Brand names and their related symbols and historical associations have come under scrutiny and attack like never before. 

Heritage CPG brands including Aunt Jemima, Land O’ Lakes, Uncle Ben’s, and Mrs. Butterworth; colleges and school systems such as Washington and Lee; musical groups The Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum; and sports team including the Washington Redskins are all in the process of or have decided to change their brand name or visual identities.  

The Black Lives Matter movement has increased the scrutiny for any symbol or name that references black slavery, Hispanics, Native Americans, the Confederate Army, or any historical figure that was involved in the genocide of the Native Americans such as Christopher Columbus. As such, even cities are considering name changes. Columbus, Ohio had over 75,000 residents sign a petition to change its name to Flavortown and the Columbus statue was taken down from the front of city hall.

A database published in 2013 by the National Congress of Indians (NCAI) indicates that there are currently more than 2,000 secondary schools with mascots that reference Native American culture, compared to around 3,000 fifty years ago. To date, 16 states have banned or passed anti-funding legislation on the use of Native American names or imagery. Other school systems – such as Cult client Olentangy Schools – proactively decided to replace several Native American related mascots over a year ago. 

Frito-Lay eliminated a famous character and campaign called the Frito Bandito. Trader Joe’s used Trader Jose’s (Mexican food) and Trader Ming’s (Chinese food) as sub-brands and said it was a light-hearted attempt at inclusiveness that backfired. Both of these changes came in as a response to customer complaints. Brand leaders who are in tune with their perception should be able to navigate and pivot before there is a public outcry to change. But it’s not a clear decision in some cases. For instance, the very common mascots “Warrior” and “Scout” are two words that have come under scrutiny but they are not actual Native American-related terms. 

But, where will it all end? Geico used a caveman in their TV commercials because they thought they were safe to use an “extinct” species. Will this offend someone or some caveman advocacy group? Does this demean the predecessors to the modern human species? 

One thing is for sure, marketing leaders need to research their brand’s history, messaging, or any symbolism to determine if they are clean from negative references. As good stewards of a business, marketers should routinely check to see how their brand name and imagery is perceived in the marketplace. Having a clear pulse on the business is an ante for any brand leader today. Stay tuned. 

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