blunders we see actually happen exactly because of this. Marketers who still believe in the age-old notion of advertising believe they can get away with trickery – however, consumers armed with Google and social media will be the first to notice when you’re lying and be unafraid to raise hell about it. 

I was judging this year at Cannes Lions and this was a topic our jury discussed multiple times in depth. We realized that at the end of the day, one of the best ways to be able to measure “authenticity” is longevity. How long has the brand been committed to this topic or issue? How much effort have they been putting into it, resource-wise? How well does it translate into their overarching core belief or values? If it’s something new, which is also totally ok – how committed does the brand seem to really take a firm stand on this topic for a longer period of time?

Brands taking a stand do build great relevance over time — but you should be prepared to be in it for the long haul. 

Q: Why do you think social media has shaped a whole generation’s approach to activism? How did social networks transform us from the “too-cool-to-care” crowd to the impassioned activists we see today among the younger generations?

If you were a teen in the 80s and 90s, your entire social life revolved around friends in your school. Maybe you had some pen-pal from Norway that you wrote paper mail to, who wrote back to you after six months since it took two months for your letter to get there and another two for the reply to reach you. For most, the entirety of “foreign culture” you were exposed to was delivered through TV and magazines, mostly detached from real life – think Hollywood star gossip articles – and needless to say, that did not help most teens around the world at all in terms of having an understanding of diversity. There was your small world, and there was the “outside world,” of which you basically knew nothing.  

If you’re a teen now, you have a lot more exposure to what life is like in any part of the world. Everyone is aware of the possibility that with just a few clicks you can watch what a high-schooler in Japan is doing today on YouTube, or browse through what an influencer from Belgium likes to wear this season on Instagram. Like it or not, social media has definitely and exponentially widened exposure to a million different lives from all over the world – resulting in a collective “better understanding,” or at least an idea thereof, of a bigger world, of diversity. Social media allows kids to see that what’s happening where they live is not the same everywhere around the world. 

More exposure to diversity in general widens peoples’ perspectives and results in a heightened awareness of social issues. However, a key facet of social media that completely boosted this tendency is the “Likes” mechanism, where you essentially get immediate validation and recognition on the same platforms that have opened our eyes to diversity. 

In the social media age where likes and followers act as a form of currency, teens have realized that posting things about social issues tends to get more likes from people – compared to when you post about what you ate today for breakfast. I believe this has acted as a core element within the virtuous cycle – you see more and more friends of yours “taking stances” on social media, and getting validation from it – which in turn also shapes and alters the opinions of many more people, and feeds back into the cycle.

Q: When it comes to ethical marketing, there are a lot of stakeholders. Brands of course need to be mindful. But the social networks themselves have a lot (maybe the most) influence. With all the bad press social media platforms have had recently — privacy and data concerns, spreading misinformation, etc. — what do you think their responsibility is in terms of setting and maintaining proper guidelines? Where is the line between being inclusive (open to all) and being socially beneficial?

As a side job I also lead a nonprofit organization for women in Vienna, where I live, which includes a Facebook group that has more than 18,000 members. The group grew purely organically within just 4 years, and we have gone through multiple debates exactly about this topic: what do you do when a political debate happens within the group and it gets so heated up that you’re getting more than 800 comments on a single thread?  

The reason why it gets so heated is probably because we have so many members who don’t all necessarily share the same political opinion. For us, we have learned over time that inclusivity only works when the platform also puts a strong focus on valuing respect.  

It’s perfectly fine to have differing opinions – actually, society would not function without it – and therefore, social media platforms are great in the sense that they provide space for discourse and discussion. However, the entire platform starts crumbling when users start to forget that they should respect others’ differing opinions. Society, whether online or offline, is a very fragile concept that can be easily eroded with hate speech or the malicious spreading of misinformation.  

We have learned over time that there actually is a reason why every society has laws – and this applies also to the online world. The internet is not a utopia that can be governed without rules, as was once dreamt of, because it also consists of humans that have different opinions and conflicting interests. Social media has enabled us to be more inclusive, which is an amazing thing, but inclusivity only works when we have respect for each other and for the system itself. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to create a structure and a belief system that clearly communicates the importance of respect as a prerequisite for inclusivity.