Brands have always operated in the court of public opinion; however, with the rise of social media, that court has gotten a lot larger, a lot louder, and a lot swifter in its execution of judgement. “Cancel Culture,” once only a symptom of being an uber celebrities, has now made its way to the brand’s front door. And like all of the 198 Netflix Originals currently streaming, no one is safe.
The most notable and recent brand casualty of the cancel culture is Equinox Club. The hip and cool fitness club jumped the shark once the public caught wind that its parent company’s chairman was throwing a fundraiser for Trump. As it turns out, a lot of Equinox clientele are located in hip and cool urban areas—aka very blue areas—and are not the biggest fans of the current administration. Equinox was subsequently cancelled.
Equinox is not the only, first or last on the cancellation list. According to Shareen Pathak, Managing Director, Editorial Products at Digiday, “Soulcycle is canceled too. So is: Louis C.K., LaCroix, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, pretty much every single Democratic presidential candidate, Taylor Swift, guacamole, In & Out’s French Fries.”
Presidents and presidential candidates—sure, they can be cancelled till the very last cow comes home—but the fact that In & Out’s locally sourced, fresh cut, and fried with love french fries can be #CancelledTooSoon should make everyone’s blood run cold. While polarizing politics are a reliable way to get a company cancelled, the sprawling and indiscriminate black eye of cancel culture can result from the incidental brand misstep or onetime societal misdemeanor. Or simply “the most ill-informed, contradictory rankings ever.” We all should take note.
There are three thing brands can do to survive the current cancel culture.
Never make anyone upset about anything ever. (Difficult to do)
Make people upset, but make sure they are not your target demographic. (Nike actually did this pretty successfully)
Actually build relationships with people that are rooted in a sincere corporate purpose and allows customers to view you as more than a one-time purchase but a brand that they believe in. (Recommended)
Don’t Subscribe to the Subscription Mindset
Global strategy director at TBWA/Chiat/Day, Sarah Rabia, puts it clearly: “The language of cancel is quite transactional. It’s like applying a ‘cancel subscription’ mindset to the a human being or brand.” Cancel culture is a byproduct of commodity culture. We simply want things. We collective things simply for the sake of having them with very little investment in actually wanting them. We lose interest in the things just as quickly as we stumbled upon them and then move on to the next. So it is not surprisings that we have no problem canceling the maker of that thing. We never cared about them anyway—mostly because they never cared about us.
We would never cancel our favorite shoe brand that we’ve love since high school, or the face wash that only our face responds to—we’d never cancel our friends, communities, we’d never cancel our moms. We don’t cancel relationships, we cancel nonessential noise that we only have ever known as a disposable commodity.
Brands that only engage with their people on a marketing and advertising level reinforce the transactional dynamic they have with their customers. These brands shouldn’t be surprised when that transaction relationship is canceled with no warning and no hard feelings on the side of the consumer.
Hard feelings only result from soft feelings. These are built on goodwill brand efforts. Brands that educate their consumers, inform them, and inspire them contribute to positive everyday experiences. It is hard to cancel someone or something that you have affection for. But affection takes time and it takes more than a CTA to “buy now.”
Brand relationships built on goodwill also create a cushion of forgiveness between company and customer. Yeah, you may have called out the wrong name on the coffee order, sent the wrong garment to the wrong customer, or didn’t realize that your free-range chicken wasn’t as free or rangy as you thought. If you have consistently called the right name; quickly replaced and refunded the garment; and regularly gone above and beyond to ensure the ethical pasturing of your poultry—chances are your customers will give you a pass. (Once, with the assurances that you will do better next time.)
Companies sell things. Brands build relationships. If your customers only know you as a company, they will have no problem cancelling you like their latest subscription. If they see you as a brand, they will at least consider what you’ve done for them lately.