Black Lives Matter: What’s in a name?

Why does it take a huge, international outpouring of resistance, antagonism and grief to make brands consider changing their discriminatory names, asks Associate Professor Val Hooper.

The Black Lives Matter movement has catapulted racially discriminatory practices in society and organisations to the fore.

Not only have overt physical discriminatory practices been condemned, but symbols of discrimination in businesses and society have been attacked. Statues of ‘heroes’ and bastions of society who had made their fortunes on the backs of slavery have been pulled down and buildings renamed. Such was the case with the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in the United Kingdom, and the dropping of Woodrow Wilson's name from buildings at Princeton University in the US.

Favourite brands called out as being named after discriminated groups have been recalled or reconsidered for renaming by their companies. Such brands include the Red Skins and Chicco’s (owned by Nestlé), Uncle Ben’s Rice (owned by Mars), Aunt Jemima’s breakfast food (owned by Quaker Oats), Fair and Lovely skin lighteners (Unilever) and Eskimo Pies.

However, reading reports on the recent brand name changes, one wonders how significant brand names really are. Surely, it’s the product one buys rather than the name?

On the contrary, in most cases it’s the brand name that attracts the customer. This is the promise of consistent quality, consistent service and commitment to the customer. Plus, it’s a risk-reduction mechanism for the customer – reduced anxiety about the functioning of the product/service and reduced time spent deciding between various alternatives.

The brand name encapsulates the trust between the customer and the organisation. While the brand consists of a number of elements, such as the name, logo or symbol, jingles, characters and packaging, it is the name which is by far the most important element. For organisations to consider changing a brand name, there can be many potentially negative consequences – but there can also be many positive outcomes.

The big question is: “Why are companies only now evidencing concern over these discriminatory practices and manifestations?” Why does it take a huge, international outpouring of resistance, antagonism and grief to bring about such consideration?

For instance, Nestlé (operating as Allen’s) indicated it would be withdrawing its Chicco’s and Red Skins branding from markets because those names did not align with its values. Surely, though, those values would have been around for much longer? Surely those values would have been entrenched in mission statements and the guiding tenets of the organisation?

Or were the values indeed already embraced by the organisation in its daily practice, especially in areas such as human resources (hiring, promotion, remuneration and so forth), and even in marketing in terms of target market segmentation where offerings made available to a certain segment would match their profile and benefits sought? And had previous such rebranding challenges such as the 1997 NFL Washington Red Skins and the 2015 'Rhodes must fall' campaign in South Africa and the UK not struck a chord?

Sceptics might hold the view that it is opportunistically prudent for companies to change offending brand names now, especially if the target markets of those brands yield a substantial share of their revenue.

Yet another view might be that the overt use of racially discriminatory brand names is by now probably so well-entrenched in, and familiar to, the fabric of the organisation that no one sees them anymore. The glaringly obvious gets overlooked.

These recent Black Lives Matter events have presented a sobering wake-up call for all organisations and for society in general. Organisations should re-examine their value statements and check they are, indeed, enshrined in the practices of all areas of operation. The familiar and habitual need to be especially carefully examined. Where racially discriminatory practices might occur, there should also be a careful examination of other possible forms of discrimination, such as gender, age and disability, within the organisation.

Furthermore, although this values wake-up call will now have a strong focus on anti-discrimination, other equally important values such as sustainability and anti-climate change should also be revisited.

The most important thing is that organisations walk the talk. The days of lip service are over. More and more, society is holding our organisations accountable and we should ensure we measure up to those value expectations.

Associate Professor Val Hooper is Head of Marketing and International Business at the Wellington School of Business and Government.

This article was originally published on Newsroom.