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Canceled: What Cancel Culture Means for Brand Partnerships

April 1, 2022by Hiebing

Trying to stay up to date with who was last canceled seems like an impossible task in today’s world. Influencers get canceled. Celebrities get canceled. Brands get canceled. Even people whose claim to fame was getting someone canceled were canceled. When it comes to the culture that has made this term commonplace in our everyday lexicon, no one is safe.

The process of “canceling” an individual or brand based on an unsavory comment or viewpoint is amplified in the social media echo chamber that moves the mob to rule against these people of influence.

Some may view cancel culture as a vehicle to achieving social justice – a way to encourage marginalized voices to share their experiences and hold people accountable, such as the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. Others make the case that cancel culture is no more than public shaming or a censorship tool to silence anything considered offensive by the majority. Arguments made for and against cancel culture are hotly contested, but even so, they can have major implications for brand reputation.

Traditionally, most brands have avoided alienating audiences by sidestepping controversial topics. Nowadays, however, neutrality can be deemed as complicit while taking a stand can come across as inauthentic or polarizing. So, what’s a brand to do? Whatever your brand chooses – for, against, or Switzerland – an authentic response, backed by purpose that aligns with your company values, can go a long way for your hard-earned rep.

Here’s a look at how cancel culture has affected brands in big ways and worthy takeaways for today’s marketers.

Political and Social Movements

Brands and their agency partners have historically shied away from making political and controversial statements. Yet over the last decade, social media has forced them to enter the fray simply by their presence on platforms where their target – and others – are present. Social media arguments have erupted into full-on boycotts (and counter boycotts) of major brands, fueled by cancel culture’s sway, in response to politically-charged social movements. Take for example Nike’s 2018 campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick.

Nike, a brand well-known in the marketing world for ads that resonate emotionally with audiences, took a risk to solidify their credibility as a strong ally to the BLM movement. When Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against the Black community, an intense battle erupted between those who supported him and those who were furious with him. Nike had to choose between continuing their partnership with the now-free agent quarterback or giving in to the pressure from politicians, social audiences and, most importantly, their NFL partners to cancel him from the Just Do It “Dream Crazy” campaign. With a precarious exclusive licensing deal in the works with the NFL that would solidify Nike’s merchandising sales through 2025, Nike had a lot to lose.

Taking a calculated risk, Nike got behind Kaepernick’s crusade and earned a measure of support with audiences. While Nike did see a 2% decrease in sales due to the trending #NikeBoycott hashtag after the campaign went live, Nike ultimately came out on top, solidifying their deal with the NFL as well as having a record-setting year of engagement and sales, including setting a new company record when Nike stock closed at $83.47. Even with the boycotts, Nike’s brand continued to persevere and prosper amid cancel culture by taking an authentic stand for something they believed in.

Instead of staying frozen in neutrality for fear of being canceled, brands do have the option to lean into their company purpose. Doing so in a genuine way not only ties to brand integrity, it has great potential to gain favor and goodwill and move the needle on their bottom line.

Past Missteps and Present Misalignments

When Spotify announced their $100 million dollar deal with The Joe Rogan Experience (TJRE), the top influencer podcast of the last decade, it seemed like a step in the right direction toward expanding their position in the market as the top podcast streaming platform. Spotify sought out a partnership with an influencer that could bring star power and millions of listeners to their podcast game. The excitement that Rogan’s addition would bring soon turned to roiling distress as cancel culture reared its head.

Rogan’s reputation for providing a platform to controversial guests garnered an intense level of scrutiny. In 2021, backlash began to mount as disinformation regarding the COVID vaccine was being broadcast by TJRE to the podcast’s more than 11 million listeners. Artists who viewed this act as irresponsible, like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, India.Arie and others, decided to withdraw their music from Spotify altogether in protest. This also revived a longtime complaint that megastars like Rogan reap the benefits brought in by these marginalized content creators. India.Arie highlighted these inequities by compiling a reel of Rogan using racial slurs and problematic racial degradations to point out the debasement of paying a figure like Rogan with money earned by artists of color. Rogan has since apologized for his comments, but the tarnish to his brand can potentially be long-lasting.

In response, Spotify reaffirmed their commitment to free speech by continuing to be the exclusive spot for TJRE, as well as implementing advisory notices on content that may not align with their guidelines  (that they just made public). In an additional show of goodwill, Spotify promised to contribute $100 million to promote work by creators from marginalized groups.

While Rogan has survived the attempted cancellation, Spotify has taught us a valuable lesson about tricky partnerships, podcast guests and influencers. Identifying if there are any skeletons in the closet and considering how their messaging, past and present, may align with your goals and audience are ways brands can limit risks and avoid future headaches.

If you find yourself in the middle of a canceled firestorm, what can you do to protect your brand from further damage?

First, be humble. Owning your part and considering others’ perspectives is essential if you want to connect and make amends with the ever-shifting court of opinion, which likely includes some of your target.
Next, be aware. Take a moment to consider how your response messaging comes across to audiences who are encountering your brand identity for the first time because of the controversy. A timely response can help combat cancellation by providing an opportunity for transparency with your loyal brand followers. It may also give you the chance to set the record straight for newcomers.
Be authentic. Consumers now have the tools to pull the curtain back to see if brand walk matches brand talk. This can work for or against you. Ideally, you’ll be able to use your past actions to authentically communicate your position and demonstrate your track record of brand integrity. Then, communicate that authentically – do what you say you’ll do and, as appropriate, address the underlying issues that caused the cancellation in the first place.
No brand is immune to cancel culture. Regardless of the stance you take (or don’t), it’s most important to ensure that your brand position aligns with the values you profess – as being true to your brand may be what could potentially save it from a cultural reckoning.

Interested in exploring how to craft a marketing strategy to avoid being canceled? Email Dana Arnold at darnold@hiebing.com to set up a call.

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