The Rise of Corporate Cancel Culture: What Brands Can Do


With the normalization and use of social media in the lives of people from all backgrounds, both consumers and companies are affected by what is now known as "cancel culture." With social media giving a platform to all, people freely share their opinions; when it comes to how consumers feel about brands, they aren't shy to share how they feel, good and bad.

Brands are still adjusting to this new landscape — a misstep can place a company in negative light and damage brand perception and loyalty. Porter Novelli recently conducted a study and published its finding in a report about U.S. corporate cancel culture and consumer behavior.

Its findings were fascinating, showing that consumers at once feel comfortable and emboldened to share their opinions — and yet many consumers are willing to forgive and forget, as long as a company takes accountability, learns from its mistakes, and moves forward progressively.

For instance, 72 percent of respondents "feel more empowered than ever before to share their thoughts or opinions about companies" through social media. Sixty-eight percent believe "cancelling" a brand can be the catalyst for positive social change, both for the company and society. Moreover, 87 percent of respondents believe companies need to take accountability for its actions, words, and statements.

It's important to note, however, that despite consumers leaning into cancel culture, 88 percent of consumers are "more willing to forgive a company for making a mistake if it genuinely tries to change." Furthermore, 73 percent are "less likely to cancel a company if it is purpose-driven" and 84 percent will "forgive a company for a misstep if it's that company's first time making a mistake." A little less than half (40 percent) believe a company must also create internal employee programs to change toxic cultures and beliefs.

That being said, the majority of Americans (56 percent) "have refrained from the movement" of cancel culture, as they are unsure of how effective it is. This suggests that while many Americans do feel social media can be a force for good, especially when it comes to discrimination and racism, it is still a method many use with hesitation.

Most consumers do believe when it comes to racism or sexism, companies need to be held responsible to do better. Seventy percent would cancel a brand "if it said or did something offensive in relation to racial justice," and 69 percent would do the same regarding sexism women's rights and COVID-19 protocols. Surprisingly, only 54 percent would cancel or disengage from the brand if it had opposing politics.

Case Studies and Brand Examples:

A boycott of Wells Fargo occurred recently when its CEO, Charles Scharf, stated it was a challenge to find diverse employees due to a "limited pool of Black talent to recruit from." Although Scharf did issue an apology, negative sentiment toward the company remained for two months. In this case, not enough was done to show consumers how the company would move forward progressively.

Porter Novelli also theorized that because the brand doesn't engage much on social media with its consumers to begin with, it didn't have enough of a loyal base to weather the storm, so to speak.

Conversely, OREO launched an LGBTQ+ focused campaign earlier this year that included "rainbow cookies and an ad of a mom supporting her daughter after bringing home her girlfriend." A conservative advocacy group One Million Moms called for people to boycott the brand for promoting an LGBTQ+ lifestyle.

Unlike Wells Fargo, however, OREO does have positive engagement with its consumers year-round, which allowed consumers to remain positive and loyal to the brand despite the online protest of the brand via the conservative group.

The lesson learned? Companies need to engage with consumers on a constant basis to build purpose, brand loyalty, and allow consumers to connect with the brand authentically to mitigate negative sentiment when it does arise. Taking accountability quickly matters, and at bare minimum, consumers expect a company to clearly outline the steps it will take to learn from its mistakes.


"The Rise of Corporate Cancel Culture: What Brands Can Do," ANA, 2021.