The culture wars have become a minefield for marketers and researchers - reporting from the front line, Ellie Wroe Wright of STRAT7 Jigsaw finds young people in the UK are far from being a homogeneous group when it comes to the term ‘woke’.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a topsy-turvy time with the term ‘woke’. On paper, I fit the profile of a woke person; London-based, university-educated, mid-twenties and female. And, for the record, I do consider myself woke.

But compared to a year ago, I feel much less certain, and much more uncomfortable with labelling myself as ’woke’. I see how the term has been weaponised, lampooned, stretched to new meanings, or simply misinterpreted altogether – on the world’s political stages, in the press and social media, or just down the pub. Consequently, my friends and I have become increasingly reluctant to engage in certain conversations about race, gender, or sexuality, all to avoid the new stigma attached to being ‘woke’, or to avoid conflict or uncomfortable conversations.

As a researcher working with brands, I also noticed something similar in study participants, so I decided to probe deeper into this unique anxiety, with a focus on younger people for whom the term is most often associated. One of my concerns was that many brands may have been labouring under a false narrative about the politics of youth. Indeed, I think many need to think more carefully before engaging with performative wokeness and pay attention to what their audiences really care about.

To that end, my team and I aimed to uncover two key insights: Do all young people – those aged 16-34 – really feel aligned with wokeness? And are they holding back their true thoughts on socially sensitive issues? Across the UK, we adopted a mixed-method approach, employing both surveys and interviews, to dig deep into these questions.

One key discovery was the ambiguity surrounding the term ‘woke’. Originally used in the context of racial injustice, the term has broadened significantly; and as it has expanded it has sometimes taken on a pejorative twist shaped by media and political narratives. Our findings certainly suggest that many young people are now confused about what ‘woke’ truly means, with some viewing it negatively due to media portrayals.

Yet the media also presents a false picture in its portrayal of young people as some kind of uniform woke army; only 40% actually consider themselves to be ‘woke’ and a third actively reject the label. Furthermore, nearly a fifth of younger people in the UK haven’t even heard of the term, and a further 41% are unsure whether it has positive or negative connotations.

This ambiguity is not something brands should overlook; a lack of clarity around wokeness carries inherent risks. When brands take a political position, without truly understanding its implications, they risk damaging their reputation across both liberal and conservative audiences. Moreover, if consumers perceive a brand’s attempts to align with wokeness as insincere or out of touch, it can lead to the brand in question appearing inauthentic and unrelatable (maybe even untrustworthy?), ultimately creating a disconnect between the brand and its customers.

Holding back on true opinions

Another significant finding was the prevalence of self-censorship among young people. Many admit to holding back their opinions on potentially divisive topics, gender being particularly contentious at this point, to avoid offending others, whether that’s family, friends, colleagues or neighbours. This trend reflects a broader societal shift towards self-censorship, a phenomenon not limited to any single political or social group.

We also discovered that nearly half (48%) of young people in the UK don’t feel able to share their true opinions about polarising topics due to concerns they’ll be judged for being either “too woke”, “not woke enough”, or just get plain “cancelled”. The bigger picture is this situation is not healthy for political discourse, particularly in a crucial election year.

Tired of walking on eggshells

In addition to this research, a complementary study from our sister agency, Researchbods, looked at the attitudes of 2,000 UK adults towards personal wellbeing, which puts the scale of the woke issue into context. The findings show that a third (35%) have stopped having political discussions with friends and family, and a quarter (27%) are limiting their social media usage.

It’s clear that many – including young people experiencing their political awakening – are not engaging in meaningful conversations organically; they’re often navigating complex social terrains that discourage open expression due to fear of backlash or a desire to protect others’ feelings.

As a researcher, this has two important outcomes. First, I believe as an industry we need to refine our methodologies to ensure that participants can express themselves freely without fear of judgement. This is crucial if we are to capture genuine insights that reflect the multifaceted views of today’s youth, otherwise, we’re doing a huge disservice to brands by inadequately reflecting the true nature of the modern political landscape and the ways in which brands might wish to engage within it.

Second, brands and researchers alike must navigate these discussions with much more nuance and understanding, accounting for the diversity of views within young demographics. We know young people are not a politically identical mass, and it’s not just our research that underlines this; figures from Gallup show a widening ideological gap is emerging between young men and women around the world, with young women becoming increasingly progressive, and young men more conservative. This too is rarely accounted for in marketing strategies, and creates yet more complexity.

Despite this muddy picture, I’m absolutely not saying brands should shy away from taking stands on social issues. Rather they should approach them authentically and with a deeper understanding of the youth audience. This will help them to better understand the risks and rewards of aligning themselves with certain issues, and hopefully create more harmony with a brand’s identity. It’s an area where nuanced customer understanding is absolutely critical.

We all need to find a way to feel comfortable discussing important issues. As researchers and marketers, we should also make it part of our job to foster environments that encourage honest and enlightening discussions based on real insight. This ensures we understand the true sentiments of young people and respond in ways that resonate genuinely and respectfully.