How Can Brands Navigate Cancel Culture?

#cancel

If you have watched Netflix in the last year, you might have noticed some characters dropping dead mid-season without any plot logic. Kevin Spacey stopped being the main character in House of Cards, and Danny Masterson’s character in The Ranch got in his motorcycle and drove off the show. The truth is they got “cancelled”. Yes, cancel culture is real.

Cancel Culture or call-out culture is a collective movement that wants to “cancel” a person, a group, or a brand because of actions, comments, or decisions they have made, by boycotting them; stopping them from getting attention, roles, etc., or in the case of a company by not buying from them anymore. So, some companies, groups, or even movements did not want to be seen hanging out with those actors. Netflix is a good example of such a company.

This is a values issue. Cancel culture is nothing new, people withdrawing support from individuals, groups, or organizations after they discover that something they do or did is contradictory to the values and promises they proclaimed, has always happened. Nonetheless, social media changed everything. Now Cancel culture is a call to action. People urge other members of their communities, and everyone they can reach through social media to “cancel” them/it as well.

So, what does this mean for brands?

It means consumers are watching. They are paying attention to the behaviour of companies, their owners, people in C-level positions, partners, political affiliations, how they spend their money, what causes they support, employment conditions, influencers promoting the brand, and much more.

Cancel culture is watching, it represents the need of individuals to consume as a way of self-expression.

Who we follow, or what we buy says a lot about ourselves, so why would we want to be associated with or support something we find objectionable? This same question is the one brands should be asking themselves. What are their values and what do they stand for? What are their actions, products, and partners saying about the brand? How can brands navigate cancel culture?

LISTEN

Just as much as brands need to know what they are saying with their actions and what the promises they have made to their consumers, it is also very important for brands to listen.

Who is “cancelling” you?

In 2019, Nike issued the advert Dream Crazy featuring former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who decided to take a knee during the pre-game national anthem protesting racial injustice in the United States.

A lot of people didn’t approve of Nike’s affiliation to Kaepernick, calling his actions disrespectful of the American flag and the American military (Donald Trump included). People took to social media to post and share videos and photos of people burning their Nike products, with the hashtag #JustBurnIt, and swearing never to buy from them again. Yet, Nike did not back down, arguing that they stood with Kaepernick and with the fight against racial violence and injustice. After the backlash, Nike’s stock value reached an all-time high, rising the company’s market value by approximately $6 billion.

Sometimes your brand might be upsetting the right people.

Your loyal consumers will reward you when you act accordingly to those shared values. So before you freak out about being “cancelled”, listen closely; maybe your brand will come out stronger from taking a stand.

[Image Credits: Nike]

TAKE ACTION

A company is made by the people who work in it. Striving for diversity and ensuring that employees and partners share your values will help you stay out of cancel waters, but it is impossible to control everything and everyone. Maintaining an open mind and a commitment to keep on learning is a great first step.

Nonetheless, someone you work with will most likely do or say something that goes against the values your brand stands for.

That is outside your control.

But what brands can control is how they react when an ambassador of the brand, be the CEO or an Influencer gets “cancelled”. In such cases, you must take action, but a significant one. During the summer of 2019, Equinox gyms and Soulcycle were “cancelled” after its owner Stephen Ross hosted a fundraiser for President Donald Trump. Hundreds of their clients cancelled their memberships and immediately went to social media to express their discontent and also to urge others to cancel their memberships as well.

Equinox then decided to issue a statement in which they distanced themselves from Ross arguing that he was nothing more than a “passive investor”. To say the least, that was an inaccurate portrayal of his role. The problem was that the public not only did not believe Equinox’s statement, but found it to be insufficient. Equinox and Soulcycle had been very vocal and supportive of LGBTQ rights, and their community determined that their alliances with the Trump administration went against these proclaimed values.

Customers expect their brands to take action, to try and fix the issue. According to a Brand2Life survey, 63% of consumers will be more likely to buy or buy again from a company that “apologized properly when it did wrong”. Equinox clients felt betrayed, they believed that the place they frequented was a like-minded place, and when it was the brand’s moment to take action, that action was not perceived as honest or significant.

Do not try to hide or diminish the critics or concerns that are getting you cancelled. Go back to your values and the drawing table, and take meaningful action.

[Image credits: Facebook Event — Gonzalo Garcia and Adam G. Bass]

Gucci, the luxury brand faced a PR/Cancel culture disaster when they released a black wool jumper during Black-history month that resembled “black-face”. As soon as the jumper hit their online store, people immediately run to social to express their discontent and rage against the brand. Gucci’s CEO Marco Bizzarri owned up to their mistake and issued a statement saying: “We made a mistake. A big one, because of cultural ignorance, but ignorance is not an excuse. And we accept responsibility for this mistake”.

Their apology was well taken by their customers, but Gucci decided to take action internally and externally by creating their new diversity initiative. They hired a head of diversity, started a fellowship programme to recruit more people of colour, hire more directors for inclusion programmes, and of course pulled the jumper off the shelves. The public reaction to these measures was positive and brought people back to social now with #forgivegucci to give Gucci a second chance. Significant actions also get the attention of existing and potential customers, and they are willing to forgive and recognize your efforts.

[Image Credits: Gucci] *The image was taken down from their webpage — This is a screenshot
TRANSPARENCY

Transparency is the value that might save your company during a crisis. It allows for the business to speak for itself without the need for intermediaries. If your brand shows its processes in an honest way then there is no need to talk about it. The brand is transparent and its customers have seen it. In fact, 46% of customers said they found authenticity and honesty very important when choosing which brand to use. When it comes to building a relationship with your consumers, transparency becomes of vital importance; brands that conduct themselves in a visible and truthful way are less likely to be “cancelled”.

Whether we agree or disagree with Cancel culture, the reality is that individuals are calling out behaviours they find objectionable. Brands should care about what their clients think. So the best advice to navigate the Cancel culture world, is to choose a set of values and stick to them. Be honest and humble about them, own up to your mistakes and keep on learning. Your brand needs to be willing to make changes as the world and your customers change.