The term “cancel culture” has been a major buzz word in recent months. In Singapore, influencer Wendy Cheng, better known as Xiaxue, recently made headlines after netizens tried to “cancel” her these past couple of weeks. Similarly in Malaysia last month, former Miss Universe Malaysia, Samantha Katie James, came under fire after she posted what netizens deemed as insensitive comments about the Black Lives Matter protests in United States on her Instagram stories. James posted remarks such as how most people are “mindlessly” following what the masses do, creating unnecessary anguish. Her remarks got netizens riled up with many calling her to be “cancelled”. After both the public outcries, multiple brands that worked with Cheng and James distanced themselves from the influencers.
Cancel culture is not exclusive to influencers. Brands themselves can also fall victim to calls to being cancelled as well. While “cancel culture” as a term has gained prominence in recent years, and is largely defined as the practice of withdrawing support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.
Elaborating further, Lars Voedisch, founder and managing director of PRecious Communications, said the move of cancelling someone involves calling out the bad behaviour and calling for others to boycott the work from individuals or brands in an attempt to take away their public platform and perceived power. This is different from passive boycotting of the brand or simply refraining from purchase.
Adding on to the point, Vijayaratnam Tharumartnam, director, group corporate communications, PROTON, said cancel culture is the oldest form of consumer advocacy. It is a case where consumers let their feet, or in this case, their wallets do the talking, he said, adding that it is not a new phenomenon and has been “a very powerful balancing force” for decades. Tharumartnam brings up the national boycott of Shell in 1980s, for its connection with the South African Apartheid regime. According to Tharumartnam, the act of cancelling is just one of the numerous ways in which consumers stood up against perceived maleficence or bad behavior by businesses.
It’s rooted in the idea that to correct bad behaviour, you must hit a company where it hurts most, the bottom line.
On the other hand, Ashvin Anamalai, chief strategist, Be Strategic, said cancel culture to him is "a virus in our society". It is a mob mentality by people behind their keyboards that are ruining the lives of people who don't fit their narrative. "Social media has given every person a platform and a voice, and to me, ganging up to cancel something out is just another form of bullying - because there's no accountability for the keyboard warrior- it's the wild wild west," he added.
How brands should proceed with marketing
Even though the cancel culture is not something entirely new, it is no doubt increasing in intensity. In an age of heightened sensitivity, brands may find it difficult to put themselves out there without copping flak for their content or partnership. According to Anamalai, brands are now treading very carefully in terms of the content they put out in fear of upsetting subsets of the intended target audience. He added that this hinders creativity for brands.
"Understanding the audience; Young consumers demand transparency and accountability from the brands they want to support, so it is imperative brands fully understand these issues which from what we have seen in recent times, change and evolve erratically," he explained.
Meanwhile, PROTON's Tharumartnam said brands need to be aware of their marketing efforts from the very start. “More often than not, [brands] make short-term decisions because of sales pressures or just out of the fear-of-missing-out (FOMO). In the past brands were able to get away with a lot more because of the pace of information spread. Today, there is no such shield,” he said.
When it comes to external influencer collaborations, Tharumartnam emphasised that brands should choose the right partner that aligns with its brand purpose. Brands should also do their due diligence before collaborating with an individual because ignorance is not innocence in the scenario.
The golden question then, is how brands can guard against falling prey into the cancel culture. Besides carefully choosing the partners they work with, Tharumartnam said brands have to address the right concerns if they do get caught in the cancel culture. “Very often some brands respond to the wrong things in a crisis. They circumvent the hard stuff because it means having to take a position,” he said. Tharumartnam was also quick to note that brands do not necessarily have to cave in and take the side of the public. “If as a brand you feel strongly and justified about your stand, stay the course.”
On a similar trajectory, PRecious Communications’ Voedisch said brands need to vet their agencies, influencers and partners they work and spend their money with. Brands should do a thorough assessment of influencers that they want to work with before engaging them.
A partnership should be about generally aligned values beyond a possible singled out mishap.
Voedisch is also of the view that there is no sure-fire way that a brand can completely fool-proof itself and prepare for the cancel culture. If brands find themselves involved in a cancelling act, he said it is important to acknowledge the email or tweet, but not to immediately commit to anything, and avoid knee jerk reactions. While the issue is being investigated, it is also important to monitor social media to see if the “call-out” is going viral and compile the emails/tweets as they come in.
Voedisch also added that while the cancel culture seems to be looking for immediate action and some kind or revenge for previous wrong doing, it is crucial for brands to stay calm, see things in context, and accept that people make mistakes and can change over time. “What matters is how genuine the influencer or brand's explanation and apology is,” he said, adding: “Often, ‘sorry’ is the hardest, yet most powerful word.”
Communication with the public
Voedisch also said that it is crucial for brands to be empathetic in acknowledging what the public feels, while sticking to facts and showing what the company is doing to mitigate the situation. Additionally, brands should avoid creating the perception of not being completely upfront about important issues. The tricky part is that the more brands try to ignore allegations, the more guilty it might make them look.
So when brands respond to such a crisis, they have to stick to facts and should ideally share more about their general code of conduct, while expressing empathy towards those offended.
Meanwhile, Tharumartnam said it is crucial for brands to have a dialogue with its consumers and the general public. While communicators often talk about a two-way symmetric model of PR, the PROTON marketer prefers the idea of bringing groups with differing agendas together to find positions that allow for better understanding will lead to a stronger brand, albeit in a longer time.
Should brands find themselves in a sticky situation, they should also prioritise being honest with its consumers, according to Tharumartnam. “Your customers are far more forgiving than you know. While they don’t expect you to be flawless they do expect you to be honest and that can go a long way towards rehabilitation.”
Furthermore, Tharumartnam said the 24-hour news cycle has made such incidents, except the most “heinous” faux pas, just short-term click bait. Most of these issues will quickly get replaced by another scandal. While he is not an advocate of laying low, Tharumartnam said that sometimes, silence can be golden. What is more important is that the brand shows attempt to engage and explain its position, even if that means taking some stick. “That’s the other important quality that brands need to have in such situations, courage,” he said.
Also weighing in on this particular point was Be Strategic's Anamalai, who said brands must treat communities like people and not just data, which means its a case-by-case situation that requires a rapid-strategy. More than anything- preparation; when brands embark on hopping on sensitive issues, its equally important to have primary and secondary action plans in case things go south, he explained.
When it comes to recovery efforts, brands should communicate with the public with honesty, accountability, and transparency. And importantly, young consumers expect stopping the judged controversial action, and sincerely offering apologies immediately.
"I feel that the impact lasts forever as blow back will be part of your digital footprint. It is important that brands are aware of this, and there are certain things that cannot be erased. Brands must monitor the audience and their response throughout the 'cooling period' and slowly ease back to normal general communication," he added.
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