The Confrontational Consumer: What Brands Miss In Cancel-Culture Fears

Bud Light hopes new ads will help regain sales lost in this year's culture wars

Kantar Consulting recently released its forecast for 2024 marketing trends, containing two that almost contradict each other. One points out that culture comes first, and that 80% of consumers try to buy from companies that support causes that are important to them. Another asserts that doing so is riskier because of well-publicized cancel culture brand protests, which mean brands need to keep a tighter rein on message control.

The tension between a) taking a stand and b) not pissing anyone off will be even more in the spotlight, with Kantar reporting that 59% of marketers plan to intensify their influencer marketing efforts.

Protecting themselves means they’ll need to adopt more stringent risk-assessment strategies.



“I'm not encouraging brands to pull back on any of these initiatives where they take a stand on something,” says J. Walker Smith, Kantar’s chief knowledge officer and co-author of the report. “I am saying they need to be more conscious of the risks they're facing.”

It's also important to dig beneath the liberal-versus-conservative surface. Smith contends that the real issue isn’t politics so much as an increasingly confrontational consumer, a trend that has been building for decades.

“An increasing percentage of people have problems with a product or service over a year, and they wind up enraged over their inability to get a satisfactory resolution.”

Social media compounds the problem because it offers more “helpful” channels, which often also fail to resolve people’s complaints.

So people are already on a slow boil, even as social norms are deteriorating. (Elon Musk’s recent “fuck off” tirade is the latest example.)

“It’s already a fraught environment,” Smith says. “Then you layer in politics, and the risks increase. Brands need to pay attention to the entire atmosphere of what’s happening, not just their own decisions.”

Smith cites Bud Light’s anti-transgender backlash as an example of just how unpredictable and combustible consumers’ moods can be.

When Target faced similar consumer outrage, he asserts it wasn’t because of anything the company had done -- it had been selling Pride merchandise for years. “What happened to Target wasn’t about Target,” he says. “It was about Bud Light.”

While most moments of consumer fury usually wind up in what the BBC recently called “the dustbin of outrage,” both Target and Bud Light felt real financial pain because of the backlash.

What that means for brands, Smith says, is the need for a more sophisticated risk analysis of any potential “stand,” just as it might do for other business decisions.

Companies should speak out on global issues in ways that are consistent with their DNA, Kantar advises, and then stand their ground. But they must also be better prepared for a backlash when it occurs, including rehearsing scenarios for in-store protests and boycotts. He says: “People are on edge and likely to react in confrontational ways, essentially acting out in the marketplace.”


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