‘Brand public’ starts beating the drum: Cancel culture and the role of brands in the society

In the months following the wave of social movements such as #BLM, a new trend has emerged where the public is increasingly gravitating towards a so-called ‘call out’ and ‘cancel’ culture.

This is being driven predominantly by the ‘brand public’ — those eager to create, promote and assign new values to a particular brand.

Threatening to boycott a brand and switching to competitors isn’t linked to the quality of offerings anymore. The “out of sync” brand and brand public values is all it takes to call out the brand for their perceived discriminatory practices.

With the spill over effect of the Black Lives Matter movement, the brand public is more driven than ever to social injustices, and no branding practices are immune from being called out.

While the world is getting used to the backlash towards woke marketing campaigns (think, posting a black square with no concrete measures in the fight against discrimination), the cancel culture is moving into well-established branding practices, namely brand elements ranging from name and logo, to tagline, and to brand characters.

However, the pressure from brand public and the risk of cancelling a brand has been deemed too high to neglect. As a result, several brands under fire have rebranded, conforming to the calls in an attempt to stay/become relevant to brand public.

Such public cancel culture pressure may result in sub-optimal decisions, in some cases rebranding and retiring iconic brands. The main question is whether the decisions announced by brands are the most effective in the fight against racism and discrimination, and going forward what brands can learn from such moves.

Recently, iconic FMCG brands have felt public pressure and addressed issues around their branding.

The case of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s

Ever since Aunt Jemima was launched in 1889, there have been several attempts to revise the brand’s perceived racist visual identity, from replacing the handkerchief on the Aunt Jemima character’s head with a plaid headband in 1968, to adding pearl earrings and a lace collar in 1989.

Aunt Jemima Brand to Change Name and Image Over ‘Racial Stereotype’ (Source: nytime.com)

A symbolic, but costly move towards changing the brand character was deemed necessary.

Instead of retiring a category leader, PepsiCo as the owner of Aunt Jemima, had several opportunities to act as an agent of change. Aunt Jemima could have adopted the Black Lives Matter movement when it was first created in 2013 (after the killing of Trayvon Martin) as its core purpose with a great fit, helping customers and employees to better understand the legacy of slavery, and supporting people of colour.

Similarly, the Uncle Ben’s brand — a rice product launched in 1946 which was named after an African America rice farmer “a beloved Chicago chef and waiter named Frank Brown” — has been revised to Ben’s Original.

Source: Ben’s Original USA

According to the parent company, Mars, this was their way of responding to racial bias and injustices, standing in solidarity with black community.

In the case of Uncle Ben’s, and Aunt Jemima, some may see the brand rename as a practice of erasing the history. “I understand what Quaker Oats is doing because I’m Black and I don’t want a negative image promoted. However, I just don’t want her legacy lost, because if her legacy is swept under the rug and washed away, it’s as if she never was a person”, said relatives of former Aunt Jemima spokeswomen.

More importantly, it can be seen as the conflict between advocating for diversity and fighting racism.

On the one hand, brands are encouraged to celebrate diversity by hiring people of colour and different ethnicities, and to incorporate diversity in their marketing and branding communications.

Yet there are calls to retire brands with black visual identities. One argument is that leveraging the potential of an iconic brand like Aunt Jemima to fight racism may be a more impactful than resting and retiring the brand.

A brand like Chobani, a leading yogurt brand founded by Hamdi Ulukaya, a former refugee, decided to go bold and adopt the story/history of its founder as the source of its brand purpose. Chobani supports refugee entrepreneurs through Chobani Incubator, and tent foundation, and actively hires refugees.

Perhaps an Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben’s scholarship or foundation, financially supported by the brands’ sales revenue could be introduced as a more proactive alternative response to fight against racism.