Cancel Culture Is Real — Here’s What Brands Need to Know About It
Cancel culture is a thing on the Internet, but is it a real worry for brands? Can they really be impacted by social media hysteria? Yes and no. The answers come from Emma Monks, VP of crisis intelligence at online crisis monitoring firm Crisp.
Monks gets into what cancel culture is, what marketers should know about it, and what marketers can do about it.
This is different from the call for brands to take a stand or from pure-play crisis communications, in that cancel culture is more ephemeral. Brands should continue to be proactive about taking stands, if those match their values. Brands should also continue to have crisis communications plans in place.
Cancel culture is a whole other beast. Here’s what Monks says about this phenomenon:
Target Marketing: The concept of “cancel culture” is a hot topic right now. What is cancel culture and why should brands care?
Emma Monks: The term “Cancel Culture” describes a mass online public reaction to perceived wrongs done by an individual or entity by withdrawing support or consumer patronage. A recent example would be the call to boycott companies invested in by billionaire Stephen Ross, in retaliation for his decision to hold a multimillion-dollar fundraiser for [President] Donald Trump in The Hamptons. These micro-revolutions of “cancelling” are a topic that brands need to be sensitive to, but also have some perspective on, in order to avoid damaging knee-jerk reactions. Because the key here is whether the people boycotting are likely to be the brand’s customer base. If they are, there is a big potential for damage to brand sales and value. But if they’re not, a panicked brand reaction may do more harm than good.
TM: After experiencing a crisis, what steps should brands take when responding to avoid being cancelled by consumers?
EM: One important point here is that the brand may not actually be in a crisis when a call to cancel arises. In the Stephen Ross example, Equinox Fitness was boycotted via association with Ross, rather than because of anything it had done directly. And that call came at them from left-field. Disinformation about a brand can also spring from nowhere and be the catalyst for boycotting.
Pragmatically, it is near-on impossible to completely avoid causing offense to someone, somewhere in an online world that often appears to delight in seeking out something to be offended by. So it’s vital for a brand to have a plan for what it will do when, one day, the inevitable happens. When trouble strikes, having the right information at a brand's fingertips fast is pivotal to good decision-making. Part of that plan should include 24/7 monitoring of the changing tides of sentiment and commentary about the company and its associated high-profile individuals on social so that the brand can be the first to know and the first to act on the signals of an impending crisis. If the brand does become embroiled, fast and authentic responses can ward off a serious boycott attempt.
TM: If a brand is already considered to be “canceled” by consumers, how can the company fix its relationship with consumers and gain back trust?
EM: The first question for a brand to ask itself is whether it has actually been cancelled by its customers — has the online furor resulted in hard loss of sales or a fall in market value? A growing number of people online like to engage in values signaling and are quick to jump on a boycott bandwagon they feel reflects the values they want to project for themselves. That may not necessarily mean they ever were, or ever intended to be, a customer of the brand they are “cancelling.”
Therefore, a brand’s reaction to a boycott call should be guided by hard data and a deep understanding of who its customers are and where they are. For instance, if you are a luxury fashion brand who gets cancelled in China, the situation is serious, since the Chinese account for over a third of all luxury goods sales worldwide. In that case, a tide of negative chatter on Weibo, a popular platform for Chinese luxury fashion customers, is a strong signal of a looming crisis. Fixing customer relationships following a boycott may involve swallowing some corporate pride. If the brand is at fault, then accepting responsibility and issuing an empathetic human apology can start to build bridges. An apology needs to be followed with transparency about the steps the brand is taking to put the issue right and by really listening and responding to its customers’ concerns.
TM: How can brands mitigate online risks and monitor for harmful content on social media that may lead to their brand being canceled?
EM: Solid brand safety starts with knowing, as far as is possible, what could threaten the company’s sales, value, or reputation and taking proactive steps to avoid or mitigate those issues. It’s important for brands to engage in forecasting worst-case scenarios, based on their own, or their competitors’, prior experiences, as well as how wider social-political issues could impact them. These worse-case scenarios can inform crisis planning. The next step is having defined escalation workflows in place that detail which stakeholders need to be first to know about specific issues, should they arise. Generally, they are stakeholders who are also equipped to be the first to act on them. Then, the brand needs robust 24/7/365 monitoring of as many relevant sources of information from social media and the Wider Web as possible. This is where a partnership between AI and human is crucial — the machine element gathering and prioritizing data in seconds, whilst humans apply the context and nuance to ensure that only real and actionable issues, rather than false alarms, get raised to those responsible for action.
What do you think, marketers?
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