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Telling your story in the cancel culture era

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” observed Joan Didion.

The power of storytelling is what keeps brands alive, too.

Yet, while there’s never been more opportunity for brands to tell their story, brand storytelling can seem fraught with danger. A misplaced idea or comment can see your brand labelled tone deaf; or, worse, ‘cancelled’.

It’s left many brand managers wondering how to tell their story and survive.

Pepsi’s peacemaker left a bad taste.

This intensity of critique was apparent in 2017, when Kendall Jenner placating a protest with a soda revealed how disconnected Pepsi was from the spirit of youth it claimed to capture.

Pepsi has long embraced the narrative of generational change, from the next generation to generation next. Yet, in one fell advertising campaign, they trivialised the zeitgeist that buttressed their success, seemingly making light of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The outcry on social media was palpable and the campaign was cancelled.

Fashion’s issues with race, revealed.

Calls for a boycott followed Dolce and Gabbana’s culturally offensive attempt to engage Chinese audiences by featuring a Chinese woman eating pizza with chopsticks in their 2018 campaign. The gaucheness it implied was demeaning.

Gucci and Prada were soon to follow with horrifying blackface controversies of their own.

In the years since, anything from a lack of diversity in casting to the political affiliations of brand owners, has been met with demands for cancellation—many rightly, others subjective, leaving brands facing the immense pressure to raise their voice in a minefield of ideology.

Your brand beliefs have never mattered more.

Yet in this age of cancel culture, comedians like Dave Chappelle have never been more popular, despite making deeply offensive jokes—which he acknowledges.

In his free Netflix special 8:46 he explained, “The reason why you want to hear from people like me is because you trust me. You don’t expect me to be perfect, but I don’t lie to you.”

What’s true for Chappelle holds true for brands.

It comes down to trust. If you establish values and a purpose that are designed to counter phobias and prejudice—you will be forgiven for not always getting it right.

Five things to remember when telling your story:

1. Being disliked is different to being offensive.

The best brands have a clear and distinct point of view. Doing so means you’ll naturally have those who don’t like you.

If they’re not your target audience, it’s ok to tune out.

2. Accept fallibility and apologise genuinely—or don’t.

We all make mistakes. If you’ve made an error, apologise genuinely and quickly. Equally, if you truly believe the position you hold aligns with your brand values, don’t be afraid to respectfully disagree.

Brands, like people, benefit from being authentic.

3. Consider when to add your voice, not just what to say.

If the issue is systemic—like racism—and silence makes you complicit, say something. But, not every social issue needs your brand’s opinion.

Always resist the urge to virtue signal, especially if the story isn’t yours to tell.

4. Good intentions aren’t good enough.

When Dolce and Gabbana were called out for their attempt to engage Chinese consumers, they proclaimed their good intentions were poorly executed. Intentions, however, don’t negate the experience of discrimination. Had they tested their idea with a cultural expert, these ads would never have passed.

The simplest antidote to blind spots is to ensure you have diversity represented at every level of approval.

1. Don’t give up on humour.

Dave Chappelle can resist censorship, because he knows exactly who he is and the role of comedy to test the line. Being true to his brand means he can still create humour even when talking about sensitive subject matter.

Ultimately, the strength of your brand storytelling depends on the depth to which you know and live your brand values—and to what extent you can establish trust with your audience.

Branding is, after all, socio-cultural interaction. People have always been horrified by brands who are racist or sexist or discriminatory—the social media age has simply given them a means to respond in force.

To survive, brands must tell their stories.

The greatest risk to your brand isn’t cancel culture, but the true nature of the beliefs your brand—and your people—hold. Surviving storytelling in the cancel culture age, can be as simple as cancelling prejudice in your culture, so the stories you tell build trust with your audience, rather than break it.


By Keeva Stratton

Based in Sydney, Australia, Keeva Stratton is the director of Quip Brands, a strategic branding agency which uses storytelling, creativity and cultural knowledge to help traditional brands capture modern audiences.

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