Matthew Miller
Sep 25, 2020

The cult of the brand

OPINION: Faced with public outcry about their logos and imagery, brands often drag their feet to a degree that seems irrational—especially if they actually do care about diversity and inclusion.

The cult of the brand

Yesterday we ran a news story explaining that Mars rice brand Uncle Ben's had revealed 'Ben's Original' as its new name, starting next year. The brand had promised to make a change to its branding back in June when the Black Lives Matter protests were first peaking. Darlie and Aunt Jemima made similar pledges at the time.

On Twitter, one of our followers reacted to yesterday's story, which we always appreciate. This reader expressed derision (his first Tweet simply said, "FFS"). When asked to elaborate, he added:

Nothing more than virtue signalling. 'Look at us. We Care.' If they want to do something of real value, raise the salaries of their lowest-paid employees.

This comment got me thinking about the power of brand symbolism, and the way brands react when they get, if you'll pardon the expression, 'branded' as problematic. 

I fully agree with our reader that brands can and should act more responsibly—in terms of pay and worker safety and sustainability and a whole host of other areas. No one can really argue otherwise. I also agree that a rebranding effort undertaken without also undertaking better corporate citizenship is hollow and opportunistic, ergo detestable.

But our reader—and he's far from alone in this reaction—seems to me too dismissive of the importance of brands making these changes. 

After all, if we as an industry believe that brands have power—and we certainly do believe that—then we also have to admit that brands have power to inflict damage through their use of symbolism. And we should be responsive to those who point this out. If not, all promises of concern and support for diversity really don't mean anything.

Yet time and time again, brands faced with these situations dig in their heels, or at least drag their feet.

Take for example, the NFL franchise based in Washington DC, which for years refused to consider abandoning a nickname that's so offensive I'm not even going to type it (it's almost identical in meaning to the N-word, but for native Americans). Thankfully, in July the team either gained enlightenment, caved to pressure from social justice warriors, or made a smart business decision, when it changed its official name temporarily (and hilariously) to 'Washington Football Team', pending the selection of a new nickname later. (Yes, yes, I know, it should be using 'Washington American Football Team', but that's another topic entirely.) 

Closer to home, consider Darlie. The toothpaste brand has faced pressure about its branding for decades. But it has changed only in maddening baby steps, like substituting a single letter in its name (from Darkie to Darlie) and toggling the colour of the man's face on its packaging from black to white. Yeah, that fixed it.

This resistance to change continues to this day. I recently got a press release about a new Darkie Darlie campaign in Malaysia, which claimed to be the launch of the "revamped" brand. I was excited to see how the brand was changing at long last. Here's one of the videos. Cute ad. But skip to the end, and guess who's still on the packages? Yep, it's the formerly blackface but now whiteface guy.

Seriously, WTF are you waiting for, Darlie? Is this guy under some kind of airtight contract? Are you afraid he'll sue if you remove him? (I asked for some more info about the 'revamping', which I gather is happening in stages, but didn't get a response yet.) 

As for Uncle Ben's, as our story yesterday related, the brand has also made minor changes through the years. On some packages, Uncle Ben now wears an open-necked shirt instead of the bowtie that denotes his actual servant origins. At another point the brand tried to retcon him with a backstory that made him into a businessman. Even today, although it unveiled the name and logo, the brand is apparently still undecided about whatever image may or may not take Ben's place on its packaging.

So what gives? Brands act like their branding is not just important but sacrosanct. At all times they make the smallest incremental changes they can possibly make.

The resistance probably comes down to fear of lost sales. That's understandable. But I wonder what evidence exists to justify that fear. How much of a hit would Darlie really have taken if it got rid of top-hat man years ago? Will Uncle Ben's/Ben's Original see any deteriment now?

Of course branding is important. But methinks brands greatly overestimate how critical the individual elements of a brand actually are. Consumers won't care nearly as much as you fear if you depart from your brand heritage. Your legacy, I believe, means little them. As long as shoppers can still recognize your brand on the shelf (real-world or virtual) as they race through the store trying to get their shopping done, you're fine.

There are limits of course—everyone remembers the Tropicana debacle. But it shouldn't be that hard for the talented people in this industry to find a way to make positive, needed changes without destroying entire businesses. If in doubt, spend a little ad money to solidify whatever you've changed in everyone's mind.

If you don't make that effort, you can't blame people for wondering whether your resistance is really about business, or something else. 

Anyway, it's good to see some brands finally being willing to listen and make changes after many years. But it would be better to see them react with open minds—and more speed—from now on.

Matthew Miller is managing editor of Campaign Asia-Paciic.


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