Cancel Culture: How to prevent tone-deaf marketing

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Brands that fail to be sensitive and tactful in their communication risk being subjected to ‘cancel culture’.

The problem

Recently we have witnessed some serious marketing and digital communication faux pas; From Clicks (we don’t even need to explain this one), to KFC’s tweet that took an insensitive dig at the Tsonga culture, to Donavan Tooth’s (Panda Clothing owner) social media rant about overweight women. These cases have brought to light some big questions for marketers and the businesses they promote: why is tone-deaf marketing on the rise, and how can we prevent it?

The term ‘cancel culture’ has gained popularity over the last few years, and is defined as: ‘the practice of withdrawing support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.’ Even though the term has gained popularity recently, it is the oldest form of consumer advocacy – it’s a powerful balancing force in favour of the customer. As Vijayaratnam Tharumartnam, director of group corporate communications at PROTON, says: “It’s rooted in the idea that to correct bad behaviour, you must hit a company where it hurts most, the bottom line.”

Cancel culture is not something new, but it has intensified over the past few years, and even more during the pandemic. This is likely because we’re living in an era of greater sensitivity, where younger customers are demanding that brands are honest and take responsibility for their actions, which clashes with the social media era: brands make rushed decisions because of sales pressure or a fear-of-missing-out. The outcome: the brand upsets members of their target audience, this information travels at the speed of lightning, and a tone-deaf communication is the result.

Solution: How to avoid tone-deaf marketing

Think about your brand values
Before you strategise a campaign, think about how it aligns with your brand values (which have hopefully been structured to align with your target audience). Before you even think about generating engagement, consider whether you are connecting with and understanding your target audience. Then, ask your trusted colleagues to look at your communication considering your brand values – the more eyes and ears, the better.
PS: As a rule, avoid any salesy or self-centered angles to your communication when responding to anything sensitive, such as COVID-19.

■ Avoid newsjacking
Newsjacking is defined as ‘piggybacking on trending news topics to get yourself noticed’ by ‘adding your thoughts and opinions into breaking news stories.’ It goes wrong when brands voice their thoughts and opinions without thinking of their target audience. For example, think about whether you can create a discount that actually helps your target audience instead of making it look like an opportunistic moment to get them to make a COVID-19 purchase.

■ Listen to your target audience
We’ve been speaking about communication this entire time, and for brands (believe it or not), this predominantly involves listening. Your target audience want to feel heard. Before you strategise your communication, research your target audience and find out what they want to hear. Social media has created this wonderful opportunity to really connect with your audience, but this only works if your brand authentically listens to what your audience wants.

There is so much content out there that leaves us petrified of making a mistake as a brand (Netflix’s trending new documentary The Social Dilemma is enough to scare anyone off social media for good).

But we can also look at the mistakes brands have made, and the lessons we’re learning from them, as a gift. We are realising how much more sensitive and empathetic brands have to be to differing cultures and viewpoints – especially in South Africa, with our rainbow nation. Learning from these mistakes, and thinking about our different target audiences, will make a lot of us uncomfortable – but as Brené Brown, American professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host, says: “He or she who has the greatest capacity for discomfort rises the fastest.”


Yellow Door CollectiveJessica Pitman (left) is Accounts and Project Manager, and Alex Mac Neill (right) is Marketing Assistant at digital marketing agency, Yellow Door Collective.


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