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


The fragility of trust

According to this year’s edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer showed trust in business had reached and all-time high in Australia, at 63 per cent - ahead of NGOs and government. Furthermore, 66 per cent of respondents said CEOs must lead on societal issues.

But according to Edelman Australia group managing director, Susan Redden Makatoa, balancing consumers’ desires to work with more purposeful brands creates a whole new set of complications.

“With that trust comes a great deal of expectation, and it comes down to having a purpose that works for your company that is a north star,” Redden Makatoa says. “If you are just hopping on a bandwagon with a bit of spin you are going to get called out very quickly. Our advice to our clients and to the wider community is ‘action first’, and the talk after. And it has to be actual action.”

Redden Makatoa sites a recent example where Edelman worked with the Unilever brand, Streets, in response to a petition calling for the renaming of the Golden Gaytime ice cream.

“Instead of having a knee jerk reaction, they asked what their purpose was, which was to make people happy,” Redden Makatoa says. “They went and listened and talked and consulted, and then came to a decision, and were really open about that. That is a good way of showing you can handle these issues with honesty and transparency, and also listening.”

She says this same approach can be applied in any potential crisis. “Tell it first, tell it truthfully, tell it yourself,” Redden Makatoa says.

“Don’t let other people tell the story for you. Be transparent, even if that means you have to say, ‘we’re not sure what happened’. There is a danger in waiting until you know everything, and in this information age that is not going to work. If you leave a vacuum, others will fill it. And do not let your people be left out of that.”

Long-haul bandwagons

The need to take a considered and long-term approach to crises management also applies to how brands respond to broader societal crises, as has been plainly demonstrated in the wake of social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, where many brands issued public statements in solidarity with these causes.

According to senior lecturer in marketing at Macquarie Business School and researcher in ‘woke activism’, Dr Abas Mirzaei, the response of some brands to the death of George Floyd in police custody in May 2020 exceeded their ability to follow through on the promises they made.

“Many brands, after posting the initial statement, came back making lots of promises,” Dr Mirzaei says. “After 12 months, if they jump on social and post something, the question is ‘what did you do?’ So demonstrating what they have promised, and practicing what they have promised, is the major reference point to judge whether this brand is opportunistic or not.”

Dr Mirzaei suggests this may be why so many of those same brands were quiet in their response to the shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by a police officer in the same US city. Instead, he has seen those brands swing their energy behind broader social causes, such as support for voters’ rights, that are less likely to inflame tensions amongst subsets of their consumers.

“What they have learned is to avoid those polarising issues, and go with different but safer social issues,” Dr Mirzaei says. “Especially with political ideology, because especially in the US, they can’t afford to lose 73 million Trump supporters.”

Some marketers may also be keen to avoid repeating the experience of Gillette, whose support of the #MeToo movement and release of an advertisement calling out bullying, sexual harassment, sexist behaviour sparked a backlash from some customers. Procter & Gamble later had to write down the value of the Gillette brand by US$8 billion, which is attributed to increased competition and decreased sales.

Cancelling crisis culture

Dr Mirzaei says the focus on actions rather than words is also leading marketers to be more introspective about their organisation’s culture and executive behaviour.

“In the past marketing was mostly externally oriented towards the target audience stakeholders,” Dr Mirzaei says. “But the recent changes will give marketers a reason to go back to and ask about what we do that can come back to bite us.”

So while some marketers might already feel overwhelmed by the complexity of their task when cleaning up a crisis, according to Palos, it is the work that marketers do reaching out across their organisation that can have the greatest contribution to reducing their workload when the inevitable happens.

“Culture is made from the people who are working at a place and it is everyone’s responsibility to act and deliver on it,” she says. “Make sure you are helping the business understand this way of the world., and not define brand as just about communications.”

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