June 19, 2020

The Brand X Society

Corporations are racing to remove minorities from their packaging and branding.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming a couple of months ago, when the farmer-owned co-op that produces Land O'Lakes products reworked its packaging to erase the Native American woman who had adorned it for decades. Wiped away was a highly recognizable symbol of a leading brand, created, ironically enough, by a Native American artist.

But the trend toward “cancel culture” accelerated in a big way after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd. Lives of every shade certainly matter, but in the eyes of certain businesses, green dollars matter more and many corporate entities fret that running afoul of the BLM movement will make their brands less politically correct and more prone to boycott.

It began with PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats business suddenly becoming “woke” and deciding that its venerable Aunt Jemima product line was due for a whitewash after more than 130 years. Never mind that the brand made a celebrity out of Nancy Green, who was born into slavery but became the first real-life Aunt Jemima to promote the product at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Spending her last 30 years as the company’s public face before her death in 1923, Green was the first in a line of spokeswomen who barnstormed the country in the early part of the last century promoting Aunt Jemima products.

Once Aunt Jemima fell, there was little doubt this rush to kneel at the altar of social justice would keep going. Next up was the long-standing Uncle Ben’s brand of rice products, which didn’t have the slavery connection (it was created in the 1940s) but featured a genial black gentleman on its packaging. The announcement of the change was self-flagellating: “Racism has no place in society. We stand in solidarity with the Black community, our Associates and our partners in the fight for social justice. … We know to make the systemic change needed, it’s going to take a collective effort from all of us — individuals, communities and organizations of all sizes around the world.”

Cream of Wheat’s packaging will likely be next, and it’s evident that the image of an older black person, whether dignified or perhaps a little more cartoonish, is now considered racist.

Meanwhile, Quaker Oats appears quite content with its religious caricature of an elderly white man.

It’s easy on the one hand to make light of the situation, but we also have to ask just what was so offensive about modern iterations of brand symbols that not only distinguished the products but made them trusted parts of millions of American kitchens and pantries. Power Line’s John Hinderaker got it right when he called this new trend “corporate bull—.” Companies are, he adds, “trying to climb on a trendy bandwagon with no concern for the practical effects of their decisions.” Before long, we’ll be back to that generic packaging we first saw back in the 1980s — that is, if packaging in stark black and white will continue to be allowed.

While none of these social-justice rebrands is likely to be a disaster on the scale of New Coke, decisions that cater to the arbitrary and capricious whims of a noisy minority don’t usually do well for the bottom line.

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