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New Study Reveals Path to Brand Forgiveness Amid Cancel Culture Firestorms

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A recent study conducted by Cláudia Costa and António Azevedo from the University of Minho’s School of Economics and Management sheds light on the dynamics of cancel culture and the potential for brands to regain consumer forgiveness following a cancellation. The research, published in the Journal of Marketing Management, explores the antecedents and consequences of cancel culture, revealing critical insights into how brands can mitigate the damage and restore their reputation.

Cancel culture, a phenomenon rooted in social media dynamics, has evolved from traditional concepts of brand boycotts and anti-branding consumer movements. It is characterised by the mass withdrawal of support for a brand or individual, often sparked by perceived ideological incompatibilities. These incompatibilities can range from issues of racism and environmental concerns to LGBTQIA+ rights and animal welfare.

The study highlights that cancel culture is primarily driven by Millennials and Generation Z, who leverage social media platforms to initiate and propagate online firestorms. These firestorms, defined as sudden and widespread bursts of negative electronic word of mouth (eWOM), can severely impact a brand’s reputation and consumer relationships.

Costa and Azevedo’s research utilised a quasi-experimental design involving an online survey that simulated a cancellation journey for a hypothetical brand. The study’s findings indicate that ideological incompatibilities, such as racism, significantly trigger high levels of brand hate, negative WOM, brand avoidance, and boycott intentions among consumers. These negative responses often culminate in an intention to cancel the brand.

However, the study also reveals a pathway to potential forgiveness. An effective apology from the brand, acknowledging the issue and outlining corrective measures, can lead to a decrease in the intention to cancel and an increase in purchase intention. The researchers found that consumer forgiveness is attainable, provided the brand’s response is perceived as sincere and accompanied by concrete actions to rectify the problem.

The study identifies three primary drivers of brand hate that can lead to cancellation:

  • Negative experiences: dissatisfaction with a product or service.
  • Symbolic incongruity: a mismatch between the consumer’s self-image and the brand’s image.
  • Ideological incompatibility: organisational behaviours deemed morally, socially, or legally unacceptable by consumers.

The research underscores that brands with strong pre-existing reputations, often referred to as “lovemarks,” are particularly vulnerable. Consumers who feel a deep emotional connection to a brand experience heightened disappointment and brand hate when these brands are perceived to violate core values. This intensifies the cancellation efforts and the subsequent damage to the brand’s reputation.

Costa and Azevedo advocate for a proactive crisis communication strategy to mitigate the effects of cancel culture. They suggest that brands facing cancellation should:

  • Publicly apologise. Issue a sincere apology that acknowledges the mistake.
  • Implement corrective actions. Develop and publicise policies and programmes addressing the issue.
  • Ensure accountability. Hold responsible parties accountable, which may include termination if necessary.
  • Rebrand if necessary. Adjust branding elements that contributed to the controversy.
  • Support relevant causes. Make donations to non-profit organisations aligned with the corrective actions.

The research demonstrated that brands adopting these measures saw a reduction in brand avoidance, brand retaliation, and overall cancellation intentions. Purchase intentions and positive WOM, although not fully restored to pre-crisis levels, showed significant improvement post-apology.

The findings of this study have practical implications for brand managers. Understanding the emotional journey of consumers from brand love to brand hate, and the potential for forgiveness, enables brands to design more effective crisis management strategies. Brands are encouraged to maintain vigilance on social media platforms, monitor potential ideological incompatibilities, and engage in authentic and transparent communications.

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