Responsible Business When “Cancel Culture” Is All the Craze
“Cancel culture” is popular. It’s hot. So, what is it? Well, as described by Merriam-Webster it’s “the removing of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior or opinions. This can include boycotts or refusal to promote their work”. But as the act of “canceling” has grown in popularity I suspect this single vanilla flavored definition may be a bit off. Sure, we’ve seen tactic used against individuals (Louis C.K., J. K. Rowling, Dave Chappelle and many others), but we’re also seeing this used against major brands. But here’s where it gets weird. Over the past several years we’ve seen brands use this tactic against other brands too.
And I’ll concede many individuals and major brands rightfully deserve the criticism they face. However, we’re not debating the rights and wrongs here. Rather, this is a warning for brands in the public eye to take notice. In an age of hypersensitivity, brands are increasingly finding themselves as having committed perceived (and sometimes substantiated) wrongs by their critics. This all resulting in segments of the public demanding the mass withdrawal of consumer patronage in efforts to hurt the brand and those associated with it.
While we loosely call it “cancel culture”, this in some form has existed even before the internet and social media. Some may call this a form of boycott; others may call this free market. And neither are wrong. “Cancel culture” is designed to pull support from a person or entity that has wronged others. Of late, “cancel culture” has had a profound influence in how companies operate and respond to societal demands. In some ways we’re seeing a shift of power back to the Individual. It’s proof that when people use their purchase power as a statement of their values (purchasing goods and services from companies they believe are morally responsible) tremendous change can be made. As a society of individual consumers we can influence change.
But is the act of “canceling” brands limited to just the individual consumer seeking change? Or can a company apply this same pressure on their business partners in efforts to influence change? I say the latter is true. I think companies have tremendous power in influencing their business partners to be more responsible. We’ve seen this tactic gain popularity in the last few years. I suspect this will continue.
That said, this type of power must be applied with great judiciousness. Here’s why. I feel strongly that “cancel culture” often mutates into a behavior that’s toxic. Some wield this power carelessly like a child who just found their father’s handgun. That’s dangerous. And while we won’t address the toxicity of “cancel culture” and how it’s often negligently applied based on perceived (and not substantiated) transgressions in this post, we’ll explore how brands are influencing change more positively with the power they wield.
Responsible businesses can be an influence for greater change.
Opponents of the Washington Football Team’s former name never thought the day would come when owner Dan Snyder would change the name. I’ll be honest, I too never thought this would happen. Snyder was quoted saying “we’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps”. I truly believe he believed every word of his statement. He never planned to change the name. I imagine this was the result of too little pressure. And while some fans were incredibly outspoken about the need for change, many simply lacked the will. They weren’t willing to boycott the team to the point of financial hardship.
Doing so would’ve required them to stop watching football games altogether. I suspect it would’ve even required millions of others who were tuning in to watch their respective teams (playing against the Washington Football Team) to stop watching. It would’ve required all the apparel be boycotted leaving inventory on the shelves of department stores and rotting in fulfillment centers.
None of the above happened.
In fact, It wasn’t until sponsors of the team called for a rebrand that things changed.
Some may not call this “cancel culture”. But let’s be real, Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo urging Snyder to change the name or risk losing sponsorship is a form of “cancelling”. Think about it, when Amazon chose to remove all team apparel from their platform, they essentially erased any evidence of the old name from existence.
To me this is the equivalent, but just in a productive manner.
I must also point out that this wasn’t the result of one specific company.
Each company urging Snyder to change the name received a letter signed by 87 different investors and shareholder (totaling a net worth is $620 billion USD) who urged they pull sponsorship from the Washington Football Team.
In the letter to Nike investors stated the following: “the use of the R-word as the name and mascot of the Washington National Football League team is offensive and hurtful to American Indian and Alaska Native people and causes direct, harmful effects on the physical and mental health and academic achievement of the American Indian and Alaska Native populations, particularly youth; and … despite the team’s arguments to the contrary, the R-word is not a term of honor or respect, but rather, a term that still connotes racism and genocide for Native peoples and for all others who know of this history and recognize that it is wrong to characterize people by the color of their skin.”
And whether you agree or disagree with Nike’s decision or the statement from investors, I think we can form one conclusion. The investors were serious. They meant business.
But this type of action isn’t unique to sports. In recent weeks even Facebook lost revenue as hundreds of companies chose to pull their paid ads. This however was the result of Facebook’s position on what many are considering hate speech by the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. Companies chose to pull ads in protest of what they claim is Facebook’s failures to stop the spread of hate. These weren’t just small companies. Brands including the likes of Hershey’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Adidas, CVS, Ford, Honda, HP, Samuel Adams Beer and many, more. It’s estimated Facebook’s value fell 8.2% in late June 2020. The result? Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook lost close to $7 billion USD.
But was this boycott by brands effective? Some financial projections suggest the toll on Facebook won’t be significant. Some companies (including North Face, Pernod Ricard and Heineken) are even back on Facebook’s platform. North Face for example acknowledged that change won’t happen overnight and that they were pleased with the initial progress made.
While many companies chose to extend their July protests into August, since the start of the boycott Facebook has pledged to hire a Vice President level position to focus on civil-rights issues while also agreeing to a new audit by industry measurement watchdog organization Media Rating Council. So, take note. When the pocketbook is hit progress was made. But while these are events of late, this isn’t the first instance of companies taking stands against other brands.
Brands turn their backs on the National Rifle Association (NRA).
It was just two years ago companies representing the banking, airline and healthcare industries came together to cut ties with the NRA. Unfortunately, this change only came after yet another school shooting, specifically the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students dead.
It may anger you to know the trigger being pulled on ditching the NRA wasn’t immediate. It was only after activists sought to name and shame business affiliates of the NRA that brands cut ties. In a Twitter post, the First National Bank of Omaha stated “Customer feedback has caused us to review our relationship with the NRA. As a result, First National Bank of Omaha will not renew its contract with the National Rifle Association to issue the NRA Visa Card”.
Companies were even outed by Think Progress, an American progressive news website that was active from 2005 to 2019.
Just remember that while this might seem like a virtuous act free of consequence, any brand taking such a stance will likely feel some blowback.
For example, when YETI (the popular cooler company among outdoor enthusiasts) stated they would no longer be a vendor with the NRA or support the NRA Foundation there was fallout. NRA members took to blowing up (yes, with explosives), tossing out and vowing to never use YETI products moving forward.
Members of the NRA who kept their coolers took a different tactic. They were asked by the NRA to place NRA stickers on their YETI items. Why you ask? Partly because YETI coolers are expensive, but also to visibly show solidarity with the NRA as they continue using the coolers in their everyday lives.
The interesting thing here is that YETI was feeling the impact from their customer-base who would ordinarily spend a pretty penny on YETI products. When compared to the recent Goya boycott (which we’ll cover) YETI products are more expensive. Their coolers can cost between $200 to $300 USD for a single cooler. In contrast to Goya, their product can easily be purchased or tossed out at a price point of $1.25 USD per can of beans. Also, in the case of Goya, it wasn’t necessarily their customers who boycotted their brand.
So, the bottom line is this. Yes, brands can create pressure on others to take more responsible positions in how (and with whom) they do business. However, they must do their homework to understand the potential fallout and then be resolute in that action and stay the course to have impact.
Navigating cancel culture.
When we talk about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), we’re also talking about how brands are perceived and navigate current social and cultural norms. In this age of hypersensitivity companies have to be incredibly careful in every step they take. Take Goya for example, the company was boycotted after Robert Unanue, the CEO of Goya praised President Trump during the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative ceremony. In normal social media fashion, there was a negative reaction including the trending of the hashtags #Goyaway and #BoycottGoya.
In this instance you have two competing sides that emerge.
Those whose opinions are aligned with Unanue’s and those who oppose. Those strongly in favor of Unanue’s comments flocked to the stores to buy more Goya products to show support. Those strongly opposed emptied their cupboards and took to social media to rant and rave. This has little to no impact on their brand.
But even well respected and trusted brands have been “brand shamed”. Just a few weeks ago Trader Joe’s found itself in the crosshairs for their ethnic-sounding labels that some are calling racist. What’s interesting here is that Trader Joe’s as a brand has generally been considered fun, whimsical and quality at low cost. Their branding genius has resulted in a cult-like following of fanatic customers. Matter of fact, just less than ten years a Forbes article described Trader Joe’s as a company that’s “proven how cultural awareness can cultivate business growth”.
Oh wait, they’ve been considered culturally aware until now?
An online petition started floating around calling out the company’s race-related food labels. This included labels like “Trader José” which is their label for Mexican products, “Arabian Joe” for their Middle Eastern products, “Trader Giotto’s” the brand’s Italian products and many others. The petition (posted on change.org) claimed the names created a “narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes” and that the “branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures” as a result.
But it wasn’t the customers of Trader Joe’s who found the labeling offensive. The result? Trader Joe’s is standing firm. They maintain that they’re not going to change the labels. They feel strongly that as a brand the naming of products in this fashion is fun while also showing appreciation for other cultures. You be the judge.
Taking the road less traveled.
So, will taking a hard stand against a petition, public opinion or what some may call “mob mentality” work for every brand? Maybe, maybe not.
However, there are lessons to be learned here as we watch this trend increase. One, brands must be incredibly buttoned up in terms of how they market their goods and services. Even the most innocent of language can land a brand in hot water. As a result, brands must become more socially and culturally aware. But assuming they are, and they deliberately choose to make a decision that goes against social norms they must be prepared for backlash.
Secondly, brands can be a force for good even outside of their respective industries. Like we’ve seen companies take a stand against brands like the Washington Football Team, Facebook and those doing business with the NRA, brands can and should choose carefully who they’re affiliated with. After all, the term “guilty by association” isn’t new.
While I have my own personal feelings about “cancel culture” (and I would encourage you to ask), I do believe there can be value in how that power is wielded by brands when done in a responsible manner. Yes, in many of these instances these decisions will come with a cost. For example, when you choose to pull paid ads from Facebook, you’re essentially making the decision to remove your brand from the eyes of would-be customers. It affects the bottom line.
But who ever said doing the right thing would always be easy?
Enough of what I think though, what do you think? Do you think more brands should draw a line in the sand with regard to who they’re affiliated with? Should investors make stronger statements through their investments? Or do you feel “cancel culture” (as understood in this context) has no place in the free market? However you feel about this I believe “cancel culture” is here to stay for the foreseeable future. So, however you feel I’d love to hear from you.
About the author: Jerome Tennille is the Manager of Social Impact & Volunteerism for Marriott International. Jerome is also an independent consultant and advisor in the subject matter of Sustainability and Social Impact. Prior to that Jerome held the position of Senior Manager of Impact Analysis and Assessment for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national organization that offers help, hope, and healing to all those grieving the death of a loved one serving in America’s armed forces. Jerome also served on the board of directors of Peace Through Action USA for four years and also serves on the PsychArmor Institute Advisory Committee for the School of Volunteers & Nonprofits. Jerome holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in operations management and a Master of Sustainability Leadership (MSL) from Arizona State University. Jerome is designated as Certified in Volunteer Administration (CVA) and is also a veteran of the US Navy.