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The dangers of ‘Cancel Culture’ for brands

I listened to Frankie Boyle on Louis Theroux’s Grounded podcast the other week and he was talking quite openly about being ‘cancelled’.

Frankie Boyle is no stranger to offensive comedy and many comedians are known for being near the knuckle. They tread a fine line between tapping into popular opinion and being offensive. And when they cross that line, they run the risk of being ‘cancelled’. Something that Frankie Boyle is probably all too aware of. He’s been told he’s crossed the line be that from his live sets or comments on social media and has seen his career suffer as a result. But you don’t need to be a comedian making jokes about the Queen to risk being ‘cancelled’.

So, what does any of this really mean?

What ‘being cancelled’ is
Being ‘cancelled’ is when the public or a group of people withdraw support for a person or company, often on social media, as a result of that business’s or person’s views or actions. It can, on occasion, lead to the boycotting of services or products that are owned or affiliated with people who are ‘cancelled’. Even a brand itself could be cancelled – though this is less likely. I will come onto this in a minute.

The reality is that cancel culture isn’t new. It has been around for a long time; it’s just now it’s got itself a hashtag. A brand’s behaviour, or a spokesperson's words have always had consequences. But what’s changed is how quickly these words, actions, or inactions can spread.

Social media means that, in the space of a few seconds, millions of people can discover something someone said, did, or didn’t do. Twitter, for example is essentially the ‘breaking news’ outlet which leaves people with little time to respond or react. In the blink of an eye, an opinion can be shared in just 280 characters and can spread across the world for all to judge.

The damage
‘Cancel culture’ can be hugely damaging. Just the other week, KMPG boss Bill Michael was forced to quit the firm for telling his staff to stop 'moaning' about cuts to their bonuses. He dismissed the notion of unconscious bias as 'complete and utter crap' and told employees they should quit 'playing the role of victim' during the pandemic. All of this took place on an internal Zoom call which was recorded and subsequently given to the press. It was across almost every national media outlet last week and debated endlessly on social media. He cancelled himself the moment he said those words.

Fortunately for brands, it’s harder to be ‘cancelled’ completely. This is because, to a certain extent, some consumers still separate their beliefs from their buying behaviour.

Amazon gets away with it
Think Amazon. In December 2020 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Poland went on strike after being forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions through the pandemic. (And let’s not forget, this wasn’t the first time Amazon had come under fire for its working conditions).Surely this is something that you’d think they should be cancelled for. But, instead, Amazon’s 2020 profits were up 84%. More of us spent time at home, which meant more of us shopped online. When did you last buy something from Amazon?

But – and it’s a big but – the tide is starting to turn. Consumer buying behaviour is changing and brands need to be very aware of so-called cancel culture.

Financial sector is at risk
If you’re in the financial services space, you may be at a higher risk. According to the FCA’s Financial Lives survey, just 35% agreed that financial firms are honest and transparent. So, whilst people might trust the competence – for an app to work, or transaction to take place – they are less convinced of the business's ethics. That means, should an FS business put a foot wrong; people are likely to be less forgiving. You could have a swarm of ‘cancellers’ on your hands.

The solution
With that in mind, if you want to safeguard yourself from the risk of cancel culture, adopt an internal ‘consequence culture’. That means considering the consequences of actions at every level from C-suite zoom meetings to Facebook ads. Embed that culture within the business. Make sure decision makers at all levels consider the consequence of every action the business takes. Ask yourself; is what we are saying and doing right?

I often ask myself, what gives that financial services business a competitive advantage over another? Years back, it could have been advances in technology, an excellent user experience or simply better margins. But now, given consumers have broad trust in the competence of FS brands to do their job, the true competitive advantage may simply lay in having an excellent reputation.

Written by Adam Smith, managing director at communications agency Teamspirit

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