The current cultural reckoning is coming for some iconic labels deemed to be problematic.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewing company, is facing calls to change one of its most popular beers. And believe it or not, it’s actually not beer snobs asking for a little more flavor from Bud Light.
Their ‘Brahma’ brand beer, one of the most popular beers in Brazil, is under pressure from a massive interfaith coalition to completely rebrand and to drop the ‘Brahma’ name. They say it’s offensive to Hindus, who believe Lord Brahma is the god of creation, and that Brahma should not be used as a “toasting tool”. Critics insist the beer represents "religious appropriation, sacrilege and ridiculing entire communities.”
But Anheuser-Busch is not alone. Last week we posted about the long-awaited – and long overdue, many would argue – name change of the NFL's Washington Redskins. Under severe public pressure, the team announced that they’re finally ditching their racist team name and logo.
The move was met with widespread praise as part of a larger cultural movement to reckon with America's past sins. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide civil unrest that followed, everything from monuments to state flags are being re-examined and removed.
This public furor has now landed at the feet of some well-known brands that feature questionable logos and images.
No Way, Trader Jose
Trader Joe’s, a popular nationwide grocery store, is the latest company facing online petitions and criticism over its packaging. A petition started by a high school senior is calling on Trader Joe’s to remove “racist branding” from its packaging.
Trader Joe’s seldom sells outside-branded products; more than 80% of its inventory carries its own brand names, and labels are often named to match the ethnicity of the food.
For example, Trader Joe’s line of Mexican foods is named "Trader Jose’s" and Asian foods are labeled "Trader Ming’s." There’s also Trader Joe-San’s (Japanese cuisine), Trader Giotto’s (Italian foods), Trader Jacques (French products), and Arabian Joe (Middle Eastern recipes).
The petition cites these names and suggests that they “[bely] a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes,” and that all this does is “further other and distance them from the perceived 'normal.'"
Trader Joe’s has been quick to respond, already announcing that the branding is on its way out the door. In a statement, a Trader Joe’s spokesperson said that "while this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, we recognize that it may now have the opposite effect – one that is contrary to the welcoming, rewarding customer experience we strive to create every day."
Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben Out
Last month, Quaker Oats quietly retired its "Aunt Jemima" branding, acknowledging the maple syrup logo didn’t exactly “reflect our values [or] meet our consumers' expectations.” Cornell University professor Riché Richardson called them out all the way back in 2015 in a New York Times opinion piece, saying that the Aunt Jemima logo “was an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia and romance grounded in an idea about the 'mammy,' a devoted and submissive servant who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own.”
Mrs. Butterworth is also getting a rebrand, for similar reasons, suggesting the shapely syrup container is also rooted in that same offensive 'mammy' stereotype.
Same thing for Uncle Ben’s Rice, which intends to retire the Uncle Ben logo, saying last month that “now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben's brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do.” Many believe that the use of the word ‘Uncle’, as well as the imagery on the packaging, evoke notions of servitude.
Confronting Racism in America
Those in favor of retiring antiquated brand names were thrilled to see these companies act so quickly in making changes. Getting rid of negative stereotypes and cultural appropriation on the labels of the foods we eat may be a small marker of progress – but it's a marker of progress nonetheless, they argue.
However, critics worry that by focusing so much attention on things like offensive brand labels, we might be taking away momentum from larger efforts at systemic change, like instituting police reform or expanding voting rights.
What do you think of these rebranding efforts? By focusing on the "little stuff," do you think activists risk distracting from the larger movement?
UPDATE 07/30/2020: Trader Joe's posted a press release titled "A Note About our Product Naming" that seeks to "clarify" some confusion over their branding strategy. They said that they fundamentally disagree that the packaging in question is racist, and they argue that the packaging is a largely well-received way to "show appreciation for other cultures" and "attempt to have fun with our product marketing." They dispute that certain product lines were retired due to the petition, but rather simply because they didn't sell well. For now, it seems, Trader Jose will remain on the Trader Joe's shelf.