In a single month, June 2020, major brands, franchises, and industries found themselves forced to respond to massive cultural shifts, led by social justice movements and widespread consumer and citizen outrage, to change brand names, alter team monikers, and transform trade terminologies that were in some cases centuries old. Here, consumers were often the ones in the Lead, and brands followed With them.
➟ PepsiCo’s Quaker Foods announced it would let go of its stereotypical “Aunt Jemima” brand name and logo, after 130 years of consistent sales; the new name is Pearl Milling Company, after the brand’s original owners.
➟ Mars Foods followed suit by preparing to “evolve” its “Uncle Ben’s” brand identity, a staple in America’s groceries since 1946, likewise because many consumers perceived the brand as a racist trope. It settled in May 2021 with “Ben’s Original.”
➟ Conagra Brands says it’s pensioning its intended “loving grandmother” brand, “Mrs. Butterworth’s,” as some might interpret the sixty-year-old shape and image in a way that’s inconsistent with the company’s egalitarian values and its full support of Black and Brown communities.
➟ Nestlé USA began rethinking its racially derogatory “Eskimo Pie” label and eventually rebranded to Edy’s Pie for its iconic ice cream bar brand in its ninety-ninth year on the market. At the same time, it’s rebranding its Australian subsidiary Allen’s “Chicos” and “Red Skins” candy brand names and packaging in line with more cultural sensitivity.
➟ Sports teams, like the Washington Football Team (now the Washington Commanders), Cleveland Indians (now the Guardians), and other professional franchises and academic teams recognizing the potentially culturally insensitive histories of their names and mascots (eg, Chief Blackjack at St. John’s University.). These moves have been driven in no small part by advertising boycotts, real or threatened.
➟ Legacy jargon is changing, too, perhaps out of an abundance of caution—and some say extreme political correctness. Even the real estate term “master suite” is falling by the wayside in that industry, in favor of less racially evocative (and gendered) terms such as “primary bedroom.”
Terminology in other sectors is sure to follow. Words come preloaded with history, prejudicial connotations, and sometimes overtly hateful intent. And business names are no exception. Many companies are undergoing careful inventories around their business and brand monikers. We’re not talking about trademark issues here, or even effective marketing taglines. We’re talking about ensuring an absence of offense. Here’s six ways to do that effectively:
1. Rebranding Hurts. We have to understand that it is neither easy nor cheap to rebrand midstream. But it just might be necessary. We shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon reflexively, the way many brand dominoes fell in June and July 2020. Rebranding is a big decision. Make it wisely. Take swift but considered steps. Don’t hesitate or reject the notion of the change out of hand the way the founders of the Sambo’s restaurant chain did for decades, in open defiance of public sentiment—and what’s simply right.
2. Don’t Follow Here. Lead. We shouldn’t wait for public outrage, because by then, it might be too late. Proceed proactively, anticipating it might simply be time to retire names and terms that might be construed as culturally insensitive to today’s sensibilities.
3. Think Long & Hard. We ought to consider carefully whether our name contains any unintended baggage in the reckoning of the public. It must not only be a response to active social movements such as Black Lives Matters (BLM), but also in anticipation of much wider and necessary cultural awareness and sensitivity. Could our name be simply out of touch with today’s marketplace? How inclusive—or exclusive—is it? Remember, We does not mean just “us over here.” It means all of us. Let’s ask around, conduct surveys, and inquire widely, and not just rely on our own POV. Terms some segments of the population (or some regions) consider perfectly palatable might rankle others.
4. Recognize That Times Change. What might have once been acceptable might not be anymore. Think of Stroh’s short-lived “Crazy Horse” malt liquor brand. Or Pillsbury’s “Funny Face” drink mix product, intended to compete with Kool-Aid. Its flavors, such as “Injun Orange” and “Chinese Cherry,” came accompanied by ethnic stereotype images. Tolerated, unfortunately, in the 1960s. But now? Definitely not okay.
5. Put Purpose Center Stage. If and when we find we must rebrand, let’s think of joining the trend in business naming that puts company purpose and values front and center in the name itself. We can be subtle like “Tesla” or “Nike,” or more direct, along the lines of “KIND Bars,” “Just Water,” “True Car,” “Innocent Smoothies,” and so on.
6. Walk The Walk. Let’s remember that a name alone is no substitute or shield for the truth of our business practices. The substance behind our name is what really matters. That is, it’s not enough just to ensure our business name does not offend, but also our products and partnerships, our business expenditures, our supply chain. But our business or brand name is not trivial. “Never mind that Sambo’s hired a much higher percentage of Blacks than most other companies and restaurant firms,” writes the company’s biographer, Charles Bernstein. Between the negative connotations of its ill-advised name, and their resistance to changing it, the business was doomed.
Move Along A Spectrum Of Roles And Tones Of Voice
In terms of roles, it’s important to remember that, for all our talk of taking controversial stances, there is a critical difference between politics and values. The greatest opportunity for brands is to compound their value by doubling down on their values. So, movements don’t need to be political—only positive and values based.
Contributed to Branding Insider by: Simon Mainwaring, Excerpted from Wall Street Journal bestseller Lead With We: The Business Revolution That Will Save Our Future copyright © 2021 by Simon Mainwaring. Reprinted with permission from Matt Holt Books, an imprint of BenBella Books, Inc. All rights reserved.
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