Post-woke: Corporate America has reduced woke communications since 2020
Adam William Chalmers and Robyn Klingler-Vidra introduce new research charting the decline of Corporate America's wokeism since 2020.
Many corporations have been keen to identify with "woke" culture. The term "woke capitalism" was even coined to describe the way that companies align themselves with social justice movements and activist causes.
Beyond boardrooms, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron de Santis, the ‘anti-woke’ Republican candidates, soared in popularity in 2023. But, they have both now bowed out of the presidential race.
The woke culture war has also been in the spotlight in the antisemitism on campus testimonies, and their aftermath, last fall. Claudine Gay, who for many came to symbolize woke efforts, resigned from her role as president of Harvard at the start of 2024.
The contrasting trajectories beg the question: have we already seen peak woke? Is woke on the ascent, or at least, impervious to a backlash? Or, is corporate wokeness on the decline, or even, facing a death knell?
Business has been distancing itself from woke communications
To understand if big business is moving away from woke, we analysed 725 corporate social responsibility (CSR) communications, which articulate companies' policies on ethics and areas such as social justice. These were written by 65 of America’s wealthiest and “most admired” companies over a span of 20 years (from 1997 to 2021).
We focus on the use of “woke language” in these communications, which refers to a corporate ethos that engages with societal issues -- well beyond profit generation. This includes language in which companies assert their role in addressing concerns such as climate change, racial inequality, and social justice.
The rise and decline of woke?
Driving the early-2000s surge was a select group of prominent companies including Comcast, a telecommunications conglomerate, Intel, one of the world's largest semiconductor chip manufacturers, Coca-Cola, the soft drink giant, and Disney, a mass media and entertainment conglomerate. America, for its part, has been leading the global charge in wokeness, consistently ahead of companies from other parts of the world.
In the first five years of our study, “civil rights movement” was how American companies referred to the issues.
In the 2015-2021 period, which is defined by woke-isms that dominated headlines around the antisemitism hearings, in the diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) umbrella. Key terms in these years were “allyship”, “diversity equity”, “equity and inclusion”, and “racial justice.”
But, levels of corporate American "wokeness" peaked in 2020. Since then, they have been on the decline, as illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The Rise and Decline of “Wokeness” in Corporate America (1997 to 2021).
The themes at the centre of companies’ woke communications, as illustrated in Figure 2, has also changed over time. For the first five years of our study, “civil rights movement” was the defining term for American companies. The figure shows likelihood ratios for woke language used by companies in each period, with darker colours indicating higher likelihood ratios. We can therefore see that companies are 1.2 times more likely to use “civil rights movement” in this early period compared to all others. Interestingly, we not only see that the language of woke changes with each period, but that it has become more varied. This is most conspicuous in the most recent period (2015-2021) which is uniquely defined by woke-isms like “allyship”, “diversity equity”, “equity and inclusion”, “racial justice” and “stakeholder capitalism”.
Figure 2. Evolution of the Language of Wokeness for American Companies
It is, however, misleading to paint all American companies with the same trends. Figure 3 shows just how much American companies have changed over time in terms of their relative focus on woke in their CSR communications
Figure 3. Change in Corporate Wokeness (1997-2021)
Oracle, the computer technology company, had the overall largest increase in its use of woke language in its CSR communications over time, seeing its wokeness scores increase by over a factor of 2. Equally, we see large increases for the likes of Bristol-Myers Squibb, Intel, Target, and Mondelez, which together round out the top five. At the same time, a growing number of companies appear to be reversing course when it comes to how much wokeness is included in their communications. This includes trends of de-wokeification for major companies like Charter Communications, AT&T, Lockheed Martin, PepsiCo, Amazon, and Cisco, amongst others.
Woke around the world
Going woke —- and then backtracking -- is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Companies headquartered in economies like Brazil and the UK are also receding in terms of their wokeness. And, we observe a complete reversal in corporate wokeness in companies headquartered in Chile, China, Finland, France, New Zealand, and Taiwan.
By contrast, companies in Canada and Mexico are seeing large surges, as wokeism is accelerating. This is also still the case for many companies operating in Europe and East Asia, as shown in Figure 4 below.
Figure 4. Change in Corporate Wokeness (1997-2021) at the Country Level
Fear of becoming Woke Disney
Since 2020, woke language has featured less in US-headquartered firms’ CSR communications. As South Park called it, companies now fear the risk of being "[woke Disney]."
No longer poised to comment on every social issue, American enterprises could be reverting to an interpretation of wokeism centred on the responsibility of executives to address and mitigate the unintended consequences of their actions —- rather than to take positions on wider societal debates. They may be making a concerted effort to speak less, but more authentically.
Such a change would be welcome beyond corporate America. The gap between moral grandstanding and business-as-usual [made headlines] that prompted eye-rolls around the world just days before COP28 in Dubai. Documents revealed that the UAE government planned to use the moral high ground of hosting the climate change conference to strike oil deals.
The decline of Corporate America's wokeism since 2020--we hope--may mean less disingenuous posturing and more doing.
Adam William Chalmers, University of Edinburgh. Robyn Klingler-Vidra, King’s College London.
Photo by Erik Mclean
 Companies are selected based on market capitalization and the results of two major reputational surveys: the Dow Jones S&P Sustainability Index and Fortune’s Global Most Admired Companies.