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Does Employer Branding Have the Antidote to 'Cancel Culture'?



Employer Branding, Talent Attraction, Brand Authenticity

It might be time to quietly make your way down to the safety of the bunker – culture war has come to marketing. Apparently. Question is, will the breakaway republic of employer branding also become embroiled in it?

As we recently reported in our weekly Digital Hug newsletter, new research from the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) says that many UK marketers (67%) are limiting their work to campaigns for UK audiences because some fear offending other cultures.

Some 41 per cent fear being victims of the dreaded ‘cancel culture’ when companies, brands or products are boycotted by consumers for a variety of reasons.

It cites the example of Samsung coming under fire for being ‘unrealistic’ with an advert showing a woman running alone at 2am. Ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup, brands are also re-evaluating sponsorship following controversy around its human rights record. As well they might.

Chris Daly, CEO at the Chartered Institute of Marketing says: “Across the world, consumers and employees are becoming more vocal in calling out companies when they put a foot wrong, making sure they’re held accountable for their actions. Yet this behaviour shouldn’t mean UK marketers shy away from being ambitious, scaling up campaigns and chasing global opportunities. We can’t risk losing out on international work because of a lack of confidence, especially when we’re trying to bounce back from the pandemic.

“It’s no doubt that the UK marketing industry can produce incredible work, tapping into the iconic British sense of humour. Whilst it’s reassuring to see marketers’ confidence in appealing to their home audience, we do run the risk of wearing ‘British blinkers’ and cutting ourselves off from the wider world. Producing globally successful work requires a range of skills, a different process and a strong understanding of various audiences and cultures. If marketing professionals want to open more opportunities for their brands, they need to urgently upskill in these areas”.

Brands and cancel culture

According to a study by Edelman, 64% of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue.

There’s little doubt that purchasing decisions can be conscience-based, but specific examples of where marketing campaigns have been cancelled are, however, a little thin on the ground.

Buyers of the Swedish vegan milk brand Oatly did start boycotting the company after it sold $200 million in shares to a consortium that includes Blackstone. A Twitter thread accused the investor of contributing to deforestation in the Amazon.

The Mars-owned quick-cook rice brand formerly known as Uncle Ben’s is now Ben’s Original. The rebrand followed frequent accusations of racism against its famous  logo – a depiction of a black rice farmer – and the brand name. White people in the southern states would once refer to a black man as ‘uncle’ to avoid using the more respectful ‘mister’.

This, however, seems more like a nudge towards a long-overdue update or evolution of the brand rather than any organised storming of a rice factory.“As a global brand, we know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices,” Mars said in June 2020. “As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the black community, and to the voices of our associates worldwide, we recognise that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand.”

Well, you might argue that 20 or more years ago was the time, or better still, never.

Jam and marmalade maker Robertsons removed the infamous golly (longer iteration of the word now not OK) character from its jars in 2001 and stopped using it in TV ads back in the eighties before the phrase ‘cancel culture’ had even been invented.

In  the media many of the commentators claiming to be cancelled and to have had their right to free speech savagely curtailed do so from the comfort of a regular national newspaper column, sitting on a TV panel show or through their own social media channels. In some cases, a bit of the old cancelling has done wonders for their ‘edgy’ commentary on social and political issues helping to create a combative ‘will not be silenced’ persona.

Adjacent to the so-called culture war itself there exists a debate about whether cancel culture is in fact an authentic phenomenon or whether it is merely the power of social media highlighting the actions of bad faith actors through a forum that simply wasn’t available 20 or so years ago. Social media is merely a hugely more effective version of the letters page in a newspaper. At its worst it is the stocks in the market square where insults are now thrown instead of rotten vegetables.

So, there’s little doubt that through social media the weight of public opinion can now more swiftly be brought to bear in tackling perceived injustices or challenge outdated or extremist opinions. It’s a technological change that is driving cultural change.

Employer brand strategy

For employer branding, however, ‘cancel culture’ represents an example of how it is ahead of the curve in comparison to traditional consumer marketing, which is arguably more manufactured whereas, employer branding must always come from a place of well-researched authenticity.

If, in the case of the Samsung campaign, it was ‘cancelled’ because it failed to understand the cultural attitudes towards women in the territory it was targeting, then perhaps not enough research was done on that element of the campaign.

An employer brand strategy should start from a position of empathy and understanding of its audience. In fact, that should be in the brief. Not something that you realise afterwards. In traditional consumer marketing the product is in the brief. In employer brand marketing the human is in the brief.

To create a global or multi-territory employer brand, of course you must be aware that a one-size fits all approach won’t achieve what you want. And as we have seen, in the worst-case scenario it can even result in a backlash.

You are aiming to create something that everybody can buy into and find some affinity with globally, but also see themselves in the message.

There must be a local opportunity to interpret that global message in every territory. From a framework strategy perspective there are going to be elements that are global, central, and non-negotiable such as the positioning statement, the brand guidelines and so on.

Going further, there will be elements which are globally defined and locally tailored with the inclusion of local people, photography etc. And then there’s things that are completely local. And it is there that your research steps involving interviews with senior management and staff across the company, locally and further afield, should arm you and protect you against making obvious own goals through a lack of cultural sensitivity or awareness.

In short, if your employer brand campaign is ‘cancelled’, it might be because it wasn’t that good to start with.

  • Establish a branding committee to catch the truth of your organisation at the research stage, involving senior management and staff from across the company.
  • Use it to create an employer brand that has over-arching and non-negotiable global brand elements; global and locally tailored and just local.
  • If you are criticised, do not try to hide, tell the truth, listen, and act in line with the values that your brand has been built around.
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