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What brands must do when they face being canceled

By Jennifer Risi, CEO

January 28, 2022 | 6 min read

The evolution of cancel culture is a fascinating one. The concept traces back to civil rights boycotts in the ‘50s and ‘60s, through music and film to more recent incarnations on social media. Just think of brands including Soul Cycle, which found its brand name attached to the #canceled hashtag on Twitter. So what do you do when cancelation comes for you? Sway Effect chief executive Jennifer Risi offers five pieces of guidance.

Cancel culture image

How can you avoid the dreaded ‘cancelation’ for your company?

Cancel culture seeks accountability, often in defense of marginalized groups who have long lacked the power to demand it from the social systems they are entrenched in. It’s a rallying cry to collectively boycott problematic people and ideas in the hopes of bringing about lasting change.

The last few years have given us many examples of calls for the cancelation of notorious celebrities, yet companies and brands are just as likely to be targeted. No matter if you are in favor of the need to cancel or believe that that cancel culture “leaves no space for freedom of expression,” as Pope Francis stated on January 10 (as have other public figures in the past), all brands need to be prepared to face and survive such a reckoning.

Cancel culture has become one of the most deadly trends for public relations. But there are solutions. Here are five guiding principles that can prepare a brand and protect it from obsolescence in the shifting court of public opinion.

1. Be aware and act quickly

It’s become a major part of my life’s work to help communicate the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. While we imagine and advocate a world where people don’t have to be reminded of the benefits of inviting everyone to the table, there is still a powerful inertia acting on many brands, and the marketing teams behind them. This is when social media is a real boon to revolution. It’s easier than ever for consumers to send feedback directly to a company, and for that data to be processed and reviewed. The onus is then on decision makers to be paying attention.

Brand identities steeped in tradition are often tethered to the darker chapters of their history as much as they are supported by them. Consider the example of Aunt Jemima’s breakfast foods. Last year, Quaker revamped the Aunt Jemima brand and logo, built on a racial stereotype of submission and servitude, and the Pearl Milling Company was born.

Cancel culture, particularly through social media, provides all the consumer research any company could ask for, often delivered directly via corporate social media accounts. When Quaker took the time to listen and understand, they were able to respond by creating a brand that has seen a rise in sales by roughly 20% since the update.

2. Be diligent about your messaging

When it comes to both cancel culture and brand identity, the message is the heart of the matter. Doing appropriate consumer research, being aware of your audience and anticipating their needs and best interests are ways to help guide the message your brand is transmitting. The more care put into the market research and messaging, the more in touch the brand has the possibility of becoming.

3. Be authentic... for real

What does it mean for a brand to be authentic? It means not just that the brand is true to itself, but also guided by mindful and responsible motivation. Most of all, as consumers find ways to increase the transparency of the products they support, it means ‘walking the walk.’ A brand that contradicts the message it has put out to represent itself risks losing its credibility. The more consumers trust a brand’s integrity, the more loyal they will be to that brand.

4. Don’t forget about your teams and executives

In a world driven by news, content and social media, the words and opinions of employees, and most especially company leadership, is more visible and accessible than ever before. And with this newfound surge for consumers to cancel, brands are now being held accountable for both their brand voice and those of their employees. The reality is no amount of media training will hide the fact that an executive is not aligned to your brand values or those of your ever-evolving consumers.

In a now infamous Vogue article, Victoria’s Secret chief marketing officer Ed Razek insisted the brand should not feature transgender and plus-size consumers. Naturally, a public backlash followed, with consumers expressing their disdain for the brand’s hypersexuality and exclusive use of thin models. Not only was the brand’s leadership not tapped into the current consumer emphasis on body positivity, but they also publicly rejected it. The comments were the linchpin for Victoria’s Secret to evolve their marketing efforts to be more inclusive, and update their board of directors and C-suite executives to include more women.

5. Respond, don’t retreat

The landscape around cancel culture has become highly politicized. Brands that once tried to remain neutral now find that silence can be read as complicit support of the inequalities of the status quo. A major brand has great reach and must decide how best to use it. Consumers are informed, and that information translates to power. To ensure their support for a brand, or a rebrand, the key is outreach, honesty and transparency. The worst thing to do, especially when in hot water, is nothing. In fact, in a January 2022 study, Forrester found that 41% of consumers would return to a brand that makes an apology and concedes it was wrong.

Whether the intensity of cancel culture will continue in 2022 or not, it is imperative that brands take stock of who they are and how they should evolve to better reflect their consumers and their values. One thing will always remain – evolving and remaining true to your consumers can never get you #canceled.

Jennifer Risi is chief executive of The Sway Effect.

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