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No Brand Is Immune to Cancel Culture, But Purpose Helps

The explosion and proliferation of social media has given power to the masses to share their opinions about brands — and sway others’ opinions in the process. But 73% of those surveyed said they’re less likely to cancel a purpose-driven brand.

Over the past few years, the concept of “cancel culture” — when one misstep or wrong word from a person, a celebrity or brand can ignite a social media firestorm that can quickly sour public opinion about that person or entity — has grown like digital wildfire. Even beloved and legacy brands can be just one public scandal away from death by social media firing squad.

In fact, new research from Porter Novelli aims to help us understand the mechanics of corporate cancel culture — including:

  • Why do people cancel companies, and what do they hope to gain?

  • How long does a “cancellation” last and what does it take to get back in the good graces of social media public opinion?

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The explosion and proliferation of social media has given power to the masses and amplification to the individual. US consumers are now emboldened to share their opinions and misgivings not only with their own networks but directly with the offending company. In fact, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of those surveyed feel more empowered than ever before to share their thoughts or opinions about companies.

The Porter Novelli study concludes that no brand is excluded from cancel culture, even those with loyal fans. Two-thirds (66 percent) of those surveyed say even if they love a company’s products or services, they will still cancel that company if it does something wrong or offensive.

2020 was a hotbed of social and racial unrest — while many around the world were just beginning to feel the effects of lockdown due to COVID, George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police was the final straw that re-galvanized much of the US public in support of the Black Lives Matter movement; which put brand responses to the issue under unprecedented scrutiny. Brands that issued hastily prepared statements denouncing racism, without reflecting that ethos within their organizations or working to incorporate it, are still feeling the consequences of that misstep — and others’ reputations took a hit by not responding at all.

Yet, there are things companies can do to protect from the impacts of cancel culture. The majority of consumers (88 percent) are more willing to forgive a company for making a mistake if it shows a genuine attempt to change; and 84 percent say they are more likely to forgive a company for a misstep if it’s that company’s first time making a mistake. Further, companies with an authentic Purpose fare better—as nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of US consumers say they are less likely to cancel a company if it is purpose-driven.

According to the study, more than a third (36 percent) of US consumers say they’ve cancelled a brand in the past 12 months; among them, nearly a quarter (23 percent) have cancelled that brand permanently. And it seems no brand is safe from cancel culture — two-thirds (66 percent) said they’d cancel a brand that they perceive has committed a wrong, even if they love that company’s products and services. But, 73 percent of respondents said they are less likely to cancel a purpose-driven brand.

Porter Novelli examined four cases of brands — Goya, L’Oréal, Oreo and Wells Fargo — that were cancelled in 2020, how they responded to the backlash and whether their reputations have recovered. While L’Oréal and Oreo have fared fairly well — the cosmetics giant seemed to genuinely learn from its mistake and take significant steps to rectify it, while the cookie maker stood strong in its support for a still-controversial cause — Goya and Wells Fargo are still feeling the backlash, thanks to their lackluster efforts to address the offenses.

Cancel culture is gaining traction and brands should be prepared. Still, to be cancelled is not a finality. In the eyes of many US consumers, cancellations are a way to share their disapproval with companies so that change can be made. It’s a way for individuals to exercise their collective online voice and boycott power to influence organizations.

Read Porter Novelli’s Business of Cancel Culture here.