June 7, 2021 - 10:09am

When Chancellor Rishi Sunak was pictured in February 2020 making Yorkshire tea for his staff, it triggered such a backlash on Yorkshire Tea that the brand’s response to one angry tweeter went viral. ““You’re shouting at tea” prompted a wave of clickfarm articles and print-on-demand mugs, and ‘shouting at tea’ a byword for the kind of unhinged social media rage that gets directed at entities which aren’t even people. But Yorkshire Teagate signalled a tipping-point in the politicisation of corporate communications.

Whether it’s Oatly using ‘sustainability’ to promote its blend of oats, maltose, industrial seed oil and phosphate additives as an ethical alternative to milk, or Amazon banning books and deplatforming undesirables from its hosting services, an overtly political stance seems increasingly standard for corporate ‘personalities’. So it should come as no surprise to see corporates joining the meta-argument as well, about what constitutes political authenticity and what’s just ‘virtue signalling’.

Recently, outdoor clothing brand The North Face refused to fulfil an order by Innovex Downhole Solutions, an oil and gas services company, for custom branded North Face jackets because of their industry sector. In response, the CEO of Liberty Energy, an oilfield services company, took to social media to thank The North Face for being such a good customer of the oil and gas industry.

Nylon, polyester and other such artificial materials typically used to create leisurewear all take oil and gas derivatives are all petroleum-based. So even as The North Face was refusing to sell its jackets to an oil and gas company, it was using petroleum-based fabrics to make every single one of those jackets.

In practice, this spat has much in common with the manufactured banter you see on Twitter between aligned ‘brands’, just with the culture-war edge that’s become a feature of all online discourse in recent years. It might be tempting to dismiss it as just another PR stunt. But it points to a trend I see on the horizon: polarisation in how corporates take sides in the culture war, based on business type.

So far, corporate moral signalling has tended to be woke. But there’s no reason this should necessarily be so, if being ‘anti-woke’ would enable a business to signal more effectively to its customer base. The Hillbilly Elegy writer and would-be Ohio Senator JD Vance touched on this recently, in his manifesto on how American conservatives can take the fight to ‘woke capital’.

Vance points out that it’s international finance, tech, and globalised firms with outsourced manufacturing and international finance backing that tend to be most vociferously woke, and argues that conservatives should use policy levers to disincentivise this.

Between the lines of his argument lies a key insight: as it’s propagated by corporates, woke is a de-materialised, placeless worldview, committed to breaking down anything local, tangible, rooted and specific. As such it’s inimical to the interests of ‘the little people’ but also to a swathe of businesses.

This latter set of businesses — those tied to a place or selling to place-loyal people — may decide it’s in their interests to join the culture war on the side of the opposition. Liberty Energy vs North Face looks to me like the first PR skirmish of a new front in the culture war.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.