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Being cancelled – what it means and what to do next

What do Goya and L’Oreal Paris have in common with JK Rowling and Bryan Adams?

They were all ‘cancelled’ on social media last year.

In the past, people responded to brands doing or saying something they found objectionable or offensive by boycotting the companies’ goods or services. In 2016, cancelling began to appear on social media, starting the trend for what the New York Times called “cultural boycotts” rather than financial ones. But the aim remains the same: getting the brand to change its behavior.

Speaking at The Drum’s Predictions 2021 online festival, Whitney Dailey, senior vice-president, of marketing, research and insights at global communications agency Porter Novelli, described cancel culture as “a way for individuals to hold companies accountable in a way they previously weren’t able to do”.

New research in the US by Porter Novelli shows this key aspect of cancel culture. Two-thirds of the people surveyed feel that social media has given them a voice to influence companies, and almost three-quarters feel more empowered to voice their opinions about companies.

Improvement, not obsolescence

In fact, the research shows that cancelling a brand is overwhelmingly seen as constructive criticism. The top three reasons why respondents would cancel a company are to persuade it to change its ways (chosen by 38%), to persuade it to change a political involvement (27%), and to persuade it to fire the individual(s) responsible for an offensive statement (26%). Trying to get a company to simply go away was given as a reason by only 14% of those surveyed. Or as Dailey put it: “This is not about obsolescence, it’s about improvement.”

This is backed up by the finding that only a minority see cancellation as the final word. Just a quarter of the sample said they would never support a brand again once they’d cancelled it. But what also came through clearly was that different levels of grievance lead to different lengths of cancellation, as do different ways of dealing with the incident that caused the cancellation in the first place.

Two ways to handle cancellation

Dailey illustrated this point with two contrasting case studies analyzed by Porter Novelli, one involved Goya Foods, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the US, the other L’Oreal Paris, part of French cosmetics giant L’Oreal.

In July 2020, Goya president Robert Unanue praised Donald Trump and his leadership at a White House event. Cancellers, including politicians and celebrities, cited President Trump’s previous campaign trail comments about Mexican immigrants and his anti-immigration policies, and called for a boycott of Goya. This in turn spurred a counter-boycott – a so-called ‘buy-cott’.

According to Dailey, social conversation around Goya prior to the incident was limited, but sentiment was generally positive. Unanue’s comments sparked a massive spike in brand mentions and although this quickly fell away, social sentiment around Goya has remained mostly negative since.

Earlier, in June, following the murder of George Floyd, L’Oreal Paris came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The brand was immediately accused of hypocrisy by model and activist Monroe Bergdorf, who had been sacked by L’Oreal following her comments about racist violence in Charlottesville in 2017.

In this case too, social conversation around L’Oreal spiked after Bergdorf’s call out and sentiment plummeted into the negative. But this time both rapidly returned to normal.

The difference is that L’Oreal issued a public apology, rehired Bergdorf and asked her to sit on the brand’s newly-formed UK diversity and inclusion board, whereas Goya decided to back Unanue’s statement and ride out the storm.

Apologies and after

Dailey’s research emphasizes this crucial distinction.

“If your company finds itself in a cancellation conversation, we found a number of immediate actions a brand can take to mitigate the situation. Most individuals cited a public statement of apology as a good first step – that or clarifying the situation, pulling back the curtain to share a bit more about why your company took that specific action or made that statement.

“But also important is subsequent action. This is often the hardest part for brands, because it must be sustained and individuals will be looking to see the progress that you’ve made.”

The research also found a third of individuals believe that to get beyond the cancellation, a company must fire the person responsible for the offensive statement or policy. As Dailey says, this is a big warning to executives to be careful what they say and do, both inside and outside the office.

The other lesson from Porter Novelli research is that no brand is immune to cancellation. Two-thirds of survey respondents said they would cancel a brand even if they loved its products or services.

Debate continues to swirl around the rights and wrongs of cancel culture, but cancelling itself shows no signs of going away. It has become something brands need to be aware of and prepare for. Whichever brand is the first to be cancelled in 2021, you can be sure it won’t be the last.

Watch Whitney Dailey’s full presentation of the Porter Novelli research at The Drum’s Predictions 2021 festival above.

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