Cancel Culture vs Brand Accountability
Updated: Jul 4, 2021
Have we lost the ability to be nuanced and thoughtful for the sake of speed?
We've entered a culture of black/white. Nuance is disappearing. We're forcing polarity where, perhaps it doesn't need to be, at least in my humble opinion.
Nowhere do we see this more than in the prevalence of the term "Cancel Culture" in today's digital and social world. Merriam Webster define cancel culture as, "To cancel someone (usually a celebrity or other well-known figure) means to stop giving support to that person. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable, so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste."
With today's blurring of celebrity, brand, and influencers, the permeating of cancel culture into the considerations of marketing and branding are inevitable. Gone seem to be the days when consumers could just boycott a product or protest a brands HQ until they changed their actions. Today, it seems as though a small misstep but anyone in the public sphere and there is no longer willingness to "help" a brand learn. By no means am I trying to make excuses for bad marketing, branding, or sales, but I come from a place where we can learn from our mistakes and make things around us better.
So why "cancel" and not "nuanced change?" Time, they answer here is time. The digital age we live in moves fast. Today the Kardashians are hot, tomorrow they're not. Today the Royal Family is the envy of the world, tomorrow they are shunned. The Washington Examiner gives us a list of brands who have been cancelled in just the past year:
Aunt Jemima & Uncle Ben's
Mutual of Omaha
Just to name a few. Now before we go crazy, yes, some of these brands had ALOT to learn about cultural sensitivity and appropriation. Many are downright insulting in today's culture, but I do say TODAY'S culture. We move fast... to fast. We have forgotten to consider the temporal aspects of great brands. I don't believe any marketer would say, "Hey, I can't wait to build the next 15 minute of fame brand over the next Coca-Cola."
Now hear me out. This is where nuance comes into play. There are 3 aspects to consider here, past, present, and future.
Past: If we are going to judge a brand that is 50 years old, as a reflection of the culture the brand was conceived in, we cannot judge it on a set of principals from another moment in time. The measuring stick and the measuring scale here are out of whack.
Present: If we are able to see a brand that is out of alignment in today's culture, why is that? Was the brand aligned with a different culture in time and fail to grow with society? Is their ignorance so egregious that it requires the erasure of their entire brand. If so, then of course it should be completely torn down (I think the political sphere is emblematic of this). Or can we use some nuanced thinking to figure out how we can help that brand modify it's behavior? I'm not claiming this needs to be done gently or passively. Boycott/protest/and public opinion pieces about the what the brand has done and what a consumer would like to see modified and how are far more powerful than "cancelling" it altogether.
Future: Here are 2 consideration for future branding and action. For the marketer, what are the impacts of branding decisions we are making now potentially going to be in the future. For the consumer, if we find ourselves with a brand affinity that falls against future cultural norms, would we rather that brand adjust and recover or are we ok with it completely going away?
The idea of "Cancelling" a brand carries a permanence that is short sighted and foolish. Brand activism on the part of consumers is moving so fast that we are failing to, "put the shoe on the other foot." My guess is that if we stopped and followed our parents advice we might find our nuanced voice of change. I think it's ok to ask, if we tear down some of the greatest brands through cancelation are we passing death sentences where rehab is an option? The other option as consumers and brands is of course we can continue to operate from a place of ego, self righteousness, and denial of the realty of the human condition over time.
My advice... stop, think, be critical, and ask, "what if the shoe were on the other foot." Your parents would be proud.