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CMOs - if you want to cancel 'cancel culture', it's time to embrace vulnerability

'No one was surprised there wasn’t a single woman on Burger King’s International Women's Day ad this year'

With the threat of being 'cancelled' by the Twitterati getting increasingly high on the growing list of challenges marketers need to navigate, award-winning creative consultant Mordecai (formerly head of innovation at Innocean) explores how the only way to overcome scrunity around your brand values is to allow vulnerability to become one of them.

The average life coach, personal trainer, or therapist will tell you, 'don’t run from fear, face it.' Yet we stand at a time when many senior executives are all too ready to shut down at the first sign of trouble.

Brands and their leaders are nervous. Agencies are on edge. PR and communications teams are adding hours. It’s less about pandemic uncertainty, though, and more about 'cancel culture'.

In our personal lives we call it 'tough love'. It’s where a friend or family member (replace with creative team, chief marketing officer, chief executive officer, product leader for our purposes) calls another out for doing something they think is wrong, offensive, or very bad timing. If you’re in the long game, tough love is a part of your growth.

Social media is a brand’s equivalent of tough love, except instead of a no-nonsense nan doling out advice privately, it’s a savvy, politically wise, activist, Generation Z just waiting to pounce in public. Cancel culture is tough love magnified, and the only way to negotiate it is to allow vulnerability to be a core value of your brand.

The C-Suite must embrace vulnerability as they emerge from the shadows and become more responsible for how their brand is positioned in the marketplace. And that brand needs to be more human.

When your tough love nan brings out the fancy biscuits with the tea, you know you’re about to hear it. We know how to grow from this. First, you listen to it, then you look at the problem within yourself, and amend your behavior. The only requirement is vulnerability.

It’s simple. Brands must express their vulnerability across campaigns, products, and their internal organizations by demonstrating accountability, understanding and evolution. This in itself creates a brand ecosystem immune to being 'cancelled'.

We see this strategy winning for brands like Peloton. A Covid business success story, Peloton recently initiated a campaign blitz in which its execs shared honestly and directly that they were aware of delivery issues and they were working on it. Its staff outlined what efforts they had made in the supply chain to remedy this, and in simple terms highlighted it as a work in progress.

Since the brand embarrassed itself with a famously sexist and out-of-touch holiday advert two years ago, Peloton has become a platform where instructors have the freedom to celebrate their diversity and educate their followers.

When instructor Tunde Oyeneyin recently shaved her head, she showed the world that Peloton was not a place that put its brand expectations and aesthetics before their employees. The company gave her, again, a place to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability requires:

  • Admitting failures – acknowledging a wrong and being clear the wrong is seen.

  • Openness to learning – education is how we all grow.

  • Transparency in decisions – end the hiding, and share the process. The process is just as important as the result.

  • Responsibility for impact – acknowledge your role as leader, and brand as culture.

Vulnerability must be practiced inside to out.

My advice to marketers? Before the cancel culture vultures swarm, clean your house. Don’t just sell brand values, exemplify them. True vulnerability is best enacted through diverse teams, empathetic leadership, and inclusive workspaces. No one was surprised there wasn’t a single woman on Burger King’s International Women's Day ad this year, which claimed 'Women belong is in the kitchen'.

Marketing is the business of cultivating brand love. It’s a love that requires trust, appreciation, and service. If we were to compare it to romantic love, it’s understanding that we love the person as we fall for the flaws.

Making vulnerability a brand value, makes cancel culture survivable. Try it.