Are we an island, HSBC?

Matt Gillow

June 12, 2020

There is nothing wrong with brands and businesses making statements on social issues – from PG Tips to HSBC. Nothing. The era of the “woke brand” is harmless – and the backlash against it is almost entirely from frothing-at-the-mouth types who will tell you that it’s “free speech gone mad.” In practice, these types just feel uncomfortable with some of their views being challenged when they open their fridge or pop to the shops.

A few years ago, I wrote for the Huffington Post on the dawn of the era of the woke brand. “To an extent, brand identity has always taken something of a political slant, but today, more than ever, the campaigning corporation is coming into its own. In many ways, with some companies wielding such major market power, consumers almost expect them to take political positions.” I believe that, far from being some oppressive element of “groupthink”, the woke brand is simply the free market in action. 

Big brands rarely, if ever, adopt these positions independently. They are a response to social movements, either internally or externally. It is pressure from staff or consumers that shape these stances and nudge businesses towards a more sustainable product or a more diverse workforce. I find it funny when people take such offence to so-called “big brands telling them what to do,” because at the end of the day (in most cases) they can vote with their wallets.

In that article, I highlighted a few significant examples. Most notably, Nike’s “stand for something” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, Gillette’s stand against toxic masculinity, HSBC’s revolt against the little England mentality, and even the Greggs vegan sausage roll have all received massive responses from the public.” 

I’m writing this because, in the past few weeks, there has been a flare-up of businesses making statements on political and social phenomena. From the Black Lives Matter protests to China’s national security law in Hong Kong. I have come to the realisation that when the woke brand’s wokeness is full of mere rhetoric rather than action, there is often not enough public consciousness or energy to really hold them to account.

It is one thing for brands to take a stand on social issues that resonate with their consumer base, putting the strength of their platform behind those causes that matter to them. It is another battle altogether to ensure that those businesses follow through on their grand declarations. After being so inspired by HSBC’s “we are not an island” campaign –  which celebrated the international influence on the UK, and suggested that an internationalist Britain could be a force for good in the world – the bank has now shown itself to be full of empty promises. 

HSBC has supported China’s passing of the national security law. Giving the Chinese Communist Party sweeping powers over Hong Kong and ending any hopes of increased state autonomy. Senior figures in Washington, London and Hong Kong have clashed over HSBC’s decision to support the law, referring to it as the death knell for Hong Kong’s freedoms. 

So, are we an island after all, HSBC? It’s all well and good brands having a social conscience, but we must hold those brands to the standards they set for themselves and take action when they fail to live up to their rhetorics.

If HSBC wishes to make statements on the good that the UK can do as part of the international community, it should also support the values that come with that, such as freedom and democracy. Those who bank with HSBC, myself included, should express their discontent with words,actions, and the most significant of all: our wallets.

The same can go for companies switching their social media banners to the LGBT+ rainbow during pride month. Visibility is laudable and needed, and using platforms to show solidarity is important – but we should push companies to practice what they preach when it comes to diversity and representation. 

I am still here for the era of the woke brand. It is harmless and a great advert for the free market. Demonstrating that consumer choice and behaviour can affect big business. Nonetheless, we must hold brands to the standards they set for themselves, or we’ll simply allow choice words to act as cheap advertising.


  • Matt Gillow

    Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.

Written by Matt Gillow

Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.


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