One of the hottest buzzwords of the decade is “cancel culture.” But if you think this only pertains to B-list celebs losing their followers on Twitter, think again. Brands also need to be aware of the perils of cancel culture—and consider how to market their way around it.

“Cancel culture” happens when something becomes totally ostracized, shunned, boycotted, or “canceled” by a large portion of the public—or at least its own popular, relevant circles. It is described as a “total disinvestment in something” by The New York Times. Though the phenomenon has been around since the 2010s, it really rose to popularity around 2019, following movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, and is referenced broadly as an indication that society can and will hold its members accountable. 

But companies can be canceled, too. When a business is canceled, it means that its supporters, clients, and consumers learn about principles it espouses or behaviors it’s conducted that they do not endorse, and they will retract their spending dollars from that company and its subsidiaries. According to Edelman, 64% of consumers worldwide will make decisions to buy from or boycott a brand based on its social or political views. They are especially sensitive to hypocrisy—when a socially responsible or environmentally friendly brand winds up making decisions that reflect antithetical values. Actions speak louder than words.

Of course, companies are not people; they don’t typically, as a whole, make a bad decision. Sometimes, an executive is the one who says something offensive or does something wrong. If a CEO does something bad in public, they might not personally be canceled; they might be reflecting poorly on the company, and it is up to the company to fire that person or denounce them. If they fail to act quickly enough, or respond in a way that satisfies the public, the company can still be “canceled,” even if they ultimately take a stand against the CEO. 

In other cases, it really is the company that has a bad look. They might be paying men more than women, for example, in a longstanding practice that can’t be tracked back to one specific executive, and is likely known to many internal parties. In a case like this, it’s still on the company to fix the issue, but how they respond and how quickly they act can impact their long-term survivability. If this is a graver issue, such as covered-up sexual misconduct or racial discrimination, then there might be no coming back (and certainly no way for marketing to help).

So when, and how, can marketers play a part?

  1. Understand your audience. Knowing what matters to them, what global issues are important, and what their expectations are of your brand, all matter. This will help you speak with them and assure them that you are continuing to uphold their ideals.
  2. Practice transparency. Be clear with your supporters and shoppers about who’s part of your company, what its values are, and what your vision is. Be genuine and connect. You will be able to fall back on this and stand by it in the future.
  3. Create a posting plan. Before you post to social media, or website, make sure there is a consistent review process. Have multiple eyes on posts. Develop a QA checklist. Even silly typos can be misconstrued, so why risk it? Remember, once it goes live, no matter how fast you delete it, it is on the Internet forever—so make sure your intentions are clear and accurately presented.
  4. Be clear about your mission, vision, and values. Don’t say what you think people want to hear, which will set you up for those accusations of hypocrisy. In fact, for values, it helps to not only say what these are, but describe what you actually do to stand behind them—or pledge to do in the future. To develop a strong set of mission, vision, and values that accurately captures your brand today, feel free to contact us.
  5. Firm up crisis communications plans. Just in case anything happens—and it might, because at the end of the day, businesses are made up of humans, and humans make mistakes sometimes—that doesn’t mean you’re going to get canceled. It just means you should know how to respond promptly and in a way that resonates, so that the issue doesn’t escalate. A solid crisis comms plan can go a long way. Develop some strategies to address some phantom scenarios so that you know what you’d want to say or post, what steps you’d take, timelines, and so forth. This will allow you to move quickly—and speed is often essential in addressing mistakes before they become issues.

The big takeaway is that your company should be aware of the existence of cancel culture and its potential ramifications. Having plans in place to deal with various contingencies is never a bad idea. Preparedness is key. But ultimately, proceeding in a genuine and respectful way means that your brand should not have to worry about cancel culture.