Sukanya Chakraborty
Jan 9, 2023

Restoring brand confidence in the age of cancel culture

Being cancelled by a mass audience is a terrifying prospect for any brand, and with social media and the court of public opinion reigning supreme, VFS Global's Sukanya Chakraborty talks about the importance of on-point crisis communication to turn the tide.

(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock)

Digital connectivity accelerated customer reach by unimaginable proportions in a relatively short span. While the transformation has significantly enhanced the scope of customer communication, it has exposed business organisations to constant public scrutiny. The change has prompted the ramping up of social media war rooms and 24/7 reputation managing battle.

Given the extended online exposure during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, brands are now battling a new phenomenon called cancel culture. More than genuine customer feedback, this space is largely occupied by unverified rants and biased clutter. With access to a multitude of social platforms, people now instantly “cancel" or boycott a brand making strong statements, viewpoints, or actions, significantly altering the brand’s reputation.  A recent case in point was a jewellery label whose market cap took a hit a day after calls for “boycott” trended against a controversial campaign.

Experts have realised that online attacks in the age of cancel culture can quickly go out of hand if not managed effectively. Being cancelled by a mass audience is a terrifying thought for any organisation. The trend has triggered deeper analysis of potential reputation risks emerging from popular perception of brand campaigns, reiterating the need for crisis communication as an ‘always on’ activity. 

Promises beyond paperwork

The modern consumer is informed, tech-savvy, curious and closely observes brands. However, while the customers are well informed, what they truly expect from the brand is to be authentic and true to their messaging. Consumers are less likely to feel misled or distrustful if a brand is open, honest, and accountable in its processes.  In fact, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer study, 58% people buy or advocate brands based on their beliefs and values.

Furthermore, Gen Z and millennials are particularly drawn to companies that uphold social and environmental standards beyond their claims on paper. This is where in addition to authenticity, brands must incorporate values like brand empathy and social awareness to secure customer’s respect.

Go beyond their corporate image

Whether the brand is at fault or not, demonstrating compassion and recognising individuals who are suffering can make or break a brand’s image. Solving a crisis starts with responding and acknowledging the suffering of those who are affected. Even a promise to address the matter while expressing empathy for those affected by it, can show that emotions are considered more seriously than business interests. This can go a long way in building deep consumer connections and avoiding the wrath of cancel culture.

Step into the shoes of those affected

Once leaders start putting themselves in the consumers’ shoes, they begin to understand what motivates their audience and what triggers them. Hence, living in an age where brands are prone to all kinds of danger - it is a must to invest time and effort to understand the audience, who is reading and sharing about the company, and what influences their behaviour. Examining data from corporate social pages and digital touchpoints is a good starting point.

Regardless of whether cancel culture will remain intense in the coming years, it is crucial that companies evaluate who they are and how they should change to better serve their target audiences. While Cancel Culture and crisis situations can never be entirely avoided, a brand should be prepared if faced with a difficult situation or choice. Leaders should consistently work towards upholding the company’s values and the values of their consumers. It is imperative that brands keep open communication channels with consumers, evaluate the risks of business and marketing decisions and understand when it is time to address sensitivities.

Sukanya Chakraborty is the chief communications officer at VFS Global.

Campaign Asia

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