Can Authentic Brands Be Canceled?

by Sep 14, 2022Branding, Resoundcast

Can Authentic Brands Be Canceled?

by | Sep 14, 2022

Last month, I wrote about how authentic brands that last and endure build a loyal community. This month, I’m tackling a logical, highly relevant follow-up question. Given the polarization that’s put everyone in our country under increasing pressure to take sides, can authentic brands be canceled?

It’s possible… and with an ever-increasing list of notable examples, brands facing backlash and cancellation are becoming less and less of an anomaly.

While there are many ways to embroil your brand in some kind of viral, meme-worthy controversy, (if that were my topic, that might be a fun article…) the question I’m asking is: how do authentic brands serve their customers and continue to resonate, even amid a highly politicized culture war? 

Furthermore, aside from walking the tightrope of not offending—or to be realistic, of offending some people in a way that doesn’t do lasting damage—how do brand and company owners know when it’s time to speak up or stay quiet?  

When it comes to politics, conventional business wisdom says always stay out of it. While I see the level-headedness and caution inherent in that approach, it’s actually not a one-size-fits-all for every brand.

So, is there a right time to take a stand?

If there is, and if they must wear one jersey or another, how do authentic brands do it without getting canceled, forgotten, and booed out of existence by everyone in the stands?

It’s a thorny question but, by all accounts, a good one. Like many thorny branding questions, the answer takes us down to motives, intentions, and the extent to which a brand or company, its team, and even its customers understand identity. 

To Thine Own Self, Be True

Believe it or not, the first and foremost defense against getting canceled is a good offense. 

Brand companies that, for any number of reasons, step away from the consistent, authentic identity that they’ve built to score political or social points pay the biggest price…and usually see the biggest backlash. 

The rule of thumb here can be expressed in a simple question—does taking a political stance (or refusing to take one when it’s all the rage and the pressure’s on) make sense given who you really are? Given your brand’s authentic identity?

Is it a clear and logical extension of your values, who you are and who your customers know you are, and the overarching purpose behind everything you do?

If not, and if stepping out into a dicey conversation has no connection to what you do and who you are, should you expect that new, controversial website banner or political hashtag to come across as genuine?

Probably not…and chances are, it won’t.

What if commenting on something does align with your brand?

On the other hand, if your band has had a clear ideological strain from the beginning (brands like Ben and Jerry’s, Chick Fil-A, and Rolling Stone magazine come to mind) and if your values, message, and actions have reflected those political leanings for a long time, taking a stand might be consistent with your values. Chances are, the customers you resonate with will recognize that and the outrage that leads to calls for cancellation will be minimal.

In short, and to the extent that any first line of defense is probably a good thing, a brand that knows itself, and navigates political winds in a way that’s consistent with its purpose and core values, is more likely to keep an even keel.

Even, as you sometimes hear when war breaks out, the game goes to overtime, or a jury goes to deliberate, when all bets are off. 

In the Crossfire

As we increasingly see political stands and calls for cancellation on both ends of politics in America and even the world, more and more brands are getting caught in the crossfire.  

Running with my first premise—that a brand which is authentic, which has done the hard work of finding its frequency, knowing its purpose, its values and who it is has a built-in defense against stepping out of its lane and getting canceled—I’ll go even further. 

A brand that knows itself is defensible in a hostile, even in a back and forth, increasingly fraught political environment. 

I can think of two reasons why that’s the case. 

Number One: brands that know themselves inside and out are less likely to get caught in a dicey conversation.

Even if there’s a political firestorm going on and a lot of temptation for a brand to take sides or have a strong opinion, a brand that knows its own identity through and through will be better able to decide. That brand’s a better position to know if the issue or conversation is one it should be talking about, regardless of what everyone is saying. 

Number Two: brands that know themselves already know what they think.

At least, in many situations. 

If core values and purpose are aligned to actions, expression, and every part of a brand’s interaction, that brand has a pretty good sense of what they’re all about…and which conversations and stances would align with them.

In any case, you’re more likely to have flushed out your thinking before some of these conversations arise. Any stance you take, or don’t take, is pretty well aligned with everything else you’re already doing. 

A Few Case Studies

If, for example, you’re Ben and Jerry’s, your fair-trade ice cream will probably sync well with other political stances you’ve taken. The initiative makes sense and goes with the grain of the ethics and values you’ve said you care about since day one—the environment, global poverty, Birkenstock wearing and the like. You have a reputation for being vocal on one side of certain political conversations, so when you get loud…your customers will continue paying eight bucks a pint for ice cream because they’re familiar with that. 

And while not all of them might appreciate or agree with your political stances, weighing in from a side you’ve traditionally weighed in on will be no shocker. Not if it’s baked into your values, your stated purpose, and the authentic brand identity you’ve built from the inside out. 

To hop to the other side and take another example, think of comedian Dave Chappelle. 

It’s no big secret that Dave Chapelle (and with him, Netflix) have taken heat for some comments from his stand-up comedy about transgenderism. But despite the controversy, and some very angry Netflix employees, Dave Chapelle continues to sell out his stand-up shows. 

The reason why comes back to the fact that he’s authentic and on-brand. Going all the way back to his controversial sketch comedy show, he’s always been the guy that says whatever he thinks, and doesn’t discriminate when it comes to skewering people, habits, and even sensitive cultural topics. 

It makes sense that even if people disagree with them, they’re still likely to think: “Yeah, that fits him. That makes sense. How much for tickets?” 

Operate From an Authentic Place

Whatever side you’re on, if you’re grounded in your values, your purpose, and your core beliefs, you’re operating from an authentic place. 

When some parts of the national or political conversation start creeping into that territory, well…you might be inclined, or even expected to respond, and you might not be. But whatever the case, you probably won’t fall into the pressure many brands and companies do by thinking: everyone’s talking about this… we need to react! We need to say something, fast. 

Rather, and in a way that’s much more winsome and consistent in the long run, you’ll be able to navigate clearly, cautiously, and in a way that fits the beliefs and values your brand identity has already been expressing for a long time. 

Caution and Inventory

Where hot-button topics often spark the fire, social media brings the gasoline. 

A word of caution that’s no big surprise—be careful what you post, when you post, and who posts it. 

If you’ve decided you’re not going to weigh in on the latest headline, the last thing you want is someone from the marketing department going ballistic on your LinkedIn page. 

While conversations and impressions and social media are a bit like vapor—here one moment, and then poof, many brands and companies have done themselves considerable damage by trying to bandwagon, (or by being asleep at the wheel while someone in their office is trying to bandwagon) on the latest hot button issue. 

It makes sense that people are passionate about it, and sometimes overly so.

So, if you choose to make a bold statement or say something in the heat of the moment, you’re likely to end up backpedaling, backtracking, or even wishing you hadn’t said anything. While whatever you said might (and likely will) blow over faster than you think…it’s no alternative to staying level-headed and banking on an authentic brand identity as you make your choice. 

Remember, if getting active on social media in a sensitive conversation doesn’t vibe with who you really are, there’s a lot of wisdom in staying out of it. 

Or at the very least, in taking some thoughtful, comprehensive inventory:

  • Who am I at the core? 
  • What do I stand for on a day-to-day basis? 
  • What’s vital, important, and indispensable to my brand’s identity? 
  • Is this issue one that really matters given our focus and our purpose? 
  • Is this conversation one that speaks to the values, ethics, and expression we’ve been building with customers from day one? 

And looking at it from the angle of your customers, your team, and how your brand’s identity radiates outward and expresses itself in a hundred different ways, you can also ask: 

  • What culture have I built? 
  • What am I known for? Appreciated for? 
  • What do customers, colleagues, or clients say about me when people ask them? 
  • What values and conversations have I entered before? 
  • Over the interactions with customers, and over conversations, communication, and the impression my brand makes, what’s been built in terms of a shared, recognizable identity? 
  • Are parts of my brand superficial, or am I completely truthful? 
  • Do my customers trust me at a deeper level? 
  • How might they respond to speaking on this issue or conversation I care about? Will they understand and see it as consistent? Or will it be out in left field? 
  • To that end, given my brand identity, is it worth it to go out in left field in a surprising, but nonetheless authentic way and face the consequences? 

These ones aren’t easy, and we can’t prescribe answers to them one way or another. 

But if your own answers are shocking or surprising… perhaps it’s time to bow out of that Twitter war and work on the basics of your brand’s identity. 

Authentic is Close to Bulletproof

My final hypothesis on this edgy, slippery issue is that authentic brands look and sound confident. 

Where true confidence that wins respect, builds loyalty, and comes across as authentic only comes from the intrinsic identity and functioning of an organization itself, flamboyant stances meant to grab attention come over as weak, hollow, and inauthentic. 

Knowing who you are and what you stand for, and in many cases, being brave enough to stand by it, conveys strength. Honesty. Humble, genuine, confidence. 

Brands who build their identities with this self-knowledge, and with the discipline to walk it out consistently are in far less danger of responding to political conversations with some kind of PR panic button… uh-oh, oh man… should we say something? We better say something. 

If that’s how you’re going about it, then maybe you shouldn’t. 

What if speaking out or putting out a manifesto in haste will probably cause more problems, come across inauthentic, and put you that much closer to those shrill, critical calls for cancellation? 

Rather, slow it down. 

Build your brand one day at a time. 

Live out your values; if you’re not sure if you’re doing that list them, write them out, and think about how they apply to everything you do. 

For Example…

One of our core values here at Resound is local culture. Having thought and wrestled with how to make that value into a reality, we made a habit of shopping locally, and even giving gifts from local businesses in the Phoenix area to our clients all over the country. 

Telling someone in Texas or Toronto about our favorite Tempe delicatessen, or mailing a gift that’s sourced or manufactured a few miles away is one small way we honor the community that shaped us. 

While it surprises our clients, that surprise usually turns to interest, and even appreciation. 

You’d be surprised how small, but consistent habits can communicate what you value and the fact that you try (of course, not perfectly) to live those values out. 

Implement them wherever you can.

If there’s a way you’re missing the mark, or not living up to a value you’ve gone on record about, think about ways to build it out that are small, practicable, repeatable and winsome. 

Who Doesn’t Get Canceled?

Brands with authentic identities and remarkable track records. 

Ones that know themselves, what they stand for, and how others perceive and appreciate them. They build authenticity by being themselves; by showing up consistently and confidently from the central transparency of a purpose worth living out. 

Of course, only time will tell. But in my estimation, and even while authentic brands that combine self-knowledge with character, humility, consistency, and self-restraint aren’t bulletproof… they’re pretty hard to cancel. 

Trend chasers? Copycats? Knock-off brands that look like all the others? Any brand that goes on a downtown protest just to win a thousand customers?  

Not so much. 

But Whatever Happens… Remember that You Are Remarkable

With that wrapping up my thoughts on how (or how not) to get canceled, I want to come full circle, and remind you that your brand, company, organization, or solo practice already has a remarkable identity. 

Even if you don’t know it, or even if you can’t articulate it just yet. 

If you’d like some help working through your values, your purpose, or how to translate those into an authentic brand expression that’s not likely to be canceled, you should check out my recently released book on B2B branding: ‘You are Remarkable.’

And if you’re just joining me, you can learn about the steps of building, and building from an authentic brand identity in the articles and podcast that cover a whole host of B2B branding topics

Or give us a shout and talk to our team. 

Glad to have you and happy brand building! 

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