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Managing Brands In A Cancel Culture


Managing Brands In A Cancel Culture

Call-out culture, or ‘cancel culture’ is, as defined by Urban Dictionary, “a modern internet phenomenon where a person is ejected from influence or fame by questionable actions. It is caused by a critical mass of people who are quick to judge and slow to question. [Also] caused by an accusation, whether that accusation has merit or not. It is a direct result of the ignorance of people-caused communication technologies outpacing the growth in available knowledge of a person.”

With roots in America’s conservative, Christian southern states, Chick-Fil-A restaurants have grown from a regional favorite into the third largest restaurant chain in America based by system-wide sales. Despite the success, the brand has always drawn ire from progressives and LGBTQ+ activists for their leadership opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage, and for charitable donations to groups like the Salvation Army or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, who have also opposed same-sex marriages and hold very traditional world views. Even as they opened their first location in the UK, the protests from LGBTQ+ activists were so severe that their lease is not set to be renewed, just six months after the restaurant’s opening.

But the brand is now changing their corporate giving policies and will no longer be supporting the Salvation Army or the FCA. In a statement to Business Insider, they say, “We made multiyear commitments to both organizations, and we fulfilled those obligations in 2018. Moving forward you will see that the Chick-fil-A Foundation will support the three specific initiatives of homelessness, hunger and education.

And with that decision, the brand is now under fire from both sides.

For progressives, some have said the brand has taken a step in the right direction. But for others, the move wasn’t enough. Drew Anderson, GLAAD’s director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement Monday, “If Chick-fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families”.

For conservatives, they see a brand that has ‘bent the knee’ to the pressure of progressives and is looking to expand into markets (like the UK example) where they could likely face similar, urban protests. And then there’s the differentiator. Mike Huckabee, a former Governor who created Chick-Fil-A Day in 2012 says, “Many of us who stood with them before [during a boycott by progressives] and stood in line for hours for a sandwich, we won’t do that again because they’re just another restaurant now. They decided they don’t want to be distinct. They don’t want to be unique.” Some are even saying they are waiting for an announcement that the chain will open on Sundays.

The US and UK are hotspots of acute polarization. This tribal mentality of being “with us or against us” makes any hope for rationality impossible and puts enormous pressure on brands that are trying to navigate an environment in which consumers are expecting them to step up. But a move in any direction can create the kind of outrage that has material impact on the business. Especially if it is a move that leans conservative. Remember Home Depot and Papa John’s.

The best advice for brands is to proactively plan their communications. Know what you stand for and what you stand against. If you’re going to change a long-standing policy, assemble a cognitive and socially diverse team to explore merits and shortfalls. Empathy needs to be at the core of decision-making. Anticipate the ‘flash reactions’ and either respond coherently or pause to let the initial wave of outrage blow over.

Rodney Bullard, the head of the Chick-fil-A Foundation, defended the past donations in an interview with Business Insider earlier this year saying, “The calling for us is to ensure that we are relevant and impactful in the community, and that we’re helping children and that we’re helping them to be everything that they can be. For us, that’s a much higher calling than any political or cultural war that’s being waged. This is really about an authentic problem that is on the ground, that is present and ever present in the lives of many children who can’t help themselves.”

And that should be something everyone can get behind.

***Looking for a great holiday gift for co-workers or clients, send them the new branding book “FOLLOW the FEELING: Brand Building in a Noisy World” today, written by Branding Strategy Insider Kai D. Wright.

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