Cancel culture has been around for decades but in the upsweep of social media, social consciousness and political correctness, it's becoming louder and more intense. How can brands continue to stand out without attracting backlash?
Despite the threat of being cancelled, cutting through and developing an emotional bond with your audience is as important as ever.
Authenticity is key. Brands should spend time finding the truth in their message that is relevant and meaningful – and should be ready to defend it if need be.
Companies need to listen to what's being said about them as well as to them.
If you're on the receiving end of backlash, seek advice and help. A third party will have a better handle on what to say and when.
In 2024, navigating the sensitivity of public opinion has become a high-stakes game. Brands must balance the need to make a stand and express their values with the risk of public backlash if they take a step wrong.
Backlash is familiar territory for US beer company Anheuser-Busch, which endorsed transgender activist, Dylan Mulvaney in a Bud Light promotion in early 2023. The strategy dramatically backfired, rousing anger from conservative supporters calling for a boycott.
More than twenty years previous, the United Colors of Benetton, once beloved for its colourful, inclusive yet provocative ads, also went a step too far. Its 2020 campaign featured death row inmates, triggering a pile-on for what the public perceived to be glamorising hard criminals.
More recently, a boycott gained steam on social media around Canadian activewear brand Lululemon for nothing related to a campaign. The company fired two employees for reporting a robbery to police, which led to accusations it had gone “woke” by tolerating thieves.
A culture gaining volume
While companies have suffered cancellation for decades, today's cancel culture has become louder, more potent and more threatening.
"These days it's media outrage tied together with social media outrage," says Dr Nicolas Richardson, a specialist in brands and advertising at UNSW. "A person on the street now has their voice amplified."
With the polarisation of our politics comes the militarisation of social activism. And contemporary society is more informed and more empowered than ever before. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue, according to a study by Edelman.
When cancel culture is good
Cancel culture can be a good thing, explains Liam Samat, Social Media and Content Manager at Resolve Content, which is owned by Media Precinct.
"A lot of brands are holding themselves accountable for being socially conscious. This forward-thinking helps prevent issues – like someone in an audience calling them out."
Companies have a duty to be good citizens, Richardson adds.
"Global brands are simply too big to govern so we require corporates to be good citizens and for governments and regulators to focus on them when needed. The more that companies are encouraged to think about how they're changing society, the better."
He offers the example of Nike, who days after Black American man George Floyd died in police custody in 2020, flipped its' 'Just Do It' campaign and urged people to 'Don't Do It' in new messaging focused on racism.
"Standing out, cutting through and developing a strong emotional bond makes for a great brand, and this is an example of this."
When cancel culture is problematic
However, missteps in messaging can lead to severe repercussions.
Take razor brand Gillette's attempt to challenge toxic masculinity through a flip of its 'A best a man can get' slogan in 2019. It turned out that heritage Gillette buyers valued national pride and family time above the Me Too movement, and the campaign resulted in a customer revolt and plummeting sales.
Another negative effect of cancel culture is companies so fearful of backlash that they become bland.
"The industry is already bemoaning the fact that clients have become more cautious, that they're prepared to do less and less, and becoming more risk averse," says Samat.
"The danger is companies become less creative and less willing to provide cultural leadership at a time when purposeful brands are more important than ever."
How to play it right
Authenticity is key; you don't want to overplay your social and environmental credentials. Today's consumers are cynical, with 56% believing too many brands use societal issues as a marketing ploy, according to Edelman.
"You can't create a brand around a false message," Richardson explains. "You need to find the truth in your brand that is important, relevant and meaningful to your audience and develop that truth into a message and a promise. That will always be the way to emotionally engage your customers."
To mitigate any cancellation risk, Samat suggests companies listen to what's being said about them as well as to them.
"It's about being proactive and forecasting when things might go wrong by using social listening tools and conducting audience insight research. You don't want to wait until things start to go wrong."
What to do when you get into hot water
The bigger the brand, the longer the cancellation will play out. How brands respond is crucial, says Lauren Gibb, Head of Content at Resolve.
"Sponsoring Mulvaney was a risky move for Anheuser-Busch. While brands take risks that don’t pay off all the time, it’s how they responded to the backlash that set their downfall in motion."
The company failed to consider how their traditional buyers would respond to the partnership, then when backlash started to come through, they were quick to say it was a mistake.
"Not only did they alienate their heritage supporters, but they alienated the Gen Z supporters they were trying to market to in the first instance.
"The major learning for brands is to not take a stance or side if you’re not ready to defend it, and always ensure that you’re thinking about your core audience when making these decisions. Be prepared for a backlash or to fight for your stance, or just don't do it to begin with."
When Nike started to receive backlash over its 'Don't Do It' slogan, it stood firm, reiterating that it would continue to stand up for the Black community and equality.
"They doubled down," Richardson says. "And it worked famously for them."
Outsource for help
When companies are feeling the weight of a pile-on, they need to respond without emotion, Samat says, which is when a third party can be useful.
"You need someone who's not as close to it to help you address what's being said, rather than you fighting to get your word out there the loudest."
Experts in crisis communication have a better read on when public sentiment is moving in a direction where it becomes the right time for a brand to comment. And they know how to do the delicate dance to stay relevant without being perceived as opportunistic.
"As soon as you've overstepped that mark, people suspect you're just pretending to care to make a dollar and wonder why they should listen," Richardson says.
"An external provider should have an objective view, their finger on the pulse within that culture or market, and the expertise to help you craft a creative message."
Where is cancel culture heading?
As society becomes increasingly polarised, cancel culture will likely become more intense, but that shouldn't stop brands from trying to stand out, experts say.
Brands should be wary of purely reacting to the whims of their customers, and a third party or agency can ensure that's the case, Samat says.
But even in the event of a cancellation, there are opportunities for brands to demonstrate adaptability, he adds.
"You can use that vulnerability to show that you acknowledge that something didn't go right, that you're listening and that you're willing to change the brand.
"It's important that you speak to your customers in a way that continues to foster that relationship so that you can start to regain their trust again."