Keeping Your Bank’s Brand Out of The ‘Cancel Culture’ Crosshairs

It's possible to put out a public relations fire after it is blazing, but financial institutions that cultivate brand loyalty before there's an issue stand a better chance of getting 'uncanceled.'

“Cancel culture” poses reputation challenges that banks and other companies have long faced, but today such debacles can surface with a speed, intensity and spontaneity never seen before. In a business context cancel culture may concern a company’s product, its officers, its practices, the nature of its industry and more.

“Cancel culture was once a call for honest accountability. That’s where it got its roots,” says Mike Proulx, Vice-President and Research Director at Forrester. “But it’s devolved into a weaponized and politicized mob-like action now, where people are amplifying on social media based on ‘hot takes’.”

A couple of definitions help here.

Forrester defines “cancel culture” as “a widespread public campaign (often via social media) to hold a company accountable for the consequences of a perceived wrongdoing. This may include among other things calls for boycotts, terminations, and product changes.” A “hot take” has been defined as “a piece of commentary, typically produced quickly in response to a recent event, whose primary purpose is to attract attention.”

Social media and all its tools, with the catchy hashtag playing a leading role, can ramp up cancel culture attacks nearly instantly.

“Cancel culture has really become a modern label in part for boycotting a brand or boycotting a person,” says Proulx (pron. “Pru”) in an interview with The Financial Brand. “It evolved in pop culture and has become a thing in the last four years.”

He traces the term back to a reality TV series where someone spoke about cancelling a person in the same way one would cancel a subscription. Before long it become enmeshed in politics and issues of rewriting history, changing brand behavior and changing how consumers treat brands.

Forrester consumer research finds that many people don’t like what cancel culture has become. Often this feeling appears on both sides of the political aisle. Even so, people want there to be consequences for actions that really do cause harm.

“And we, as a society, need to hold brands, as people or as companies, accountable,” says Proulx. “But there is the other side, calling out brands, people and companies not based on facts or context.”

What can banking brands do to avoid the hazards of cancel culture? And what can they expect if they do find themselves enmeshed in such controversy in spite of those efforts?

Awareness and Attention Are the First Steps to Damage Control and Prevention

Marketers and communicators used to worry about what they’d see in the morning paper, but now reputation risk is a 24/7/365 matter. At any moment, bad news can surface on social media or news apps. In a report on cancel culture, Forrester lists the following boycott triggers:

  • Cover-ups based on intentional unethical business practices.
  • Mistreatment of the brand’s employees.
  • CEO controversy, when the leader does, says or posts something inappropriate, offensive or scandalous.
  • Spokesperson or influencer scandal, when a paid party identified with the brand does, says or posts something inappropriate, offensive or scandalous.
  • Racist origins, where the brand or a product or practice comes from racist or otherwise offensive origins.
  • Product mishap, when a brand does something incompetent, though unintentionally.
  • Political stance, when the brand takes a public stance on a political or social issue.

Each of these can pop up unexpectedly, except the last one where the company takes a stand on some issue.

Can banking brands avoid self-inflicted wounds? “It all comes back down to the brand’s values, the values of the company,” says Proulx.

“If a brand, an issue and those values intersect, then the company has to look at two factors,” he continues. First, does the brand have a track record and history that gives it the right to speak out on a given issue? Second, if they are going to take a stand, can they do so sensitively?

If the answer is yes to both queries, then a brand can carefully express its view. “It’s those two things that are going to determine whether consumers will see your brand being divisive or careless or, brand-aligned, which is ultimately where you want to be,” says Proulx.

Even so, there is no guarantee that some blind spot or lack of understanding may not backfire and hurt a brand.

Proulx points to a 2017 Dove post on Facebook that backfired. The post was unintentionally racist and was attacked on social media, even though Dove had established a favorable record in its marketing.

In time, “it died down,” says Proulx. “People forgave them because it was an honest mistake. They apologized for it — and the goodwill from what they had done before made up for it.”

Main Causes of Cancellation:

Company ethics issues versus mishaps produce the greatest number of threats of boycotts, according to Forrester research.

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Fighting a Boycott Begins Long Before the Boycott

Boycotts can work most effectively when there is an ongoing but episodic purchasing pattern. For example, if people stop buying some fast food chain’s main sandwich, that’s quick and noticeable. Such boycotts are easily implemented.

In the past, financial institutions had the advantage of being stickier than a choice of fast food meal or soap or TV program. “It takes a great deal of effort to switch banks when you have all of your bills automatically coming out of your deposit account,” says Proulx. “All of these things are so intertwined and wired together that it’s an effort to switch.”

However, the growing influence of fintechs and neobanks may be undoing that “advantage” — really, inertia. “There is greater choice now,” says Proulx and so banking institutions must recognize that they aren’t as insulated as they once might have been.

What this suggests is that the more a bank or credit union can build customer loyalty in advance of a problem, the more likely they can ride out a stretch of bad publicity or actual cancel culture attacks.

This is because Forrester’s research points to a big difference between people hopping aboard cancel culture and actually boycotting a product or service or brand.

“People are really quick to call out brands. It’s become so easy in the social media era to publicly complain about something, whether that is based on fact or misinformation,” says Proulx. “But the cognitive load to actually take action becomes difficult when a brand is deeply embedded in your day-to-day life.”

“Embedded” can entail simple convenience that overrides bad publicity. An example cited in the Forrester report is Amazon, which has been a frequent target of Wall Street Journal exposés about its business and employee practices, a lightning rod for the impact of mega-ecommerce on other companies, and even some bad publicity over the prominent activities of founder Jeff Bezos.

However, “while Amazon faces its share of calls for boycotts, the convenience of its Prime offering makes it that much more difficult to give up,” states the report.

There’s a risk that the message here can be taken as, “become indispensable and you can sin all you want.”

What’s more important to take away is that building up goodwill and credibility that creates brand loyalty establishes a company as a good player and valued vendor. Creating that reputation can take years.

However, according to Proulx, “there can be a greater forgiveness factor” when you do.

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