Why the Answer to the Question,’What’s In a Name?’ Matters More than Ever

row of Aunt Jemima syrup

In the past year, as calls for social justice have increased, a growing number of organizations found themselves re-branding, changing their names or packaging in attempts to leave behind legacy narratives.

Aunt Jemima is Pearl Milling Company, Uncle Ben’s is known as Ben’s Original, the Washington Redskins temporarily is the Washington Football Team, Eskimo Pie is Edy’s Pie. Land O’Lakes updated its package.

And then there are those under review: Mrs. Butterworth, the Cleveland Indians and Cream of Wheat. The Cherokee Nation is requesting that Jeep rename some of its most iconic SUVs. There’s a petition in California to rename Squaw Valley.

The list goes on.

In other instances, companies needed to address their historical narratives. Disney, for example, added a warning to viewers at the front of some of its movies. The company recently widened its content warning beyond movies for “the mistreatment of people or cultures.”

“Companies that have a long-standing legacy with a rich history often need to figure out how they honor their heritage while modernizing and positioning for the future,” says Courtney Malengo, founder of Spark + Buzz Communications. “As a company grows, the story that is told will need to be evaluated purposefully and proactively, rather than reactively.”

Disney’s warning attempts to do that. In an effort to acknowledge its past, Disney provides context to explain why particular movies include the labels.

The warning reads: “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”

“When public pressure mounts AND a change is the right thing to do, you just do it. You apologize, make the change, reiterate why you’re making the change and set new expectations for your audiences that they will hold you accountable for,” says Don Martelli, president, The Belfort Group.

Timing Is Everything

Of course, in the world of the 24/7 news cycle, social media and cancel culture, some brands must react immediately. Whether or not these brands have held rebranding discussions prior to the incident, they need to address the current state of affairs in their efforts.

“The time to look at a rebranding is when the values of your aspirational consumer–the one who is going to grow the brand–don’t align with your existing brand values, which are reflected in the brand name, packaging, etc.,” says Dave Karraker, president of Raptor Communications.

For the recent re-branding of Aunt Jemima, for instance, “the brand image and name had been questioned and tested over the years,” The Quaker Oats Company says. Yet “there wasn’t consensus on a clear path forward for the brand. While work had been done over the years to evolve the Aunt Jemima brand in a manner intended to remove racial stereotypes that dated back to the brand origins, in June 2020 we acknowledged those changes were not enough.”

For Priscila Martinez, founder of The Brand Agency, when a brand is in the middle of a precarious situation it needs “to quickly acknowledge it, not quickly draft up a plan of attack” against critics. Organizations should “immediately inform stakeholders that they are taking this seriously and that they will respect the situation by giving it the necessary amount of time to come up with a thorough and deep-rooted solution,” she adds.

How, then, should brands address calls to make changes, even if a full plan isn’t developed? How should organizations address the public in the age of cancel culture, whereby if they don’t respond immediately they risk being canceled? Should brands update their stakeholders on their progress, even if nothing has yet to come to fruition?

Due Diligence

“A brand should never rush to share an action plan,” says Martinez. “Haste presents a lot of risks, namely, providing a superficial fix that won’t really penetrate the organization’s deep-rooted problems. Haste loves loose ends, and this will show when even the most well-intentioned company doesn’t recognize second-order consequences that may stem from moving too fast.”

Martinez points to summer 2020, when brands rushed responses to calls for social justice. Some organizations were called out for making empty promises; others promised to do better by consumers but proceeded to continue to cast the same (non-diverse) type of models in their campaigns. In other instances, executives utilized messages of change in their corporations, but employees exposed the internal racism the organization seemed to support.

“The speed at which we exchange information has made consumers incredibly savvy. They are too smart for brands to try and ‘spin’ this. If a brand knowingly swept controversy under the rug for years, they owe their customers and stakeholders transparency and a pledge to do better in the future,” says Martinez. “They should absolutely acknowledge that it’s been a work in progress but that they hear their consumers loud and clear—that they will give the matter urgency and that they pledge to do better now, and in the future, for everyone involved.”

How to do it

Karraker, who worked on the rebranding for Wild Turkey Bourbon, suggests that “to move a brand forward, you need to take a giant step backward to review the origins of the brand [and ask], ‘Why was it started in the first place? What need was it fulfilling? What were the brand values of the time?’”

From there, he suggests mapping original brand values to the values of the current target consumer.

“See where things align. Inevitably, you will find something about the founder or the original brand that speaks to today’s marketplace. Those are the attributes you then turn into your new identity.”

In the example of the Pearl Milling Company, The Quaker Oats Company asked consumers, employees, external cultural and subject-matter experts to come up with a new name, a company official said.

It worked with a Black female-founded agency, conducted several rounds of consumer testing and focus groups from consumers and enlisted external advisors who were advocates for diversity and equality to counsel on the process and brand building.

The Quaker Oats Company did a deep dive into the brand origins to ensure the organization “understood the history of Aunt Jemima in order to help inform the new brand’s future,” the company official adds.

Says Martinez, brands “need to…admit that this acknowledgement has been a long time coming, that there was room for them to act quicker. They need to inform stakeholders that they are looking into what deep-rooted organizational processes and values created the lag and that they pledge to work at fixing those in their forthcoming plan-of-attack.”

Critics, Cancel Culture & Accountability

Of course, anytime a company develops a different name or packaging, there will be critics.

But you can’t please everyone–and in some instances, you may not want to.

“There are going to be times that you have to be prepared to lose some consumers to move a brand forward,” says Karraker. “But it is your well-defined values that will lead you to the right decision...Typically, though, the legacy consumers you lose are not the ones who are going to move the brand forward in the first place.”

Malengo agrees, pointing out that, while “weighing in on some of these challenges will run the risk of alienating certain groups, that cuts both ways. Saying nothing can also alienate audiences.”

“Self-recognition, apologizing and repeating that process is part of the journey brands must go through,” adds Martelli. “The general public, through the power of social media, will hold everyone accountable to make change happen. Hiding, ignoring and a blatant disregard for other people’s opinions doesn’t cut it anymore. Accountability and change rules.”

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Calls for Jeep Cherokee Rename Remain Stalled

As we go to press, Jeep is the latest company with a sensitive brand-name issue. In this case, critics want it to withdraw  the name Cherokee from one of its vehicles.

In response, Jeep said: “Our vehicle names have been carefully chosen and nurtured over the years to honor and celebrate Native American people for their nobility, prowess and pride.”

In response, Chuck Hoskin, Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, who requested the name change, told Car and Driver, “I’m sure this comes from a place that is well-intended, but it does not honor us by having our name plastered on the side of a car.”

Jeep “did not address the issue [in its statement], and instead made it worse,” says brand expert Julius Geis, creator of Identity Built Branding. “If you read between the lines, Jeep states that they are more concerned about the money they spent building the brand, versus addressing the issues of cultural equity for corporate gain.”

The company discontinued the name in 2002, only to bring it back in 2014.

When asked what Jeep should have done differently, Geis says, “I would have recommended it reach out to the Cherokee leader, listen and together define a way forward. That doesn’t mean brands have to give in to every outside demand. But, in this case, I believe Jeep is stuck in an old mindset.”

He adds, “Their corporate attitude around the Cherokee name jeopardizes the reputation of the overall Jeep brand. Think about this year’s Super Bowl ad with Bruce Springsteen in an old Jeep talking about unity. It just doesn’t add up anymore. For about three years now, we have been on the fast highway of change...Brands are part of this global movement and people demand a stance from brands on issues they care about. The traditional top-down attitude [about] how to market your brand is no longer working...If Jeep approaches this new style of brand identity–defining their values and its management accordingly–I am sure they’ll find a solution moving forward, gaining new customers along the way.”