Colonial Brewing, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s: Experts chime in on product branding amid Black Lives Matter

Benjamin Chong aussie startup investment

Right Click Capital partner Benjamin Chong.

Companies profiting from iconography associated with racism and historical imperialism are reeling this week after industrious social media users started pulling them up on their company names and logos.

Colonial Brewing Co. had its beers nixed from several Melbourne bottle shops over criticism its name harkened back to the invasion of Australia by white settlers.

Overseas, a host of North American brands, including Mars’ Uncle Ben’s and Quaker Oat’s Aunt Jemima, have bowed to pressure and agreed to change the face of their longstanding products, following a groundswell of criticism over their ties to racial oppression.

It comes amid international protests in the wake of racist policing practices in the United States, Australia and elsewhere, particularly after four Minneapolis police officers were charged over the death of George Floyd.

What does this mean for the future of marketing and how companies position themselves in the eyes of customers? We asked the experts.

Benjamin Chong, Partner, Right Click Capital

History should be used as a guide to our future. Only by encountering history and facing it properly can we decide what new future we wish to produce. The history of colonialisation cannot be erased and its march has affected many countries and peoples over many centuries. While we cannot undo the past, we can hope to understand it and respond accordingly. Getting rid of a statue or name doesn’t necessarily remove discrimination. What’s critical is for all of us to have a consciousness of history, both the good and bad, as we play our role in shaping a better future.

When it comes to discrimination, as individuals and businesspeople, we have to play our part, in the small and large decisions that we make. Self-awareness is the start; recognising we may have bias in the way we perceive and approach the world. How might we behave differently if we were to remove these biases? Might we stereotype less and engage more with people who are different from us? Might we be more inclusive of other genders, cultures and thinking? Might we make a commitment to stand up for those who have been subject to discrimination? Might we change the way we spend our money, whether directly or indirectly?

Today, authenticity in marketing and brand positioning is key. Startups and businesses who preach one thing and practice the opposite will be quickly revealed. That’s why it’s important to set appropriate standards, regularly measuring performance against actuals, and recognising that sometimes companies get it wrong. I find the United Nations sustainable development goals a helpful guide as it provides a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future. Goals such as gender equality, decent work and economic growth, reduced inequalities, responsible production, and peace and justice should be embraced by all.

Only by better understanding the past, having conversations about how we want our future to look and by developing strong convictions for positive behaviour, will we be able to better shape tomorrow’s destiny.

Melissa Packham, chief brand strategist, A Brand is Not a Logo

Branding is and always has been an exercise in shaping customer perception. What this backlash is reminding businesses of is that while their brand might be their asset, in actual fact it ‘belongs’ to their customers.

It’s not new that consumers are looking for brands with genuine values and a social and environmental conscience. With so much choice, they’re looking to spend their money with brands that align with their own values. This puts necessary pressure on companies to walk-the-walk when it comes to their brand values and take into consideration the broader context in which they are operating.

Companies which take a collaborative, customer-first approach to the entire process of bringing a solution to life, including continuing to listen and adapt to changing needs, will be the ones who thrive.

Brand owners and the people who help create them (that is, marketers, creative agencies, etc.) will need to continue to challenge their own personal biases, so that drawing on iconography which is inherently offensive is called out early in the concept development process, or better yet, doesn’t even get pitched as a concept in the first place.

Michel Hogan, independent brand counsel

Before throwing stones, ask what is the intention?

How marketing should change to address increased awareness about racism, feels like the wrong question. And I worry starting there will serve to alter the veneer and fail to address what sits behind it. A better question might be, ‘What is the intention?’ There’s a mostly unexamined difference between complacency, reckless indifference and a deliberate motive.

For example, Colonial Brewing Co. was founded in 2004 and until this past week, was quietly brewing its local beer. Suddenly, people took issue with the name. Nothing the company did had changed. But the environment had. And the distinction is crucial.

Last year I wrote about cancel culture . And while things are now more highly charged, what I observed holds.

“Setting aside genuine wrongdoing, there is still a barrage of judgement waiting to be unleashed at the smallest provocation. It doesn’t take much for the machine gun of outrage to start turning.”

Marketing is best placed to look at what is happening in the environment. And so, can embrace a role like the canary in the coal mine. Take a clear-eyed look at what the organisation is doing. And when they see a problem, don’t wait for it to blow up, vigorously pursue whatever needs to change. And in the process treat new product names, or revamped labels as a signal of progress not a reason to hide.

Also, customers don’t get a hall pass. Give organisations a break and stop assuming malintent. If you have a problem, don’t hurl accusations in the social media coliseum, instead talk to them in private.

The only sure thing is this won’t be the last shift organisations have to respond to, and the brand is a result of how they do.

NOW READ: “Now is a time to listen, to restructure”: As brands weigh in on the Black Lives Matter movement, Lush director Peta Granger says authenticity is essential

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