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3 branding tips to follow in the age of antiracism

Getty Images black shoppers grocery store
Here, one expert explains why racial sensitivity always has to be part of the conversation, even if brands aren't ready to make concrete changes.

Our nation is in a state of reckoning when it comes to systemic racism. And brands with connections to racial stereotypes are making changes accordingly. Quaker Oats announced in June that its Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pancake mix will be getting a name and image makeover. Mars is changing the name of rice brand Uncle Ben’s to Ben’s Original and removing the imagery of an elderly Black man from its packaging. Responding to concerns surrounding insensitive naming, Trader Joe’s is repackaging and renaming its Trader Ming’s and Trader Jose products.

greg polachek headshot“Antiracism is at the forefront of people’s minds right now and companies that have racist or stereotypical names or images are getting attention, and it’s not because they did it on purpose or have malicious intent,” says Grant Polachek (left), head of branding at Inc. 500 company, a naming platform with over 25,000 customers including Nestle, Philips, Hilton and Pepsi. “In the past, they could just say ‘oops.’ Well, not today. Today, people are going to call them on it and say oops isn’t enough.” What is enough? Here are his guidelines for responding to concerns and rethinking brand imagery and naming.

1. Be proactive.

This is especially important for older brands that carry images or names that used to be accepted but now are not. “Lots of these brands may not want to change because of the fact that they are older and are widely recognized,” says Polachek. “But brands must preemptively make a change if they detect an issue, before consumers tell them to do it.”

2. Make a change.

If consumers start telling a brand that they take issue with their words or images, companies have to respond. If the response is to make a change, Polachek recommends engaging focus groups, doing significant research and running new names through linguistics softwares to be sure that the name doesn’t carry negative connotations in other languages. Polachek recalls the Chevrolet Nova which, translated into Spanish literally means “no go,” which doesn’t work well for a car brand.

The good news is that if a change is made, there’s an opportunity for authenticity. “Essentially, the communications should say, we’ve heard you and here are the steps we’re going to take and when,” says Polachek. “You can make this an opportunity rather than a hindrance.”

3. Respond in kind.

Perhaps a more difficult path is deciding not to make a change in branding after complaints are made. “It is so important to listen and respond to concerns,” Polachek says. “People need to know that they’ve been heard. Do not brush it under the rug. Address it openly and develop a strong reason why you’re not making a change.” Then, create a communications plan. Polachek recommends a multi-step strategy that includes a widespread announcement as well as smaller social media campaigns people can engage with.

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