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'Brands that behave immorally now have nowhere to hide'

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L'Oréal, H&M and recently also The Voice of Holland have all been there: the cancel culture. How do you navigate a world where consumer power is greater than ever before as a brand? The answer Is to make corporate social responsibility part of your mission, include empathetic trendwatchers in your team, and think cross-generationally, as we learn from three experts.

An army of bloodthirsty robot bees has targeted the party that is most frequently mentioned on Twitter, matched with the hashtag #DeathTo. Don't freak out though, it's only an episode of Black Mirror. But such an apocalyptic idea does get you thinking about how individuals and brands can be "canceled" these days — whether it's justified or not, says Carole Lamarque, CEO and co-founder of Belgian agency DUVAL UNION Innovative Marketing. "Sometimes when I read messages on social media, I think: is this really necessary? If you respond, I think there should be some sort of genuine commitment. You should always be open to the opinions of others. You can be surprised in any area," says Lamarque, author of the marketing book Zoonotic, in which she also describes how cancellation arises. She quotes a French proverb: "Il n'y a que les cons qui ne changent pas d'avis." In other words: Only idiots never change their minds.

Power to the consumer
Is cancel culture a completely new phenomenon? Not especially, says Marilyn Wilkinson, a British digital marketing consultant, social media expert and copywriter for IBM, among others. "Seventy-seven percent of consumers buy from brands whose values align with their own. They want to do business with brands that act with integrity – whether it's gender or racial equality, sustainability, the treatment of animals or workers' rights." According to Wilkinson, the cancel culture is just an extension of the steady power shift we've been witnessing for more than a decade, with the public no longer just exposed to advertising, but increasingly having a voice. "What has changed is that since the rapid rise of social media and social justice, movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, consumers have gained much more power to speak out against brands. People and brands that behave immorally now have nowhere to hide."

Challenges for brands
How do you handle that as a brand? According to communication expert Jos Govaart, it is more important than ever to remain focused on the question of what your raison d'être is on earth and how you can make a contribution to it. According to him, there is quite a challenge there. "Nowadays, a small group of people can determine the conversation of the day for you. That doesn't need to have anything to do with the opinion of the country. As a result, it's being made very difficult for brands to retain a degree of clarity on who they really are," says the founder of the Dutch PR and communication agency Coopr, which works for brands such as Coca-Cola, Adidas and Coolblue.

Define a CSR strategy
That is precisely why, according to Wilkinson, it is important to stay true to your brand values, to act with integrity and to be authentic. She says that this is not possible in this day and age without combining it with corporate social responsibility. Her advice is to implement a CSR strategy that includes sustainability, diversity, employee rights and ethical practices in the supply chain. "Just selling stuff and making money is no longer enough." This is obviously what was missing from L'Oréal Paris, which was canceled in 2020 after the company made a statement about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. That was perceived as being hypocritical, as the brand had previously canceled a collaboration with black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf in 2017 because he had shared a message on Facebook about white supremacy.

Empathetic trendwatchers
In addition, it's important to know what's going on in your community and the audiences that follow you, Lamarque adds. "For a marketer, these are the trends that live within the segments that you target. It is therefore crucial - now even more than before - that you include empathetic trendwatchers in your team, but also at all levels of management."
That apparently didn't go quite right at H&M, which came under fire in 2018 because of a photo of a black boy wearing a sweater with the text 'Coolest monkey in the jungle'. Dolce & Gabbana was accused of racism around the same time for using ethnic stereotypes in a commercial. The advertisement showed a Chinese model who tried to eat different Italian dishes with chopsticks. Apologies followed, but the Shanghai fashion show didn't go ahead, costing the brand millions.

Think cross-generational
According to Lamarque, it is also important to continuously think across generations, both in terms of consumers and within a company. "Generation Z is already active in the workplace. They work together with, among others, Baby Boomers and Generation Y'ers. This can become a breeding ground for cancellation. Older generations who are too far removed from a younger generation and do not make an effort to understand it may encounter cancellation more quickly."

Building up knowledge about what is going on in segments to which you don't necessarily belong is of great importance, according to her. "It is crucial that you know the latest laws and ensure that you don't skip or deny any new developments. Early on, there was a group of marketers who didn't take social media seriously. Those people are no longer marketers today. That's also the case with marketers who don't take the Metaverse seriously. "The stragglers will fall by the wayside."

What if it's all too late?
But what if it's too late? What if you are in danger of being cancelled after a PR blunder, a miscalculation or a #MeToo scandal, as is currently the case with The Voice of Holland? After accusations of sexually transgressive behavior against the bandleader and two jury members, sponsors and celebrities recently removed themselves en masse from the Dutch edition of the globally successful format.

Wilkinson relies on solid crisis PR strategy. "Any statement you make as a reaction must be honest, humble and transparent. If you messed up, say so and make it clear what you're going to do to put it right. Empty words are not enough and can only make people even more angry. Show that you are really taking action, and making significant changes to your way of working. Cancellation doesn't mean the end of your brand, just consider it a serious wake-up call."

According to her, L'Oréal is now seemingly proving that after the aforementioned debacle surrounding the black transgender model Bergdorf. Due to the uproar that arose on Twitter, the cosmetics brand invited Bergdorf to be part of a new advisory board that deals with diversity and inclusion. In addition, the company made a donation of 50,000 pounds to a transgender organization and a black gay pride event in London.

Racism
"I do think a donation like that is kind of a dangerous move," says Lamarque, "but that new advisory board can hopefully enhance the company's empathetic knowledge. Racism is such a recurring topic in the blunder book of companies. That indicates a large gap in the basic knowledge of marketing managers; possibly something to add to the curriculum?" 

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