Why Branding a Political Message Can Get Your Business Cancelled.

Brands today are grappling with the increasingly intricate challenge of maneuvering through the politically charged landscape amplified by social media platforms. With 4.48 billion people actively using social media, according to January 2022 data from Statista, the opportunities for brand visibility are massive. However, a single misguided tweet or culturally insensitive advertisement can bring about a maelstrom of public criticism, often culminating in the dreaded phenomenon of “cancel culture.” This article dissects how social media fuels cancel culture, especially for brands attaching a politically charged agenda to their branding and marketing campaigns.


Click, Share, Cancel: How Social Media Amplifies the Dangers of Political Branding


Social media offers an unparalleled platform for brand-building. Yet, as demonstrated by the notorious Fyre Festival debacle, a well-executed social media campaign can create towering expectations. If unmet, these expectations result in severe reputational damage. The Pew Research Center further corroborates this with a striking statistic: 54% of adults have chosen not to use a product or service due to negative information encountered on social media. Thus, social media can serve as both the architect and the demolisher of brand identity.

More significantly, the speed at which information is disseminated on social media is unmatched. Traditional PR mechanisms for damage control can’t keep up with the pace at which negative information spreads. There’s no “undo” button for a Tweet that’s been screenshot, shared, and analyzed within seconds. Hence, social media serves as a volatile medium for brand reputation, emphasizing the need for calculated and informed decisions.

We also have to consider the role algorithms play in shaping public opinion. These algorithms, designed to maximize user engagement, often amplify sensational or divisive content. Thus, making it easier for cancel culture to gain momentum. Brands, therefore, need to be cognizant of not just the content they produce but also how it could be amplified by algorithmic factors beyond their control.

Given these points, it’s clear that social media’s influence on branding is profound. While providing visibility and customer engagement, it exposes brands to higher risks of reputational damage. Especially given the algorithmic amplification of negative sentiments.


Cultural Sensitivities and the Risk of “Cancel Culture”


Cultural branding is not an option; it’s a necessity in a globalized market, as a 2018 report by the Journal of Consumer Research emphasizes. Dolce & Gabbana’s experience offers a case study in what not to do. Their culturally insensitive ad in China led to immediate repercussions, including removal of their products from Chinese retailers. This is a cautionary tale, underscoring that a brand’s failure to respect cultural nuances can result in instant and overwhelming backlash. Made exponentially worse by social media.

This raises a fundamental question: how can brands negotiate the complexities of global cultural sensitivities while maintaining their identity? The Dolce & Gabbana incident is not isolated. Brands like H&M and Zara have similarly faced backlashes for cultural insensitivity, thereby impacting their market standing and sales.

Brands must invest in thorough research to understand the diverse cultural landscapes they operate in. A surface-level understanding can be more detrimental than no understanding at all, as it can lead to harmful stereotyping. Advanced analytics and consumer insight tools can provide brands with a more nuanced understanding of the markets they serve. But these need to be supplemented by genuine engagement with these communities.

The takeaway here is that cultural sensitivity is not a one-time checklist for global branding. It’s a continuous effort that requires brands to be adaptable and open to learning from their missteps. Given that social media platforms amplify both praise and criticism, cultural branding must be handled delicately to avoid the risk of being “canceled.”


Political Agendas and Brand Risk


The younger demographic, especially Gen Z, wants brands to be more than profit-churning entities; they want them to be agents of social change. Brands like Nike and Ben & Jerry’s have successfully leveraged this sentiment, as indicated by increased market shares. However, the path is fraught with hazards. A 2020 study by Label Insight highlighted that 94% of consumers demand complete transparency from brands. A critical factor given the increased scrutiny brands undergo when they embrace social or political causes.

It’s easy for brands to fall into the trap of performative activism, embracing causes superficially to appeal to their consumer base. The public is savvy and can detect disingenuous attempts at political branding. As evidenced by the #BoycottPepsi and #BoycottBudlight campaigns. In these instances, brands faced backlashes for being inauthentic in their social commentary, leading to calls for boycotts.

But it’s not just a matter of public sentiment; there are tangible financial repercussions too. PepsiCo’s stock price saw a decline following the #BoycottPepsi campaign. In the socially conscious market of today, brands can ill-afford to be complacent. Authenticity isn’t an abstract virtue; it’s a measurable metric that can impact a brand’s bottom line.

Authenticity, therefore, becomes more than just a buzzword; it’s a brand survival tool in an age where consumers are increasingly demanding and social media platforms are ready to amplify any missteps. Brands are now held to a higher standard of social responsibility. And failing this test can have dire consequences, both reputationally and financially.


Navigating the Minefield: Authenticity as the Linchpin


In the face of these complexities, some companies have managed to successfully negotiate the landscape. Everlane, for instance, has built its brand around “radical transparency.” Everlane offered customers complete disclosures, even breaking down product costs. This has not only enhanced their credibility but also significantly improved customer loyalty and retention. And, in India, Patanjali leveraged its domestic origin as a unique selling proposition, successfully challenging established international brands.

Yet, the success stories are far outnumbered by brands that have faltered. The common thread among the latter is often inauthenticity. Companies that attempt to cut corners in their branding efforts, without committing to full transparency, run the risk of being exposed. In this era, the hashtag #Boycott [Insert your Brand Name] can quickly trend, leading to both reputational and financial loss.

Transparency, therefore, is not a lofty ideal but a necessary business strategy. Brands need to ensure that their core values and actions are consistently aligned, especially when engaging with sensitive topics like culture and politics. Any discrepancy between what a brand claims to stand for and its actual actions can be instantly exposed and widely shared. Thanks to the capabilities of social media platforms.

Navigating the socio-political minefield of social media to brand your business or person requires transparency and authenticity. But it also necessitates keeping your political ideologies close to the vest. Brands can’t afford to play fast and loose with consumer trust. The stakes are simply too high.


Final Insights on Social Media, Cancel Culture, and Branding


Brands today are navigating a volatile landscape. Where every step can either propel them into the limelight or shove them into the abyss of public disapproval. Given the scale and speed at which information spreads on social media, the risks are not merely theoretical but represent actual financial and reputational hazards. Brands must move beyond the old playbook of corporate social responsibility to a new paradigm where cultural and ethical sensitivity are integrated into their DNA. The omnipresent threat of cancel culture makes it imperative that this transition isn’t just superficial but deeply rooted in the brand’s identity and operations.

The era of arm’s-length corporate neutrality is long gone. Brands must now actively engage in social issues, but with the awareness that such engagement is fraught with risks. Yet, ignoring these issues isn’t an option either. Social media platforms have democratized the conversation, giving consumers the power to either canonize or cancel a brand.

Brands can no longer afford to be bystanders. They must become active participants, willing to learn, adapt, and most importantly, be authentic in their interactions. This is no longer an optional marketing strategy but an necessary one in the age of social media and cancel culture.

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Drew Lewis

Drew is a brand engineer, creative entrepreneur, digital marketer, and designer.

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