How Brands should handle Cancel Culture on Social Media

Thanks to social media’s reach, it’s possible for unknown SME brands to go viral overnight. All you need is one happy soul tweeting about your great customer service or an influencer raving about your product.

On the flip side, there’s always the risk of trending for all the wrong reasons and seeing your repute get shredded beyond repair. The worst part is that you may not even be at fault.

Any customer who didn’t like what you served, or agree with what you said, can channel their ire into negative reviews or slanderous tweets. And this may snowball into a sensational media frenzy beyond your control.

That’s not paranoia; it’s modern-day reality. Indian brands know this outrage all too well.

Of late, there has been a rise in offended crowds calling to blanket-ban a product after a controversial ad unwittingly hurt their religious sentiments, or an employee made a genuine human error.

To outsiders, this looks like tone-deaf trolling. And it’s true that the majority of protests consist of jobless people and journalists, all lapping up the opportunity to get triggered by something trivial. The comedians at AIB even did a hilarious sketch on this phenomenon, now referred to as “Cancel Culture.”

For marketing and social science students, however, such incidents remind us how crucial it is to understand and respect the nuances of our regional audience’s sensitivities and current inter-group tensions.

They caution us against casually ignoring or blatantly disrespecting cultural boundaries unless you’re eager to become the next scapegoat on the mob’s chopping block.

So on that note, let’s recap some landmark cases of this ilk.

We’ll then discuss how social media admins should ideally react to such situations. There’s a delicate art to balancing the responsibility to protect your brand’s image and placating the public with necessary clarifications or amends.

Zomato’s CEO Deepinder Goyal might have some pointers on the technique, but we’ll get to it shortly.

Ekatvam by Tanishq (October 2020)

Around the second week (9th Oct), when the pandemic was at its peak, Jewelry brand Tanishq published a 43-sec. Hindi spot on YouTube titled “Confluence,” promoting their new line ‘Ekatvam’ (Hindi word for unity).

The ad features a pregnant Hindu woman in a white sari being escorted by her Muslim mother-in-law (indicated with a salwar suit and dupatta covering the head) to a baby shower ceremony.

The daughter asks, “But this ceremony is not held at your home…”, to which the elder woman replies, “Isn’t it a tradition for every home to keep daughters happy?”

The description reads, “She is married into a family that loves her like their own child. Only for her, they go out of their way to celebrate an occasion that they usually don’t. A beautiful confluence of two different religions, traditions, and cultures.”

The ad was taken down in a matter of hours after a section of Hindu tweeters accused it of normalizing “Love Jihad,” which Times of India defines as “an alleged activity under which young Muslim boys and men are said to reportedly target young girls belonging to non-Muslim communities for conversion to Islam by feigning love.”

The backlash was so intense that some protestors took to LinkedIn to search the creators behind the campaign, and send them threatening messages.

Succumbing to the pressure, the brand retreated, and in its statement, expressed the disappointment of having to withdraw its creative work with their employees’ and actors’ safety.

The people weren’t done with the brand, though.

A month later in November, during Diwali season, Tanishq released another short ad in which it notable young actresses like Sayani Gupta urged viewers to celebrate a “cracker-free Diwali in peace with family, sweets, positivity, and of course, jewelry.”

This time, it was CT Ravi, then BJP’s National General Secretary from Karnataka, who lit the spark. He tweeted, “Why should anyone advise Hindus how to celebrate Our Festivals?”, a sentiment that echoed by many of his followers.

Being vigilant

Without getting distracted by the politics, this entire fiasco acts as a two-pronged warning for marketers to be more socially savvy before launching their campaigns during the festive season:

  • Be aware of the current issues in the cultures you’re showcasing in your content. If the tensions are high, you should avoid joining the discussion, and stay silent.
  • Realize that when you’re taking a “stand for something,” you’re also indirectly standing against something. If that “against something” is an opinion or practice that’s dear to a large social group, it’s just best to stay out.

Checkpoint 1: Is going public necessary?

First, Tanishq should’ve known that tensions between Hindus and Muslims were (and still are) high in the country. At such a point, is it really a logical move to pluck those strings?

When you’re commenting on something as a brand and not an individual, you’re representing a large group of people who work with you, so it’s a bigger responsibility that calls for more research.

There’s no point in chasing the image of being “ahead of your times” when the times themselves are divided and confused.

Before your team puts out any hip & trendy statement online, ask yourself: “Is it really necessary that we take a public stand on this? Or is it something we can just discuss and practice internally?”

For example, during the Black Lives Matters protests (after the police shooting incident), many brands took a “moment of silence” to show solidarity with the victim.

But did they take the time to educate their communities about the history of the protests and issues? Did they themselves know what had led to this moment?

They could’ve just as effectively supported the cause by updating their internal policies to be more inclusive and safe for all races and genders.

Simply saying two lines on your Stories doesn’t make a difference if you’re not adhering to those principles yourself, does it?

That brings us to the second checkpoint.

Checkpoint 2: Is going public safe?

Yes, brands do have a responsibility to stand up against social evils. But not at the cost of their own business. If you’re going to speak up on an issue, consider who your message is being addressed to. If there are chances of your target audience getting irked or hurt, don’t push out the content.

For Tanishq, India’s upper-class Hindus form a major buyer segment, so they should’ve considered that many of these buyers may not be comfortable with the idea of showing a Hindu woman being wedded off into a Muslim household.

Unless you’re prepared to lose some of your business, just stick with neutral comedy or heartwarming family-based content campaigns.

For example, if you’re in Russia or Singapore, countries that have anti-LGBTQIA+ laws, you wouldn’t want to air a spot against homophobia unless you want to go out of business. You may woo the liberal crowd, but the support will be much lesser than the criticism you’ll face from conservative Christians.

In heavily censored China, having discussions with the Government on private channels may pose a risk to your safety as well.

Similarly, in Islamic republics like Malaysia or Dubai, you should think twice before touching upon the dominant religion. Most small brands do not have the luxury of sidestepping these norms or being pardoned for saying something controversial.

For example, when Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women drivers, Ford released a witty tweet celebrating the chance. But it could afford to do that because of its brand presence and strength in that market. Even if the conservative men canceled the brands from their lists, Ford would still have a huge enough base to depend on for its sales.

On the other hand, if you’re a startup that depends on the Sheikh’s and/or local customers’ goodwill, there’s too much at stake to comment on such divisive matters.

The idea is not to be conservative but rather to pick your battles wisely. Some subjects are notoriously polarizing (like ex-POT, US Donald Trump), so it’s best to swerve away from them, especially when your “opposition” is in the majority.

To make following this principle easier, here’s an unironic checklist of some possible “offense-trigerring” taboo topics you can (but should not) touch in your messages:

  • Sexuality
  • Gender Roles
  • Racial sterotypes
  • Religious traditions & customs
  • Left/Right Political Views (Liberal/Conservative)
  • Misusing children for promotion
  • Animal cruelty
  • Environmental degradation/pollution

Fab India’s Diwali Capsule (October 2021)

Not everyone seems to have gotten the memo. A year later (in or around October 9th), fashion brand Fab India released a new line christened “Jashn-e-Riwaaz.”

Since this was during Diwali time, fans thought it was their seasonal range, and accused the brand of tarnishing the Hindu festival with an Urdu name as well as a Mughlai vibe.

The brand later clarified their POV in an Indian Express article, stating that this capsule was, in fact, a homage to all Indian cultures (which is what the title stands for).

They noted that they had a separate collection slated for Diwali. It was titled “Jhilmil si Diwali,” and was yet to be released at that time.

This time, it’s clear that the brand is to be blamed for the miscommunication. Because a now-deleted tweet shows the brand promoting the “Jash-e- Riwaaz” to welcome the festival of love and light (which is obviously Diwali).

So one could say that they even contradicted their initial message after the backlash.

If you read the tweet, you’ll understand why some customers may have interpreted it as the Diwali collection, and by extension, felt offended by the unnecessary cultural appropriation of their tradition.

Regardless of your personal opinion on the issue, if you consider this from a purely content creation perspective, it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice one audience segment’s sensitivity (in this case, Hindus) to pander to another group (which may be liberals, Muslims, or Urdu speakers).

In other words, Fab India should’ve stuck with Diwali’s sacrosanct traditions and names, which are predominantly rooted in Sanskrit, Marathi, or modern-day Hindi (read: not Urdu), for dictating their campaign names and visuals, at least around the Diwali season.

If they didn’t make a play at mixing cultures and kept it simple (as they did in “Jhilmil si Diwali,” there would’ve been no reason for any side to take offense.

Key Takeaway for Marketers

Fab India should’ve taken some hints from Tanishq’s case, and been more careful in its communications around the festive season when people’s emotions are dialed up to the max.

It could’ve released the “Riwaaz” capsule a few weeks earlier, and simply termed it as a celebration of all the cultures in the country. By not mixing it with their Diwali campaign (for which it had separate visuals anyway), it could’ve easily avoided the entire fiasco.

When you’re creating content for a religiously-tied event or day, it’s best to respect that particular religion, and avoid mixing any inter-faith connotations just for the sake of appearing “forward.”

If you ask me, I would just stay away from showcasing any specific customs or practices.

Instead, I would just label all my sales very plainly like “Diwali Sale” or “Christmas Sale,” accompanied with neutral visuals of diyas and lanterns or Santa Claus and snowfall respectively.

Stay as neutral as possible in your copy and visuals, so that you can jump on the seasonal shopping hype, but avoid getting into any big debate that’ll eat into your time and motivation.

Dabur’s Karwa Chauth

It seems as though I’ll have to update this list every month because just a week after Fab India’s campaign was booted off social media channels, Dabur-owned Fem faced slack for their Karwa Chauth ad.

On the surface, it looks like a cute harmless script featuring a same-sex lesbian couple wishing for each other’s wellbeing during the festival.

But netizens were once again annoyed with the selective piggybacking on Hindu traditions & festivals for showing “woke” concepts such as LGTBQIA+ friendly campaigns. In no time, #BoycottDabur was trending.

Many also pointed out that Karwa Chauth has already been under fire for being a misogynistic custom that’s unfair towards women, and Fem is objectifying them further by putting pressure to be fair/light-skinned, so according to the protestors, in no way was this campaign a progressive one.

Dabur took down the ad from its official channels very soon after the #BoycottDabur hashtag started gaining traction.

The outrage once again brings us to the root allegation. To sum it up:

  • There are very few ads by Indian brands that target Abrahamic religions, notably Islam, since the creators are afraid that the followers of those faiths will take penal action against such initiatives.
  • But since Hinduism has been (allegedly) a secular religion at large, we have to tolerate liberal-pandering stunts by brands that casually distort, misrepresent, and misuse Hindu festivals.

Key Takeaway for Creators

Once again, we see the perils of not clearly understanding what a certain tradition or custom is supposed to signify. Fem’s team thought that if they used an LGBT-friendly script, they would melt hearts, but they never considered which context they’re using it in.

They tried to leverage a festival like Karwa Chauth that many people – especially feminists (who are thought to be LGBT allies) – criticize & despise for being disrespectful towards women. So this was a recipe for disaster from the beginning. It almost seems as though Fem never really ran the idea through many lesbian couples themselves.

As opposed to this piece, I remember seeing a better execution of the LGBT-friendly theme in Myntra’s 2015 “Anouk” ad, which follows an Indian lesbian couple getting prepared to talk to their parents about their relationship (and potential marriage).

The script is sweet yet careful, taking care not to misuse any specific Indian/Hindu traditions, and instead focusing on the couple’s brave decision to stand against social stigma, while at the same time addressing their fears & struggles.

By showing empathy to the emotional human aspect of these social issues, it manages to effectively convey the tagline “bold is beautiful” without appearing patronizing to any religion.

This would be well-received by most young Indian audiences, with the exception of a few ardent conservatives.

Perhaps Fem never bothered to study any previous case studies of the genre, and the lack of homework shows in its poor execution.

So dear content creators, please take some effort to research the festivals or traditions you guys are using in their pieces to ensure that they don’t toy with controversial beliefs of customs.

Zomato Boy’s Slap Case (March 2021)

Let us turn our attention to how brands should respond to online backlashes. In both the cases we saw above, the management apologized and pulled down the campaigns, out of fear for their workforce’s safety.

That’s a fair reaction. But if we always follow suit, we marketers risk creating an environment where we are at the mercy of whatever the consumers say and demand us to do.

There is great tact in ensuring that as you manage the audience’s expectations, you also stand by your brand. For our next two cases, we’ll consider Zomato CEO’s response to two controversies that hit his brand unexpectedly.

Granted, these attacks were not because of any ad or content the brand put out, but rather due to their employees’ actions or conduct in the field.

Even then, the response in both cases was still a “#Ban_Zomato” trend, so it ties back to our discussion on how brands should respond to Cancel Culture on social platforms, most prominently, Twitter.

On 9th March 2021, a Bengaluru-based Instagram model and makeup artist, Hitesha Chandranee, posted a video accusing a Zomato delivery rider, Kamaraj, of assaulting her after he allegedly made late food delivery. In it, she points to the injuries on her nose and complains about the ill-treatment.

The next day, local police arrested the accused initially. But the story got twisted after he himself filed a counter-FIR against Hitesha and revealed his side of the story. In his statement, he accused Hitesha of wrongful restraint, assault, intentional insult, and criminal intimidation.

Netizen’s flocked to Kamaraj’s support, pointing inconsistencies in Hitesha’s statement and video, as well as urging Zomato to probe the matter neutrally. The plight of delivery riders during the pandemic lockdown was already in the public eye, so the matter heated up quite quickly.

Celebrities like Parineeti Chopra pitched in with their sympathies for Kamaraj.

Eventually, as of March 2021, News18 reported that the police probe was possibly going to be stopped as Hitesha had come under public pressure and fled the city, refusing to cooperate with the authorities.

More to the focus of our discussion, Zomato’s public statement under pressure is noteworthy.

Goyal starts neutrally by assuring his fans that they are helping both their employee (Kamaraj) and the customer (Hitesha) with the required support and also co-operating with the police authorities.

This is a smart move because it incubates the brand in case Hitesha’s accusations don’t hold water, which is exactly what happened. If the brand would’ve shown outrage at the employee, it would’ve backfired.

However, the brand did suspend Kamaraj temporarily to cover the possibility that he did, in fact, assault the customer. But Goyal immediately neutralizes the impact of this action by assuring that they are personally covering Kamaraj’s income to ensure that his family does not suffer.

He strongly comes in support only in the concluding paragraphs, pointing that Kamaraj has a good track record, and it’s highly improbably (although possible) that he does something like this.

What I like about the statement is that it’s refreshingly clear and neutral. Goyal doesn’t include a single personal opinion, although his caption does say this is “his take.”

All the statements mentioned are factual, and highlight that Zomato will let the official police authorities take the decision on who to punish and how rather than bowing to any pleas from the public.

Most brands would’ve immediately succumbed to the pressure, distanced Kamaraj from their team, and demonized his actions without taking the time to assess both sides of the story.

So when you’re crafting your public response, ensure that you’re ticking off these points:

1. Calm Down

Take a few hours to understand the situation rather than rushing into a statement that you may have to contradict later

2. Use real Faces

In this case, Deepinder himself came forward, which conveyed that the leadership is aware of this situation, and is proactively working to resolve it. This makes a huge difference for your credibility.

So tell your brand’s founders/management to go LIVE and address queries themselves on social media. Or involve direct human employees in the conversation.

Above all, don’t act like a heartless robot churning out PR releases that nobody is actually going to follow up on in the future.

3. State the Facts

Write a brief synopsis of what has happened until now (all facts listed succinctly in bullets), so that those who are new to the matter get all the facts correct before forming an opinion.

4. List Concrete Steps

Deepinder tells us exactly what Zomato is doing for both parties, which is very reassuring. So let the fans know that you’re cooperating with any external investigations/probing into the matter internally.

List the specific actions you’ll be taking ahead so that people don’t feel like you’re just making empty promises but instead have a clear roadmap that you’re going to follow to prevent such incidents.

This way, they can hold you accountable, and you can prove that you’ve delivered on what you promised or decided earlier.

5. Allow people to do their jobs

Deepinder isn’t keen on taking sides, although he does seem to lean towards Kamaraj. Still, he makes sure that Zomato itself doesn’t get involved in legal proceedings on an official, and instead, lets the authorities decide the proper punishment (with a promise to cooperate with them).

When you’re embroidered in a legal scenario, it’s best to just co-operate and not indulge in anything that could be interpreted as “slander.”

During the investigation, ensure the physical safety and fair treatment of all parties, including those who are possibly in the wrong, because you never know what truth will come out.

All that said, this is not the first time Goyal has come to rescue his brand in the middle of a public backlash.

Our second study is even more interesting…

#Reject_Zomato Language Issue (Oct 21)

On 18th October 2021, Monday, a Zomato customer from Tamil Nadu, Vikash, posted screenshots of his in-app chat conversation with a service agent. According to him, he was denied a refund on his order for not knowing Hindi.

He had raised the request for a missing item, and the agent tried to confirm the situation with the restaurant, but complained that he could not get the message across because of the “language barrier.”

Vikash said that Zomato should be hiring local execs to speak the language of the states they’re operating in, to which the agent responded by claiming that Hindi is the national language, and everyone should know a bit of it.

Soon enough, as politicians like DMK MP Senthilkumar S, expressed their disappointment over the agent’s behavior, #Ban_Zomato was trending in Tamil Nadu and other Southern states.

Zomato released an extremely effective statement with four of the five essential points of any good press release:

  • Acknowledgement: They were sorry for the incident + the agent’s behavior was not in line with their ethos
  • Immediate Action: They have terminated the agent for the negligence
  • Prevention Measure: They’re working to build a Tamil version of the app + signed local influencers + building local Tamil call centers in Coimbatore
  • Assurance: They respect their customers’ local culture, and take it very seriously

The only negative aspect of this was the brash and cold reaction towards the agent. It was a small human error, and from the screenshots, it’s clear that the agent didn’t mean to particularly offend anyone.

Anyone would agree that they just passed a wrong comment, which didn’t deserve such an extreme punishment.

Thankfully, Goyal swooped in to rectify this a few hours later. In a series of tweets, asked people to calm down and not blow things out of proportion for a trivial misunderstanding that can easily be resolved by properly training and educating the person at fault.

He announced that they would be reinstating the agent, which speaks volumes about the culture of support and safety the leadership (or at least Goyal) tries to inculcate in their workforce.

This move of showing genuine empathy will go a long way in assuring Zomato’s employees and agents that they have the liberty to make mistakes as long as they learn from them, and drawing this circle of safety is a move every entrepreneur should practice.

I hope you’re taking notes here, startup leaders.

On this point, I highly recommend streaming Simon Sinek’s TED talk on the need to create safe spaces at work Titled “Why good leaders make you feel safe,” it’s one of the most eye-opening things you’ll ever watch.

Goyal’s Communication Style

Referring to both responses, what I love about Goyal is that he is unafraid to take a stance when required. He defends his employees, albeit it was done mildly in the Kamaraj case since it was still unfolding as he spoke.

But even then, his tone is extremely resolute and clear. After reading his tweets, you can almost visualize him standing on a podium, and saying the words out loud in a confident voice that charges the entire room.

This is how a spokesperson for any brand should act. You may not be the CEO, but even if you’re the PR rep, you should be communicating with 100% confidence and clarity in your words.

You must be able to take a direct stance and side and defend it aggressively, not allowing anyone to influence your core opinion.

If you show that you’re intimidated by the situation, or don’t know what you really think or want, the press and the public will hound you like a Sunday feast.

Even if you’re shaking in your boots, you must walk like you’re in command of the conversation. Fake it till you make it.

The Contents of a Good PR Release

Drawing from Goyal’s and Zomato’s responses, here’s a rundown on what you should include in your official social media press release if you’re responding to a negative event or any other kind of public backlash/criticism.

  • Acknowledgement: We are fully aware of this specific issue
  • Factual Outline: These are the facts we know about for sure
  • Immediate action: We’re doing everything we can to bring justice to all sides
  • Co-operation: We’re working with the correct authorities to investigate this
  • Assurance: Our company doesn’t tolerate any such unethical activites or comments
  • Re-iterating Values: We have always believed in a fair & equal culture for all
  • Strategic Improvements: We’ll be setting up systems to ensure this doesn’t repeat
  • Contact details: If you have any concerns or queries, we’re all ears.

Conclusion on Cancel Culture

Social media’s word-of-mouth is a two-sided weapon. This force can help your marketing & PR immensely, allowing you to sit back & let your loyal brand ambassadors do all the selling.

Or it can cause you the worst headaches ever, waking you up in the middle of the night to respond to a disgruntled customer.

So what all of our case studies point to is that the content and service you put out on these platforms should be passed through social/cultural filters to ensure that you’re practicing enough empathy for all parties involved.

Perhaps the best way to put it would be, “If you want to avoid triggered customers, think like one. If your offense alarms (instincts) are buzzing before you send that tweet, err on the side of caution, and don’t hit the send button.”

Stay neutral, and in case you need to have a CSR element in your brand/ad campaigns, select social causes with the least resistance (eg. free education, helping underprivileged children, empowering women, etc.) Such evergreen topics are received well in most cases because there’s not a lot to debate on whether poor hungry kids should be fed.

In any case, always be prepared for the butthurt brigade to comment on your creative work, and craft your response tactfully and quickly using the points outlined in the table above.

Do not allow people to take the issue away from you to a point that nobody will be ready to hear your side of the story, or appreciate the rectifications you’re making.

So basically, these things just require brand managers to be proactive in their communications, that’s all. Watch your brand mentions, pay attention to industry trends, and follow the news vicariously.

The only way to manage this conversation is to dominate it from the get-go. When we follow that aggressive approach, we’ll be able to win broken hearts back, and maintain our credibility in the long term.

Let’s cancel “Cancel Culture” for good!

Published by Manik Rege

Into Writing | Marketing | Leadership | Animal Rights ... and occassionally, coffee. Tweet to me @manik_rege.

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