In the last few years but especially in 2020, we have seen the rise of ‘cancel culture’ online. The popular practice in which brands are publicly shamed and lose customer support is nothing new, but it is no longer reserved for oil companies and big tobacco, brand shaming is open to even the least expected.
As the majority of us increase our social media usage to compensate for social distancing, we also engage with a wider audience on broader topics such as sustainability, diversity, ethics and politics. We are having these conversations on the same platforms that millions of brands advertise to us on, making it easier for us to notice and retaliate when companies are going against what we and our social gang supports and believes in.
The perfume and scented candle brand Jo Malone faced accusations of racism last month after removing its first male ambassador, John Boyega, and all other black cast members from the Chinese version of an ad that John himself conceived. Boyega went on to end his partnership with the brand.
Vegan milk brand, Oatly is in trouble after selling a stake in its company to a consortium that includes Blackstone, a powerful private equity firm that has been linked to deforestation in the Amazon. Coming from a company that is considered to be one of the most sustainable non-dairy brands this obviously did not sit right with many of its customers online.
Small and sustainable fashion brand, Lucy and Yak caused a stir online in September after brand consultant and influencer Aja Barber highlighted its pursuit of free intellectual labour and lack of size inclusivity. The backlash only worsened when Lucy and Yak’s owners released a tearful video in response, claiming they were the victim of an online hate campaign.
All three of these examples were previously seen as wholesome, fairly harmless brands. Oatly and Lucy and Yak in particular are both proclaimed ethical companies that you would least expect to be ‘cancelled’. Yet in today’s world you cannot get away with just appearing ethical, you must walk the talk or the internet will expose you, and rightfully so.
However, we are all human and we all make mistakes. No brand can be expected to get it 100% right, 100% of the time. So here is my Triple A advice if your brand gets ‘cancelled’.
1. Acknowledge and apologise: there is nothing more cringe-inducing to witness than when a brand makes a mistake and refuses to acknowledge the error of its ways. (Don’t do a Lucy and Yak).
It is never comfortable to admit when we are wrong. But as a brand, you should treat your customers as friends that you respect. If you were to tell a friend they had offended or hurt you, you would expect an acknowledgment and an apology, not an excuse. It works the same way with brands and customers.
Swallow your pride and be honest with yourself, if you’re being shamed by the same people who supported you, chances are you’re in the wrong.
2. Act quickly: sticking your head in the sand might be tempting right now, but trust me time is not a healer here. Similarly, acknowledging and apologising but taking no action, will only increase the backlash tenfold.
As soon as possible you need to have conversations within your company. Make a plan and make it clear what you are going to do to rectify the immediate situation, this ensures you are getting on top of the story rather than being chased for your next actions.
3. Active learning: speak with the people who criticised you, ensuring you pay consultants for their time and learn from your mistakes! There is no shame in growing as a business and it is what will set you apart from the rest.
In a year which I think we can all agree we wish we could cancel, let’s try and take something from this rising trend. When you read about the next brand or celebrity that is being shamed, take this opportunity to review your own actions and you may be able to make an improvement that saves you getting cancelled.