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Corporate Communications in the Age of Cancel Culture

Corporate Communications in the Age of Cancel Culture

Corporate Communications in the Age of Cancel Culture

An interesting thing happened recently in a cancel culture campaign: a targeted company said “no.” The company was Trader Joe’s, which had been petitioned to discontinue its line of international “Joe” products such as Trader José, Trader Ming, Trader Jacques and so on. The petition demanded Trader Joe’s discontinue the names that reflect “a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.”

The petition got more than 6,000 signatures and seemingly had Trader Joe’s on its heels. Trader Joe’s made an initial statement that teetered on the edge of an apology and acquiescence. A few days later, after a flood of comments from supportive customers urged the company to hold its ground, it did, and it did so with conviction.

A second statement from the company did not dither. It said, “We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions.” That’s a strong statement for a company that is in the crosshairs of a cancel culture campaign.

In this case, Trader Joe’s commitment to its brand and the loyalty of its customers made the decision to push back against the campaign a fairly easy one.

Businesses without a deep well of goodwill and support are significantly more vulnerable. Take for instance a new restaurant in Washington, DC called Barkada. It’s owned by four white men who chose the name from a Filipino word meaning “a group of friends” as in “he spent his time drinking and hanging out with his barkada.”

The choice of name seems to be an honorable attempt to bring international flare to an otherwise run of the mill wine bar. Pretty cool, right? Not so fast. Had the owners dug deeper they would have found the word’s origin is said to be derived from the Spanish word barcada meaning “boatload,” as in Filipino prisoners transported by the boatload to prisons.

The National Federation of Filipino American Association weighed in with a letter explaining that “to water barkada down to a ‘totally cool word’—as Barkada Wine Bar’s website originally described it—strips it of its resonance as a symbol of Filipino resilience.”

Ouch. Given that the wine bar had no connection to Filipino culture in its food or among its wine selections, the owners quickly announced it had “missed the mark” and would change its name.

Another example, also from the nation’s capital: A bagel shop named Call Your Mother attempted to honor Black artists and athletes, some of whom are also Jewish, with photos and with naming some of their sandwiches after them. The blowback came on June 1 in the height of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in response to the killing of George Floyd.

In an attempted act of solidarity, the restaurant posted on its Instagram account a message supporting BLM and a pledge to contribute $6,000 to support the Minneapolis BLM chapter. It didn’t go well. A number of community members called out the bagel shop for not sufficiently supporting the black neighborhood in which it is located.

As a result, the company has publicly apologized for not doing enough to support the community and made a commitment to ensure its “future actions, collaborations, partnerships, and charitable efforts will better reflect the interests [of the community].” In addition to taking down photos and renaming the sandwiches, the company announced it would add new members to the leadership team that reflect the community, and it is launching a breakfast meal program to help underserved children.

The American consumer has higher expectations about the conduct of brands and a consistent connection to mission. Business leaders should rely more than ever on strategic communications to build and protect their brand. Here are action items business leaders can use to avoid issues and employ in times of crisis:

  • Use strategic communications to build brand loyalty and consistently communicate the corporate vision in order to manage reputation. A well communicated brand based on clear values and vision will protect the business in times of conflict and crisis.
  • In today’s environment, a business without an element of authentic cause-related action is putting itself at risk. It’s smart business because consumers today want to support businesses that also support genuine beliefs. Strategic communications should be used to ensure company branding and communications actually connect to some tangible cause related action or mission.
  • Organizations must strive to be intentional and self-aware of the impact decisions on naming, community engagement, and other elements of their brand building can have on their reputation and business outcomes, whether positive or negative.
  • Once a company commits to a cause, it must do more than make statements and even more than donations. It must reflect its mission with action that demonstrates leadership and progress.

Ramsey Poston is President of Tuckahoe Strategies and combines his experiences in working for public affairs firms, worldwide communications agencies, and professional sports leagues with his experiences working on Capitol Hill and presidential campaigns to help clients create communications strategies that present clear and powerful messages to key audiences. Ramsey regularly works with major media outlets and maintains close relationships with editors and reporters, which helps him prepare clients for interviews and best manage their messages. Ramsey has been called upon to help manage high-stakes issues such as work stoppages, corporate campaigns, and investigations. Ramsey has helped chief executives and their legal counselors prepare for and respond to citations and fines proposed by government regulators, such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Book a private consultation with Ramsey at to discuss your communications and brand building strategy and execution needs, how to deal with crisis, how to effectively communicate with government stakeholders, and to obtain assistance with press and media engagement.

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