In light of renewed discussions around anti-Black racism and police brutality, several well-known brands like Aunt Jemima have recently decided to change their name, logo and internal structures in an effort to eliminate stereotypes and discrimination.
While these long-overdue changes may seem superficial, experts believe they will have a lasting impact on consumer culture.
“We’re heading into an era where people have to be discerning. We cannot be what they used to call the ‘passive plebes’ anymore,” said Cheryl Thompson, a creative industries professor at Ryerson University.
“In order to be healthy in this era, you have to start to see connections between where we are and where we’ve been, and then imagine where we could be.”
At the very least, Thompson says, these changes will encourage consumers to think about what they’re buying and what it represents — leading people to demand more of companies.
A time for change
Aunt Jemima, owned by PepsiCo Inc., was one of the first brands to get a facelift — both the name and logo are set to change in the fourth quarter of 2020.
The logo of the more than 130-year-old brand features an African-American woman named after a character from 19th-century minstrel shows. The offensive caricature is rooted in a stereotype of a friendly Black woman working as a servant or a nanny for a white family.
The brand faced social media backlash and calls for a boycott amid protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died while in police custody.
“We recognize Aunt Jemima‘s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” said Kristin Kroepfl, vice-president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, in a statement.
“As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations.”
PepsiCo simultaneously committed to a set of initiatives worth more than $400 million over five years to support Black communities in north americA? and increase Black representation in the company.
Mars Food, which makes Uncle Ben’s rice, announced on June 17 that it would “evolve” its brand from the current presentation, which features a smiling older Black man on an orange package.
Meanwhile, sports teams like the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos and the NFL’s Washington Redskins have also placed their brands under review. Advocates for change argue that both are derogatory terms for Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami — a non-profit organization that represents more than 60,000 Inuit people — has long advocated for the renaming of Edmonton’s CFL team.
“Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami has demanded that the Edmonton Canadian Football League team stop using the moniker ‘Eskimos’ as part of an ongoing fight against colonization in the name of reconciliation. This stance has been supported by many Inuit, although I fully understand and appreciate that not all Inuit view the term as offensive,” said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, in a 2015 op-ed.
“This issue is about our right to self-determine who we are on our own terms. We are not mascots or emblems.”
On Wednesday, amid threats from major sponsors to pull support, the team promised to speed up a review of the team name and provide an update by the end of the month.
Why it matters
A lot of these racialized brands are also legacy brands, Thompson said. They’ve been around since the late 19th century and reflect the point in time during which they were created.
“We’ve actually been frozen in time as it relates to these brands that were created … two centuries ago,” Thompson said.
For example, Aunt Jemima ready-made pancake mix was debuted at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
“This was the first major exposition in North America to launch a whole bunch of things, like the skyscraper,” Thompson said.
According to Thompson, most of these brands have hardly been updated since then, and what’s fossilized within them is problematic portrayals of marginalized communities — like Black people — carried over from the early 19th century, when slavery was alive and well.
Now, those stereotypes are an intimate part of everyday life for millions of people.
You typically consume Aunt Jemima pancakes at breakfast, “the most important meal of the day, they’ve been telling us (for years),” Thompson said.
“You’re going to be at home, probably still in your pyjamas … there’s something so personal and intimate to breakfast, and I think that’s (one) reason it’s taken so long for (this brand) to change.”
If you buy these products, you’re exposed to racism because they portray a trope of a Black person who never actually existed, Thompson said. It rewrites the history of Black people in a way that is easier to consume for white people.
“It’s a hyper-fictive figure, and that’s why it’s so problematic: it makes conversations of real Black women who were enslaved difficult for people to understand,” Thompson said.
“We must have enjoyed slavery … because in every depiction you’ve ever seen of an enslaved person in consumer culture, we are smiling and dancing. Why would you believe otherwise?”
Finally changing these images and names, Thompson said, will force consumers to think critically about the products they often blindly put in their grocery cart out of habit.
Brand logos and imaging is a form of what she calls “soft power” — “a passive way to indoctrinate a population” — and what’s happening now is a disruption of that status quo.
Structural change is necessary
Aside from dismantling systems of race-based discrimination and oppression, it’s simply good business sense to make brands more inclusive.
More than 20 per cent of the Canadian population was born in another country, according to 2016 census data, and companies will be rewarded if they take this into consideration, said Howard Lichtman, co-founder of a multicultural marketing agency called Ethnicity Matters.
Consumers will be more inclined to interact with your brand or buy your product if you’re representative of their experience as a Canadian, Lichtman said.
“When we talk about racialized brands like Aunt Jemima or the Edmonton Eskimos, what they’re doing is perpetuating negative stereotypes,” Lichtman said.
“These images are not realistic, nor are they right. They’re both hurtful and harmful.”
Marketing is a powerful tool, Lichtman said, and stereotypical images quickly become part of a society’s collective unconscious bias.
However, it’s not enough to simply remove the problematic name and image of Aunt Jemima, Lichtman said. The changes must be backed by concrete, structural change.
“Not only did Pepsi step up and (admit) to being wrong, they actually tried to address some of the other pieces of the puzzle,” Lichtman said.
Lichtman points to the company’s $400-million commitment to making change, including anti-discrimination training and changes to its recruitment, scholarship and mentoring policies as an example for other organizations.
“From a marketing perspective, they went beyond changing the name and said ‘we’re going to make sure that there are more jobs for Black creators,’ which I think is really important,” Lichtman said.
“I salute them. They stepped up to the plate, and there are others that haven’t gone as far.”
— With files from Global News’ Josh Elliott and Phil Heidenreich and Reuters
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