Cancel culture: do brands deserve a second chance?

By Nicole Schulz

The power of social media in escalating a war against a brand has become a serious concern for business leaders and marketers facing an attack on their brand’s reputation. Do these brands deserve a second chance? Yes, I believe they do if their response is authentic and action-oriented.

Whilst cancel culture has predominantly been a vehicle for public shaming and punishment, I would argue that it can, and should, be used as a catalyst for positive change. Simply cancelling a brand is a missed opportunity for that brand to listen, learn and take meaningful action. Enabling a brand to make public amends and implement positive change, sets an example of the high standard to which socially-conscious consumers can now hold brands.

It is a brand’s response to being cancelled, that we should apply our harshest judgement. Recently, we’ve seen companies make bold moves to ensure they are in step with societal expectations and their own brand values: Nestlé announced it will change the name of its Red Skins and Chicos lollies and IBM was the first to declare it will move away from the facial recognition business.

Brands may find themselves subject to cancel culture when they align with a social purpose superficially. During the Black Lives Matter protests, many brands that supposedly supported the cause were called out for their lack of employee diversity. This sparked the #pulluporshutup challenge, demanding brands that had supported BLM to disclose publicly the number of Black people they employ. The challenge asked not for brand cancellation, but for transparency and actionable solutions.

“Woke-washing” as coined by Unilever chief executive Alan Jope – where brands are cashing in on culture wars – can be even more damaging to a brand’s reputation than not saying anything at all.

It is critical for brands to be authentic. To be clear on what they stand for and what they stand against. To understand what matters to their customer and ensure those values are represented in their brand actions. And if caught in the fire, be worthy of a second chance – look inwards, be accountable and make a change for the better.