Heineken blew up Twitter last week with their strong stance in favor of the COVID-vaccine. The controversial post sparked a wave of indignant cries to #BoycottHeineken, as well as a flurry of support.
With over half of Gen Z and millennials boycotting at least one brand right now, so-called “cancel culture” is becoming commonplace. Should brands be worried?
What Does Cancel Culture Mean for Brands?
Cancel culture—the process of shaming and boycotting a person, brand or company on social media—has reached unparalleled heights in recent months and shows no signs of slowing down. 64% of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue.
Boycotts are nothing new. In the Great Depression, Black Americans held “Buy Where You Can Work” campaigns boycotting companies unwilling to hire Black people. Before women won the right to vote, many working-class women organized consumer boycotts to ensure their voices were heard in other ways.
In today’s globalized world of Twitter and TikTok, cancel culture is boycotting on steroids. Cancel culture was instrumental to the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements, which sought to right social injustice and push for meaningful change.
More recently, cancel culture has spilled over into the world of marketing and advertising, making it hard for brands to look away. With the power of social media, one disgruntled customer is all it takes for your brand to go viral for all the wrong reasons.
Let’s take a look at brands that have got caught up in cancel culture and how they have handled it.
The Dutch beverage company Heineken dived head-first into a controversy after striking a firmly pro-vaccination stance as part of its #FreshBeginnings campaign.
Boldly declaring ‘The Night Belongs to the Vaccinated’ and depicting people partying like it’s 2019, Heineken has become one of the first brands to position itself as pro-vaccine.
The post, which has been viewed almost 500,000 times, sparked fierce criticism for being hypocritical and divisive. The hashtag #BoycottHeineken rapidly began trending on Twitter.
While at first glance, the boycott seems like terrible news for the brand, the strong pro-vaccine stance resonated with many users who were quick to support the brand. One user even wrote it “made them want to drink Heineken more”.
Others reacted with humor and suggested that the people outraged by the beer brand’s pro-vaccine stance should purchase bottles of Heineken and pour it down the drain.
Everyone who's mad about this should go buy a case of Heineken, and share videos of them dumping it down the drain. That'll show them!— SILLY SZN (@KyleTheRacinFan) July 8, 2021
All in all, this was a very clever marketing move by the folks at Heineken. By putting their brand at front and center of a topical debate, they tapped into a level of reach that would be impossible with a normal advertising campaign.
Discovered that @oatly has partnered with Blackstone - an investment company who part own companies who are responsible for Amazon deforestation. I have done a full information post on Instagram and will from now on be moving my own purchases elsewhere— Laura Young (@LessWasteLaura) August 29, 2020
Thread key points: pic.twitter.com/8jn2bFKAg6
Swedish oat milk brand Oatly, popular among vegans and non-dairy drinkers, faced fierce criticism from climate and political activists.
The brand came under fire for their $200m deal with Blackstone, a private equity firm led by Trump donor Stephen Schwartzman. A Twitter thread appeared last year that linked Blackstone to a controversial Brazilian infrastructure investment that has been accused of contributing to deforestation in the Amazon.
Activist Laura Young wrote: “I don’t want my money going to the destruction of the planet, and putting people’s lives and land at risk just so that I can have a creamy coffee in the morning!”
The brand was quick to issue an apology and said, “We’re still the same company with sustainability at the core of everything we do.”
(2/8) We’re sorry to hear you’re frustrated in our choice - we’re still the same company with sustainability at the core of everything we do. Which includes who we choose as owners, as we need to move global capital in a sustainable direction if we’re to see real change.>— OatlyUK (@OatlyUK) August 30, 2020
Consumers are more likely to be forgiving if a brand genuinely owns up to its mistakes and explains why it happened. So, in this case, Oatly did the right thing by apologizing and was able to mitigate the damage.
Hey Frito-Lay, Frito-Pay your workers a living wage. https://t.co/A2CXTOPM72— 🇺🇸Josh Keaton🇵🇪 (@joshkeaton) July 11, 2021
PepsiCo, the parent company of popular potato chips brand Frito-Lay, recently came under fire for the working conditions of factory employees. 600 workers from the Frito-Lay plant in Topeka are striking to protest against long working hours and excessive overtime, including aptly-named “suicide shifts” of 12 hours with only an 8-hour break in between.
The workers’ protest has been amplified on social media, with users calling out the brand’s alleged unethical treatment of workers and encouraging others to boycott all of PepsiCo’s brands.
Data from Statista shows that 41% of US adults would boycott a brand for mistreating workers. In this case, an apology is unlikely to suffice – the brand will need to take real action to convince consumers they are an ethical company that cares about its employees.
Brands are being held accountable for their impact on the environment, society and culture.
Globalization, social media and digital media have given consumers the power to vote with their feet without needing to wait for the elections.
In the past, brands preferred to stay safely out of the way of politics, as taking sides can offend and alienate customers. However, as younger consumers, in particular, are increasingly “woke”, brands can no longer afford to remain neutral on key issues.
As the Heineken example shows, taking sides can result in positive publicity for your brand if your values are in line with those of your target audience.
Consumers of today are highly informed and empowered. They expect brands to stand up for their values and stick to their promises, and if they don’t, it’s all too easy for consumers to call them out.
Canceling or boycotting usually happens when a brand goes against the values of its target audience. This is why understanding your customers and where they fall on social issues is critical. Need help gaining a deeper understanding of your target audience? Check out Latana’s Ultimate Guide to Target Audiences to figure out who your customers are and what makes them tick.