Nowadays, anyone and anything can be on trial for cancellation in the court of public opinion. While cancel culture can materially impact personal brands more so than company brands, it doesn’t mean companies aren’t immune to its fury. And it’s not an unfamiliar phenomenon: Consumer boycotts of brands have existed for decades. For example, in 1977, Nestle faced a worldwide boycott of its baby formula because of the company’s controversial marketing practices.
Today, social media will instantly and broadly amplify controversies—whether they’re based on facts or misinformed hot takes.
So, how does a brand deal with this? Forrester’s new research examines cancel culture in the context of brands—a widespread public campaign (often via social media) to hold a company accountable for the consequences of perceived wrongdoing. This may include among other things calls for boycotts, terminations, and product changes.
When a company finds itself in reactionary mode because of a cancel culture-compounded crisis, it should:
Own up to mistakes
For most brands, recovery is probable in the wake of boycott threats. Brands can get “uncanceled” if they genuinely hold themselves accountable when they make a mistake or error of judgment. In 2021, Forrester found that 41% of U.S. online adults and 44% of U.K. online adults would go back to doing business with a “canceled” brand if the brand makes a public apology. But words alone aren’t enough. Consumers also want to see brands take good faith actions that help avoid the issue from happening again.
In December 2019, the Hallmark Channel, facing pressure from One Million Moms, pulled a Zola TV spot that featured two women getting married. That decision was immediately met with calls from viewers who support gay marriage to boycott the cable network. #BoycottHallmarkChannel trended on Twitter and caught the attention of celebrity influencers including Ellen DeGeneres. Days later, Crown Media Family Networks (Hallmark Channel’s parent company) issued an apology acknowledging this was “the wrong decision.” The company made a commitment to working with GLAAD, and a year later added LGBTQ+ storylines to their holiday movies lineup.
Push back on misinformation
Social media has become a cesspool of misinformation. This, combined with hot takes and divisive partisanship, has accelerated the proliferation of cancel culture across society. On Feb. 25, 2021, Hasbro made a host of product announcements during the company’s investors day. Among them was a renaming of the Mr. Potato Head brand to “Potato Head.” Along with this, Hasbro announced the launch of a new Potato Head product called “Potato Head family”—allowing kids to mix and match potato bodies and accessories to create all kinds of modern families.
News headlines feverishly (and erroneously) reported that Mr. Potato Head was no longer a mister and is now gender-neutral. This set off a Twitter firestorm with proclamations flamed by conservative media declaring that Mr. Potato Head was canceled, while some people demanded that consumers boycott Hasbro. Hasbro issued a Tweet to push back on the misinformation—reiterating that only the brand name and logo dropped the “Mr.” and that Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are still products on the market.
Wait out the noise
Almost all the time, consumer boycott threats on social media build up quickly but lose steam fast. And most chief marketing officers agree that cancel culture doesn’t have a long-term business impact. Among U.S. b-to-c marketing executives, 57% believe that threats of boycotts and/or getting canceled have no material impact on their company sales, Forrester found.
In September 2020, more than 660,000 individuals signed a petition on Change.org for Netflix to remove the movie Cuties and other content on the service “that exploits children and creates a disturbing vibe.” The matter escalated to members of Congress, state attorneys and on Twitter. Netflix apologized and took action. Despite the public #CancelNetflix campaign, Netflix continued to see user growth in North America in Q3 and Q4 2020 and by January 2021 Netflix’s stock price reached an all-time high.
In the end, not all brands are equal. Consumer loyalty to a brand, Forrester found, might prevent them from boycotting a brand. This means that a brand’s resiliency to cancel culture is based on factors such as banked goodwill and indispensability. Therefore, brands looking to mitigate the effects of cancel culture should focus on earning, growing and retaining trust with consumers.
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