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The effect of cancel culture on brands

Social rejection has existed right through our evolution. It was a way to control members of a tribe or society and helped to keep order in the endeavour towards a common goal – i.e. survival.

The need to belong and feel accepted is so strong in humans that social rejection or ostracism goes against the very grain of our being. It’s no wonder that it has always been such a powerful tool. People living on the fringes who feel rejected from mainstream society have often suffered a fate worse than death in their disconnection.

With social media’s rise, our social interaction has gone online. But even on social media, rejection is still a powerful way of showing disapproval. In fact, it’s so frequently used online, it has even earned a name for itself – cancel culture.

So, what exactly is cancel culture?

Cancelling involves rejecting or cancelling a person/brand/entity either on social media or in the real world. Twitter, especially, is infamous for cancel culture. Hashtags such as #CancelX and, #Xthepartyisover are common.

The original objective of cancel culture may have been an endeavour for justice, as well as the accountability of persons/brands/entities and what they stood for. However, the consumer voice now seems to have devolved into armchair activism (slacktivism), where consumers with a mob mentality mete out quick, and harsh judgements – sometimes even bordering on hate.

Navigating the minefield of social media and cancel culture

Companies have the tricky task of relentlessly keeping their brand reputations impeccable while retaining and engaging their consumer base under the unforgiving all-seeing eye of social media. But although this seems like a horribly impossible task, there are exits to navigate  the complex world of social media.

1.     Be prepared

If you’re on social media, it’s highly probable you’re going to tick someone off at some point. When American quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem before an NFL game (protesting police brutality) he faced fire for allegedly disrespecting the national flag. Flack came from all sides (including President Trump).

Despite this, Nike decided to make Kaepernick the face of their TV and print ad campaign with the slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just Do It”.

Some decided to boycott Nike and destroy their products on social media. But consumer efforts to cancel the brand clearly failed, because Nike added $6 billion to its market value.

Using Kaepernick and his ideology to reinforce what the brand stood for, despite the politics and the risk, was a winning move by Nike.

So, knowing what your brand stands for and always planning your communication very carefully are the keys to being prepared.

2.     Listen to your consumer

Listening to your consumer and trying to solve their issues is crucial. Social media makes it easier for your consumer to reach you and vice versa. For example, Starbucks has good customer service on social media. Despite its Twitter account having a whopping 11 million followers, it quickly responds to questions, comments, and complaints from consumers.

It also encourages its patrons to give ideas for improvement. This shows openness to listening and solving problems, leaving customers with a warm fuzzy feeling about the brand. Clearly, Starbucks has got its act right.

Hence, by addressing concerns early on, monitoring sentiment towards your brand, and communicating with your consumers on social media, you can handle small issues before they turn into crises.

3.     Determine the seriousness of the situation

Sometimes brands are called out or cancelled as part of a witch hunt, but other times it’s for genuine reasons.

In 2009, after a car collision killed four people, Toyota faced serious backlash as it was forced to recall nearly eight million vehicles in the United States (for two mechanical safety defects that could cause unintended acceleration).

Toyota fought this fire by getting their executives to answer questions from the public which made the brand appear more humane. It also came up with compelling new social media content that sparked favourable conversations around the brand.

People began sharing positive feedback about the brand on its social platforms. And the company started a social media campaign allowing consumers to tell a story about their vehicle. More than 13,000 experiences were shared, doubling the number of “likes” on Toyota’s Facebook page in two months. This strategy saved Toyota from a crisis.

A situation may look like a disaster for your brand. But you can salvage the situation by stepping in and firefighting. If it is not serious enough, letting it blow over and not taking any hasty action may be a wise decision.

Depending on the situation, it could be wise to plan and respond carefully.

4.     Choose what you communicate wisely

It’s wise for your brand to think carefully about communication. Brands that are sensitive to what’s going on in local societies, or globally, are perceived to be more relatable.

For example, in March this year, an ad by KFC in the UK featuring its catchphrase “it’s finger-lickin good”, showed people licking their own fingers as well as those of their buddies after eating chicken.

Social media criticized KFC for promoting behaviour that could result in the spread of COVID-19. Kentucky Fried Chicken realized that its ad was against health norms and decided to temporarily suspend its popular slogan.

Sometimes mistakes are made. And although people love brands to be human (and being human means making mistakes), the key here is handling the blunders appropriately. It could mean owning up and apologising for them. Your response should be sensible and empathetic as it could hold serious implications for your brand.


So, as we see, it’s easy for consumers to troll, boycott, reject, and hate because of the facelessness of the internet.

Many are channelling pandemic-induced frustrations via social media (as well as other areas).

It has become trickier than ever to find the right balance to navigate social media. Sometimes the scales will tilt in favour of the angry consumer other times it will tilt in favour of your brand. But if you have a strong brand and you know what it stands for, then it’ll be able to weather the storms and come out stronger than before.

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