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  • What difference can a brand’s apology make?
  • What difference can a brand’s apology make?
    TED Conference (2019) ©

How call-out culture can make brands more authentic

With social media giving everyone a voice and helping to raise awareness of corporate missteps, people are more critical of brands than ever. But ‘call-out culture’ doesn’t have to be a source of concern – it can be an opportunity to create authentic identities both reactively and proactively.

Location United States

In 1966, the Beatles released their 12th studio album, Yesterday and Today. The record compiled hits such as ‘Yesterday’, ‘Nowhere Man’, and ‘Drive My Car’, but it is less well-known for its music than its cover art. Known as the ‘butcher cover’, it featured the foursome in white lab coats, cradling decapitated dolls and slabs of red meat. The reaction was immediate. The image appalled critics and customers alike, leading Capitol Records to recall 750,000 copies of the album and replace the offending artwork – which has since become a collector’s item –with an inoffensive snap of the band posed around an open trunk. [1][2]

The incident is proof that consumer blowback is nothing new. What is new, however, is the speed, frequency, and intensity with which people respond. “What's changed is consumers’ threshold for calling out companies. Decapitated babies are a little extreme, right? Whereas now, even something minor [such as putting walnuts in a face scrub or tweeting about your holiday] could be called out,” says Dr. Rajesh Bhargave, an assistant professor of marketing at Imperial College London. [3] Brands today face a tough crowd – 46% of people have criticized them online, with only 8% saying they’d stay silent if a brand behaved inappropriately. [4]

Ours has become a ‘call-out culture’. The term began trending around 2011 and refers to the phenomenon whereby individuals and groups are publicly shamed for both major transgressions and minor faux pas. [5][6] It’s closely related to ‘cancel culture’, which describes the public’s willingness to boycott those who’ve been called out. [7] Together, this means consumers are quicker than ever to criticize brands and happier to blacklist them. While 65% of people will think twice about buying from a called-out brand, but will do their own research first, 17% will instantly stop buying its products without looking into it any further. [4]


Creating call-out culture
A perfect storm of factors has led to the rise of call-out culture, but there are three main factors that have forged this sustained feedback loop. Social media, for one, is intricately connected; 90% of American brands use social media to promote their business, but increased visibility also increases vulnerability. [8] Where consumers might once have complained directly to a brand or to one another via word-of-mouth, they now have a whole host of platforms through which to air their grievances to a potentially huge audience – there are an estimated 3.5 billion social media users worldwide. [9]

“Social media has given everyone the power to stand up to brands, vent their frustrations and demand a solution,” says Francesca O’Connor, an associate partner at Milk & Honey PR. [10] Once a brand has been called out on social media, the news can spread like wildfire. What might once have been an insignificant incident can spawn a PR disaster overnight. Both Boohoo and TK Maxx found this out to their detriment, launching ‘Obsessive Christmas Disorder’ sleepwear and T-shirts during the festive period and engendering a backlash from those who accused the brands of trivializing mental health. [11]

Social media has given everyone the power to stand up to brands, vent their frustrations and demand a solution

Francesca O’Connor, associate partner at Milk & Honey PR

The second factor in the rise of call-out culture is mistrust. Although many brands have worked hard to create transparent identities, fake news and political polarization have consumers more skeptical of brands – just 25% of people have a favorable view of advertising, down from 80% in the 1960s. [12] According to O’Connor, scandals like Facebook’s with Cambridge Analytica, Kellogg's with salmonella,and Wells Fargo’s with fake accounts together mean that “people don't trust their tech, food or banks.” [10] Indeed, only 54% of Americans trust business as an institution. [13] This mistrust means they are all the more alert to corporate misdemeanors. “Consumers are ready to pounce,” says O’Connor. [10]

People are also increasingly politicized and young people especially so. More than 50% of Gen Yers call themselves activists and Gen Zers prioritize social responsibility. [14][15] Social media movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo – themselves examples of call-out culture – have awoken young Americans’ political conscience. “Millennials are increasingly woke,” says O’Connor. “They’ll notice instantly, for example, if a poster has four white men in it.” [10] This is reflected in the demographic of people calling out brands; 56% of Gen Yers say they have participated in call-out culture on social media, compared to only 39% of other generations. [4] With Gen Z  set to be the largest generation of consumers by 2020, accounting for between $29 billion and $143 billion in direct income, brands can ill afford to alienate this cohort. [16]

People feel empowered to push back against bad behavior online
People feel empowered to push back against bad behavior online
TED Conference (2017) ©

Call-out culture as a marketing strategy
Ironically, brands can fall foul of call-out culture by attempting to incorporate it into their marketing. Pepsi’s 2017 commercial featuring Kendall Jenner was a prime example of this, sparking accusations of ‘woke-washing’. The commercial consequences were serious, but even a year after the ad was pulled, only 23% of Gen Yers were considering buying a Pepsi as their next beverage, the lowest rate in three years. [17] Similarly, Natwest built a campaign around apologizing for failing women. Launched in women’s weekly magazine Stylist, the bank led with a letter to women from a bowler-hat-clad banker who acknowledged how “For years I have patronized you, ignored you, talked to your husbands.” But responses on Twitter suggest that the advert, rather than the archetypal banker, was driving patronizing stereotypes.

Call-out culture affects some sectors more than others. The three industries people are most likely to complain about are consumer goods (19%), retail (17%), and government (15%). [4] In the fashion and beauty industries, social media accounts such as Diet Prada and Estée Laundry exist for the sole purpose of calling out brands. Yet various scandals have shown that any and all brands can fall victim and should prepare themselves for the worst. When Audi released its feminist Super Bowl spot in 2017, the initial positive impact was undercut by the fact that there were no women on the brand’s executive team. [18] Meanwhile, Burger King faced backlash for its mental health campaign that promoted ‘Real Meals’ (served in ‘Sad in Blue’ and ‘Pissed in Red’ boxes) as a way of showing that people can’t be happy all the time.

There will always be some people who like to get out their popcorn and watch a controversy unfold online

Dr. Rajesh Bhargave, assistant professor of marketing

Rather than living in fear, O’Connor insists that “brands should see call-out culture as an opportunity to change.” [10] Dr. Bhargave agrees, saying: “There will always be some people who like to get out their popcorn and watch a controversy unfold online. But there are others who, like mini brand managers, believe in the brand and want to encourage it to change.” [3] Indeed, 55% of consumers call out brands on social media not to embarrass them, but to invite a resolution or response. [4]

There’s a strong business case for answering back in a positive way. “A good response to being called out can actually increase a brand’s popularity,” says O’Connor. She gives the example of Samsung, which bounced back from its 2016 exploding phone crisis by “apologizing immediately, recalling the phones and then running a series of ads that showed how they were going back to the drawing board and remodeling the phone.” [10] While the scandal initially put a $26 billion dent in the company’s stock market value, by the end of 2017, the South Korean giant had turned a record $50 billion profit. [19]

The perfect apology can even bolster a brand’s reputation
The perfect apology can even bolster a brand’s reputation
Europeana EU (2017) ©

The art of the apology
In a call-out culture, consumers expect brands to own up to their mistakes. Yet apologizing is an art form and brands can get it wrong in a number of ways. Their apologies might be defensive, as Oxfam’s was for its prostitution scandal; belated, as Dolce & Gabbana's was for its chopsticks furor; muted, as H&M’s was for its racist T-shirt; or over-the-top, as Laura Lee’s was for her racist remarks.

One brand O’Connor thinks has perfected the art of the apology is Scottish craft beer company BrewDog. In 2017, the brewer, which is famous for its Punk IPA, threatened to sue a family-run pub for using the word ‘punk’ in its name. “They basically acted like a big corporation,” says O’Connor. “That is, like a big bully brand.” BrewDog’s success, she says, was realizing that its mistake was acting out-of-character and crafting an apology that was extremely authentic. “Not only did they write a sincere apology, they paid for all the pub’s legal fees and invited the team down for a beer tasting,” she adds. [10] BrewDog renewed its commitment to its brand values and so rebought consumers’ trust; by the end of 2017, the company’s sales had risen by 55% to $142 million. [20]

As we all know, actions speak louder than words. The most important thing in a brand’s response to being called out isn’t to tell people they’re sorry, but to show how they won’t do it again. To what extent brands should change, advises Dr. Bhargave, depends on the scale of the problem. “Companies need to ask themselves: is this just a simple mistake or does it reflect a deeper problem?” [3] If the former, a simple (though swift and sincere) apology will suffice. If the latter, says O’Connor, then “the call-out has to be a turning point for your brand. It has to instigate long-term, measured change, not just a knee-jerk response. It has to change the business from the core.” [10]

Gens Y and Z like authentic brands that help fuel positive change
Gens Y and Z like authentic brands that help fuel positive change
João Silas (2018) ©

Insights and opportunities
While a company’s response to being called out can be “make or break”, just as important is ensuring that such crises don’t happen in the first place. Prevention, says O’Connor, is better than cure. “Social listening is key. You need to know what people are saying about your brand, understand the psychology of your customers and then identify feelings that might be bubbling beneath the surface.” [10] If you know what’s on your customers’ minds, you may be able to nip a call-out in the bud. This is especially true on social media, as it’s not only Gen Z and Gen Y consumers who are activists, but also their cultural representatives who are politicized. When H&M released it’s much-maligned ’Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’ T-shirt, the brand faced a torrent of consumer backlash and was dropped by brand ambassador The Weeknd.

As younger generations say they want authentic representation, losing the ability to collaborate with Gen Z icons further compounds the idea of toxic brand identity. Interestingly, while Burger King faced negative backlash for its mental health and milkshake campaigns, the brand has also seen an increase of 18.5% foot traffic in-store since the launch of its meat-free Impossible Whopper in test markets. [21] With the demand for vegan options and sustainability on the rise, the initiative illustrates that real action translates into positive commercial results.

You need to know what people are saying about your brand, understand the psychology of your customers and then identify feelings that might be bubbling beneath the surface

Francesca O’Connor, associate partner at Milk & Honey PR

Younger generations want to converse with the brands they buy into and help fuel positive change. Also essential for building authentic brands is “creating platforms where you discuss issues with customers,” says O’Connor. [10] One company that’s established this dialogue is Glossier. The cosmetics unicorn has used its social media presence to invite feedback and, crucially, show that it is acting upon it – for example, by modifying its packaging to be more eco-friendly. As 67% of people believe social networks are at least somewhat important in creating sustained movements for social change and 53% of American adults have engaged in political or social activism on social media, it’s clear that social media is a crucial space for owning a narrative and having positive consumer conversations. [22] As the success of brands such as Glossier illustrates, such engagement offers a chance for call-out culture as welcoming a new age of authenticity, one in which the relationship between brand and consumer is closer than ever.

People want transparency from their products and social media isn’t the only way for brands to offer authenticity. Some are going even higher-tech. Luxury fashion brand Alyx has announced it would use blockchain’s distributed ledger technology to track the journey of its garments from raw material to finished product. “Blockchain and distributed ledger technology is the future for effective brand protection,” says Matthew Williams, the British fashion designer who owns Alyx. “By supplying product information, supply chain traceability and transparent dialogue with the consumer, the brand’s authenticity is globally secured.” [23] Food brands have also been quick to leverage this tech. Tapping into the desire for greater transparency, Walmart has integrated blockchain technology in its fruit and vegetable supply chain, while UK start-up Provenance is using the blockchain to show people where their food is sourced from.

1. ‘John Lennon's copy of Beatles 'butcher' album sold at £180,000’, BBC (May 2019)
2. ‘Inside Beatles’ Bloody, Banned ‘Butcher’ Cover’, Rolling Stone (June 2016)
3. Interview with Dr. Rajesh Bhargave conducted by the author
4. ‘Call-Out Culture: People, Brands & the Social Media Power Struggle’, Sprout Social (August 2017)
5. ‘Call-out culture’, Google Trends (May 2019)
6.  ‘Call out culture’, Sprout Social (February 2019)
7. ‘Everyone Is Canceled’, The New York Times (June 2018)
8. 'Social media marketing usage rate in the United States from 2013 to 2019', Statista (2019)
9.  'Digital 2019 Q2 Global Digital Statshot', SlideShare (April 2019)
10. Interview with Francesca O’Connor conducted by the author
11. 'Vocal Shoppers Call Out Boohoo's OCD-trivialising Ad', Canvas8 (December 2018)
12. 'Advertising without trust is just noise', Campaign (May 2019)
13. ‘2019 Edelman Trust Barometer’, Edelman (March 2019)
14. 'How Are Gen Y And Z Using Food For Activism?', Canvas8 (February 2018)
15. 'A generation without borders', OC&C (August 2018)
16. 'How Much Financial Influence Does Gen Z Have?', Forbes (January 2018)
17.  ‘One year after Jenner ad crisis, Pepsi recovers but purchase consideration hasn't’, YouGov (April 2018)
18. 'Audi's Misleading Super Bowl Message To Young Girls', Forbes (February 2017)
19. ‘How Samsung moved beyond its exploding phones’, The Washington Post (February 2018)
20. ‘BrewDog sales top £100m but higher costs eat into profits’, Insider.co.uk (March 2018)
21. 'Impossible Whopper boosted Burger King traffic by 18%, report says', Yahoo! Finance (May 2019)
22. 'Activism in the social media age: 1. Public attitudes toward political engagement on social media', Pew Research Center (July 2018)
23. ‘Clothing brand Alyx turns to Iota’s blockchain to track garment authenticity’, SiliconANGLE (May 2019)

Featured Experts

Dr. Rajesh Bhargave

Dr. Rajesh Bhargave is an assistant professor of marketing at Imperial College London, having received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas and his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in consumer behavior with an emphasis on how product choices are influenced by social context.

Francesca O’Connor

Francesca O’Connor is an associate partner at Milk & Honey PR in London, where she leads on creative and consumer-based work. She has held a number of senior positions in global agencies and delivered campaigns for clients including Diageo, Philips, P&G, Nikon and Sony.


Rivkah Brown is a print and audio journalist who has written for The Financial Times, New Statesman and London Review of Books, and produced podcasts for UnHerd. She tweets @RivkahBrown.



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