How brands can respond to cancel culture in 2021

Landor & Fitch has highlighted cancel culture as one of the dominating trends going into 2021 for marketers to pay attention here. Here's why and how

In a year many of us wished had been cancelled, it should not surprise anyone that ‘cancel culture’ peaked in 2020, Landor & Fitch executive director insights and analytics for the Americas, Maarten Lagae, says. And it’s going to remain front and centre in 2021, too.  

Brands are increasingly being held accountable for their environmental, societal and cultural impact. Globalisation, social media dominance and digitisation have combined to give consumers the tools and wherewithal to express what they feel and be heard.

What’s more, the rise of more culturally conscious Millennials and Generation Z into positions of economic power, along with increased political divide, has provided the foundations for cancel culture to thrive.  You only have to look at topics such as #Metoo and Black Lives Matter to see this in action.  

There’s plenty of research to back it up. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, for example, found 68 per cent of respondents agreeing company CEOs should step in where government does not to help fix societal problems. An equal number believe consumers have the power to force corporations to change. In 2020, 64 per cent of respondents also said they may boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.  

With such insights to hand, Lagae predicts in Landor & Fitch’s latest Transformational Trends for 2021 that we’re just as likely to see more brands become the next target (or victim) of cancel culture in 2021 as we did last year.  

Here, we talk with Lagae about the definition and rise of cancel culture, what it means for brands, who’s got it right so far – and who hasn’t – and how CMOs can be prepared in this next normal.  

How at Landor & Fitch do you define cancel culture?

Maarten Lagae (ML): It sounds like a straightforward question, but it is a tricky one to answer. The way you define cancel culture says a lot about your take on it.

Critics of cancel culture call it a modern form of the evil mob or public shaming. But it happens on both ends of the political spectrum and both sides have called it a political weapon. There was a letter published in harper’s last July signed by at least 150 writers including JK Rowling and Malcolm Gladwell which called out cancel culture as a threat to free speech.

But supporters of cancel culture will say that’s easy to say if you’re in power and it’s in your best interests to retain the status quo. Fans of cancel culture see it as an important tool for social justice and to hold those in power accountable.

As a more neutral way of defining it, I see cancel culture as consumers holding brands accountable at a level previously impossible that’s now been made possible because of globalisation and the power of social media. One consumer can have an opinion that goes viral and before you know it, puts a huge brand in trouble.

Consumers have had this power for a while now, but 2020 seemed to be the year to wield it. In your trends report, you point to the Black Lives Matter movement, US elections and Trump crystallising this as an important trend and giving this the scope to grow in significance. Can you detail why for us?

ML: We live in a world which is more divided than ever, whether it’s politics in the US, or wearing a mask and adhering to all the rules to manage the global pandemic. Just the fact that visions culturally and across society are much bigger than they ever were is part of the backdrop on why this phenomenon is growing in importance.

Maarten LagaeCredit: Landor & Fitch
Maarten Lagae

Another key aspect playing into this is Gen Z and Millennial consumers becoming more important in society. Gen Z and millennials are buying into new products and becoming more powerful because of the jobs they’re taking on and the economic power they’re wielding.

While the term ‘cancel culture’ is new, things like counterculture and sub-culture always existed. It is an extension of those things. Punk in the 1970s and rock in the 1960s was always anti-establishment. Think about the big festival of 1968, Woodstock: We still talk about that more than four decades after it happened. But there were 100,000-odd people attending Woodstock. Today, a single Tweet can be read by millions across the globe. Just the scale with which opinions and culture can be shared has grown exponentially. That is what is making it hard for brands and organisations to keep up and respond to it.

You talk about Gen Z and millennials driving this social and brand purpose trend. How does cancel culture play out with older generations, such as Gen Y, who are also still in positions of power? Do brands require a different lens for these older generations?

ML: I don’t think it’s limited to younger generations, but the most defining instances of cancel culture have started there. I’m not an expert on all things K-pop but I know that’s an interesting bunch of fans that can rally behind a cause like nothing else. But yes, it’s a phenomenon that has grown beyond the limitations of those younger generations. You could argue that’s part of how they’re growing the impact of cancel culture.

To what extent have you seen the COVID-19 global pandemic influencing the rise of cancel culture – has it exacerbated or fed into this trend?

ML: I feel I’m still in the middle of COVID and the dust hasn’t settled yet, which makes it hard to look back and say this is what has actually happened. COVID-19 plays into those more startling visions across society and is an additional thing happening around us. All of a sudden, a face mask becomes a political choice in certain regions of the world, for example. But I don’t think it’s directly creating cancel culture.

In your report, you mention several brands caught out by cancel culture, such as LÓreal Paris for being hypocritical in its Black Lives Matter messaging, and Goya, Equinox and Soul Cycle, who got into hot water over party politics. Is there an overarching reason why these organisations are being caught out?

ML: A topical issue such as Black Lives Matter became the only thing people were talking about all Summer where I live [Brooklyn, New York]. At that point, brands like Eskimo Pie and Uncle Ben’s realised they are becoming culturally irrelevant and controversial. That sentiment always lingered but accelerated quickly because of the size and scope of Black Lives Matter, and they were quick to take action.

I think some topics become more prevalent and important in certain moments. You could argue #metoo and gender equality a couple of years ago were the trends that became much more important to culture and brand had to respond as a result.

There are two types of brands getting in hot water. The first is brands that risk being left behind as culture moves forward. Look at Uncle Ben’s: Culture moved in a way that made that brand name no longer acceptable. The second type of brands are those quick to jump on the bandwagon, such as with issues like same sex marriage or Black Lives Matter, saying they’re supporting this movement and using it as a marketing ploy.  Consumers will be quick to call them out in both instances.

Ultimately, it’s about what you want to stand for as a brand and what principles you want to stick to. You can end up in a situation where your name becomes such a distraction, it’s hard to message anything else and not have that outshine whatever story you’re trying to tell the market. To use the Coon Cheese example in Australia, the choice is: Do you want to stick to your heritage and keep the name of a founder so near and dear that you prioritise it over everything else; or is there a bigger idea and principle you want to stand behind and evolve in line with?

What matters most is for brands to have a clear set of principles that can act as a guiding light or North Star. Because times are tumultuous these days and things change quickly.

Brands like Patagonia and Thank You were created to serve a societal and environmental purpose and are doing well. But are brands excluded from doing these things if they weren’t founded in a specific purpose? Can you still respond to cultural trends in an authentic way?

Patagonia is an easy example of a brand doing the right thing and it continues to be a great story and help them evolve how they do it. It’s a big cliché, but actions speak louder than words is true.

Nike is a great example of this. When the brand stood by US football player, Colin Kaepernick, there was initially huge backlash - people were uploading videos burning Nike apparel and threatening to never buy Nike again. Nike’s response was maybe these are people we don’t want to be part of our brand or associated with us. And after that initial backlash, Nike saw sales rise tremendously and pushed its market cap up to US$6 billion. Three years on, Nike has been able to evolve its position around ‘just do it’ and evolved from purely positioning athletes as superheroes. That was such a pivotal moment for the brand as it was so much more than sporting achievement – it was taking a societal position Nike hadn’t held before.

Another example is LÓreal. The beauty industry is under extreme levels of scrutiny for portraying the image of what is right, beautiful and what we should value versus what we shouldn’t. The brand was called out on its Black Lives Matter messaging by influencer and model, Munroe Bergdorf, who said well that’s interesting, because when I spoke out about racism a couple of years ago, you fired me and sent me to the wolves. The new CEO at Loreal was the first to apologise in an open and sincere way and Bergdorf has now being hired as part of LÓreal’s diversity and inclusion council.

Companies and people make mistakes. It’s how you handle the mistakes, how you apologise and your reaction that prevents a lot of harm to your brand.

Does it then follow every brand should be actively thinking about the role they play in our lives culturally? What are you advising your clients?

ML: What we’re telling clients is it’s incredibly important you know what you stand for, and what your values and principles are, and use that as your guiding light not just for marketing campaigns, but for everything you do. That’s from the people you hire to the behaviours you reward, products you launch, way you talk and how you interact with people. It’s not necessarily having contingency plans or communications ready for an event where you may get cancelled, but what is it we want to stand for and what we believe in.

As we progress into 2021, is there any specific advice you have for CMOs to ensure they are prepared for this trend?

ML: What I’d advise CMOs is to start an ongoing dialogue with your consumers and target audiences and know who you are speaking with to make sure you are close to them. Social media can be a curse because you can get cancelled very quickly, but it’s also a blessing. It’s never been easier to collect questions and concerns and interact with your consumers.

And think about using your principles and values – how can you play a role in that? More often than not, there may not be a role to play for your brand. But in those magic moments where you can show what you’re all about, are the moments CMOs need to capitalise on. Leverage that close connection with target consumers and show what you’re all about and believe in then.

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