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Should Brands Fear Bold Choices in the Era of Cancel Culture?

4 Mins read

Cancel culture has created a climate of fear for many business leaders. But could the conditions that create it also offer unprecedented opportunities?

The period from 2019-2021 is often considered the height of cancel culture. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo converged, the pandemic hit, we all became terminally online, and public pile-ons slammed brands from CrossFit to the Pearl Milling Company. At the time, Pearl Milling was Aunt Jemima. Until that is, either a woke mob or a group of concerned anti-racist Americans (depending on your point of view) attacked the brand online for their name and depiction of a “Mammy” style “Aunt Jemima” on their logo. This was an era of pretty clear-cut cancellations. Mr. Ben and Aunt Jemima did belong to another time. Once they were gone, it was easy to assume things would simmer down.

In reality, however, that was just the beginning.

Let’s take a look at how the positives and negatives of customer engagement and the potential for cancellation weigh up and whether you need to be afraid of making bold brand choices in 2023.

What Cancel Culture Looks Like Today

Arguably, in the last few years, cancel culture has become an embedded part of how the public interacts with brands. That’s borne out in statistics:

  • A Pew Research study conducted in 2022 found that 61% of Americans had heard either a great deal or a fair amount about the phenomenon of cancel culture.
  • 72% of respondents to a 2021 Porter Novelli study said they felt empowered by social media to share their thoughts and feelings with the brands they use.
  • 51% of US adults feel calling brands out holds them accountable, while 45% believe it punishes them.

A high-risk, high-reward environment has been created by the confluence of new methods of communication, crowded markets for many brands, and the emergence of public shaming on a global scale. With the rise and rise of social media, we’re no longer having a one-way conversation with our audiences; they can and will answer back.

The most recent big example of an attempt at social media marketing gone wrong is Bud Light’s brief partnership with trans-TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney. But while the huge backlash and boycott that came from the brief campaign may seem like a warning to other brands, we can actually learn a lot from Budweiser’s bellyflop.

Avoiding Disasters and Fixing Mistakes in the Era of Cancel Culture

The truth is bold brand choices aren’t usually a problem. In fact, they can be a great way to get attention and connect with your core users. But making the wrong bold choices and failing to do the right thing once a mistake has been made can result in genuine disasters like Anheuser-Busch’s 26% drop in US sales. So, let’s take a look at how to make brave, interesting choices without being canceled and what to do if you make a branding misstep.

How To Avoid a Public Pile On:

Be self-aware: The most important quality for a brand in 2023 is self-awareness. This means knowing what your brand stands for, what your voice is, and ultimately what you can and can’t “get away with.” Brands with irreverent voices get away with more online, while trusted and traditional brands may have more success finding other ways to be bold.

Know your demographic: If you know who your audience is, you can work out how best to approach them. For example, left-leaning, younger audiences are more likely to perceive cancel culture as accountability, while blue-collar Americans over 50 see cancel culture as a way to punish bad behavior rather than correct it. The reality is, no matter who cancels you, there may be anger and malice involved. Simply knowing your audience doesn’t mean you won’t get canceled, but knowing what makes them angry could.

Don’t sacrifice old for new: In 2023, you have to consider what may upset your core audience before building a new one. Sending personalized cans of beer to TikTokers is a great example of this. Bud Light was trying to expand its audience, but the brand didn’t think before it jumped.

Build your online presence: Brands that have a strong identity and social media presence can get away with more, so invest in customer engagement practices. OREO launched an LGBTQ+-focused rainbow cookies campaign online last year, which was received despite some conservative backlash because they’ve been killing the irreverent, witty social media game since Facebook reigned supreme.

Of course, even if you’re careful, know your audience well, and have a strong brand voice, mistakes happen. Often brands can live or die by what they do after a public attack. Here are a few ways to turn a disaster into a distant memory or even, in some cases, good publicity.

What to Do When Your Brand has Been Publicly Shamed

Apologize: Authenticity is key here. Emphasize this process and show growth. Transparency and humility are the values to display here. Don’t be defensive!

Emphasize authenticity by bringing new faces on board: Affiliation with the right celebrity, activist, or political figure can regain customer trust from a specific demographic.

Put your money where your mouth is: Just like in any relationship, showing you’ve changed is better than saying you’ve changed. Often, this means donating money. Adidas’ public donation to the Anti-Defamation League after their unfortunate partnership with Kanye is a great example.

Final Thoughts

Some brands have become timid in the last few years, but it’s important to remember that bold doesn’t mean offensive. In fact, it shouldn’t, and it never has!

While there are some branding and marketing decisions that could be offensive to all, you should be considering how your specific audience will feel about a campaign, rebrand, or Tweet.

Maybe the world seems like a scary place, but not much has changed. The simple fact is we can now communicate faster, better, and more authentically with our target audiences. Truly great brands should see that as a net positive. It’s a chance to make bold decisions that work.

Grant Polachek is the head of branding for Squadhelp, a three-time Inc. 5000 startup and disruptive naming agency.

Cancel culture stock image by Lightspring/Shutterstock

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