Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

You’ve Been Cancelled!

Published in May-Jun 2021

In a world of online activism, brands need to exercise more transparency, honesty and better practices to survive.
Photo: Psychology Spot
Photo: Psychology Spot

Every year, I run a diploma course for young people in creative agencies and ask them to answer an exam question regarding what they think is great creative work now and why it is motivating for its audience and effective for the brand. The responses are always an interesting barometer of what the next generation thinks.

This year, five of my students picked Oatly, a brand that has grown fast with a vegan product (oat milk) and a bold ethical stance. And what was the brand building medium all the students selected? Not TV advertising, certainly not digital advertising (which barely gets a mention in all the exam responses), but the packaging – both the appealingly honest and child-like graphics and the bold, long copy statement of brand beliefs.

The copy starts: “Most people think that having a strong opinion risks scaring away customers who think differently… we believe that we should eat stuff that we can grow instead of growing stuff to feed animals and then eat them.”

Oatly identifies one of the vulnerabilities of established brand leaders. They tend to knock the edges off spikey creative work for fear of alienating existing customers. (“Won’t this work put off our existing customers?” is a question I have been asked many times in creative presentations.) In fact, it is very difficult to alienate a satisfied customer. Besides, the job of effective advertising (as Byron Sharp has shown in his book How Brands Grow) is to attract new customers – and that means you continually need to be fresh and distinctive. Being bland and trying to please everyone is in fact the riskier option.

The Higher Purpose Branding Trend is Now Mainstream

Oatly’s work is a continuation of a trend I have written about before (How lofty is your brand; Aurora May-June 2015). This is ‘Higher Purpose Branding’ (HPB) – the idea that brands can act like pressure groups and choose to champion social/environmental issues, provided (and this is important) it is credible and relevant for them to do so. The great progenitor is Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which is now 17 years old. Radical and provocative campaigns like this are normally watered down and killed off in the approval process. Dove certainly changed the weather in brand communications and spawned many imitators. Brands now routinely campaign on social/environmental issues of all types. However, a word of warning; the context in the age of online activism is different and more unforgiving

The Next Generation is More Demanding

There are stark differences in the attitudes of younger people versus their parents on issues of environmental and social justice. However, the divide has become sharper since Dove launched its campaign; Greta Thunberg symbolises this divide – an unrelenting campaigner calling out the lack of action by baby boomer politicians. One of my students even admired Tonys – a chocolate brand that is “100% slavery free”. Tonys makes “look-a-likes” of chocolate brands that it says are involved in modern slavery. That is highly provocative and of course demands a response from those who have been accused.

Navigating Online Activism

Even if you think you are doing the right thing, there is danger. Try googling “brands that have been cancelled in 2020” for a glimpse of how quickly a brand can be in the cross hairs of online anger and activism. Oatly was in trouble over an investment made by Blackstone (a company it had partnered with) that had invested in a company implicated in the deforestation of the Amazon. I bet the brand manager at Oatly did not predict that (or had any say in who backed the company.)

You Will have to Navigate Cancel Culture

Oldsters often dismiss Cancel Culture as ‘woke’ – with the patronising implication that it is somehow naïve, excessively pious and unrealistic. But you might as well protest about the weather. People who did not have much of a voice before the arrival of free social media now do. For the disadvantaged youth, it can be satisfying to turn the tables on the rich, powerful and established. People who have a bit of power don’t easily give it up.

Woke Can Bring Progress

The intense scrutiny of social media activists is certainly uncomfortable for established brands. Yet, it can have a cleansing effect. Brands have to be sure they do not have skeletons in the cupboard because social media activists are expert at digging up examples of bad past behaviour as well as new infractions.

Do Some Scenario Planning

What to do? Start by ensuring that you have young, socially aware people on your team. Now look at what can go wrong. There are plenty of road crashes to learn from. Here are a few: i) Your ethical claims (e.g. green/Fairtrade) are undermined by the reality of your supply chain and some of your suppliers; ii) If you are trying to drive or hold down prices (a standard practice in the highly competitive supermarket sector), it is likely that workers are getting rock bottom wages in your supply chain; iii) Recent ads from the brand that betray “old fashioned” practices – such as photoshopping brown faces out of ads or just being un-diverse; iv) Historic tweets from management or staff that can be deemed racist or sexist or generally insensitive; v) Your investors/owners own questionable companies. The list of unethical investments is quite long and growing – fossil fuels, unsustainable farming practices, arms manufacture;

vi) You may have done nothing wrong but somebody makes up a story to undermine you. There are plenty of anonymous malevolent people online. You need a rapid response team which has anticipated how to deal with a social media road crash. If you don’t, then a nasty smell might get attached to your brand in the minds of customers.

Your Best Defence – Personality

Refuting accusations does not win the argument. Branding is about creating perceptions more than rationality. Your best defences are the old-fashioned virtue of branding – tone of voice and likeability. Grab a pack of Oatly to see what I mean. “We must look extremely dumb sometimes, little Oatly with 70 employees in the south of Sweden thinking that we can make the food industry more accountable for its actions.” My student, Alice Carty, did not like Oatly just for its ethical stance but also for its “down to earth, personable tone of voice” and “warm, childlike illustrations”.

Navigating the world of online activism requires fundamental change – more transparency, more honesty, better practices. It is a good thing and is a mechanism by which society makes progress. Yet you should not lose sight of the enduring value of warmth and likeability in winning arguments.

Julian Saunders is Founder, The Joined Up Company and former CEO, Red Cell (a WPP creative agency) and Head of Strategy, McCann-Erickson.