Managing brand reputation in the midst of cancel culture

Marketers and thought leaders share how brand custodians need to rethink reputation and crisis management in the face of growing cultural and societal consumer expectations

In the era of cancel culture, one poorly thought-out message can do sudden and severe damage to a brand.

But marketers today find themselves on the hook for more than just what brands say to the world. Bad executive behaviour, supply chains issues and poorly thought-out operational decisions, such as the dynamiting of sacred sites, can quickly damage brands, professional reputations, and the bottom line.

For marketers, this means they can add mop-and-bucket duty to their existing long list of responsibilities.

“I have always found brand to be as linked to a company’s actions as to its communications,” says Future Super CMO, Grace Palos. “You see consumers asking where products are made, and how companies treat their staff. And those actions that a company is taking are a core part of what the brand is, whether marketers want it to be that way or not.”

There is no shortage of brands that have faced consumer backlash for ill thought-out statements and actions. What has changed, however, is the speed at which that backlash can occur, and how far its impact can reach.

The speed of risk

According to a 2020 study of 100 corporate crises commissioned by real-time event and risk detection specialists, Dataminr, just 23 hours and 13 minutes separated the time between when a crisis event was first found and its peak in online discussions. According to Dataminr chief marketing officer, Jen Jones, this is leading more and more marketers to seek real-time information about events that might impact their brand.

“As a marketer you have to ask, what would you do with almost 24 hours advanced notice of a potential crisis to your brand happening?” Jones tells CMO.

Furthermore, Jones was surprised by the results of a later study that found only 8 per cent of respondents defined real-time information as data from something that happened within the past few seconds.

“We even had some respondents say they defined real-time data as happening within the past few months,” she says. “The court of public opinion is very quick to pass judgement. And not doing anything is an action these days. Inaction is an action in and of itself.”

The options available to marketers in response to a crisis are many and range from pausing or altering in-market campaigns to prepping executives and issuing statements. But as Dataminr also learned, 42 per cent of respondents said they were improvising their response in the face of a crisis and were not following a defined plan.

Jones says the volume, complexity and speed at which marketers receive information today can make identifying and staying in front of a crisis incredibly difficult.

“The types of risk that can happen to a brand are diversifying, and the time from an event to possible crisis seems to be shrinking every year,” Jones says. “And when you put those things together it is a much more pressing and frequent topic among marketing leaders.”

Mop and bucket duty

The research also found only 33 per cent of organisations involved their corporate communications department in crisis response teams, suggesting many still had some way to go in appreciating the role marketing played in managing and mitigating risk.

“What can impact a brand or reputation doesn’t often happen in the marketing department,” Jones says. “It can be in supply chain, it can be in operations, it can be in HR, it can be with some of your partners, so there are all sorts of introductions of risk that would normally be first handled by another department. There is a crisis response team that is managing it, and then afterwards marketing is filled in.

“And there is a huge opportunity to improve response in crisis and do a better job in general of protecting brands and corporate reputations by involving corporate communications early on.”

One of the strongest courses of action for marketers in crisis management is of course to reduce the number of crises they face. To this end, Palos says navigating the modern reputation minefield starts with ensuring her leadership peers understand the way of the world today, so she builds deep relationships with executives across the business.

“It is not a side project,” Palos says. “It is a core part of me being able to do what I do for the business. There is an education piece, particularly for senior marketers, to not be in the weeds of brand expression, but to be constantly outlining and informing their companies around how brands are being judged by consumers.”

One of the key steps undertaken by Palos at Future Super has been the development of an inclusive language guide, to be used in tandem with key messages.

“The reason why we created that is the discussion that is going on about the words we use and how they wield power and create and continue inequality,” Palos says. “This was a way to standardise within our language a more inclusive way of being and speaking.”

This approach is also reflected through a marketing blog at Future Super, which Palos created to better demonstrate her team’s work and the perspective it takes.

“Marketing can show courage by talking about its work and talking about the tensions and complexity in building a brand in a world that is fast-changing, where what is accepted and what is culturally appropriate changes, and (how to) be comfortable changing with it.”

Up next: The changing nature of trust and purpose

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