January 26 is increasingly a date that Australian brands choose not to celebrate with marketing communications or sales promotions. Instead, brands may stay silent or endorse changing the date of Australia Day to one that doesn’t signify oppression of and violence towards Indigenous people.
This is part of a wider movement of brand activism attempting to speak to systemic racism. Recently, Australian cheese brand Coon changed its brand name to Cheer, garnering attention, criticism and debate. This change is not trivial from a marketing or societal perspective. After 85 years in the market, the Coon brand built up a strong affinity with customers and equity for owners, Saputo Dairy Australia. The rebrand, however ,responds to decades-long calls and efforts by Indigenous academic and anti-racism activist, Dr Stephen Hagan.
There is, unmistakably, a trend of powerful and well-known brands engaging in a strategy of rebranding, including Australian-based Chicos and Red Skins lollies.
Rebranding does not just encapsulate name changes – brands also include logos, symbols, slogans, and other trademarks. But what is achieved by rebranding in the eyes of consumers and society, and how do brands manage tensions between old and new meanings and divided public opinion?
What companies say Versus what people think
When companies put brands out into the world, they craft meanings around the brand, which is called the brand identity. When consumers think of a brand, particular associations come to mind, which make up the brand image. Brand identity and image are two sides of the same coin – identity is the intended meanings projected by the brand and the image is the actual meaning of the brand as interpreted by the end consumer.
Those who have defended the Coon name suggest that it was not intended to have racist connotations – a claim that is unsupported however by Dr Hagan’s research into the brand history. What actually matters though is how it is perceived, not how it was intended. In the case of Coon, the name has racist implications picked up on by many consumers. Clearly then, brands, through the meanings they conjure up in the minds of the public, can either further the marginalization and oppression of certain groups or contribute to a conversation and culture of inclusivity and respect in line with societal progression. When brand meanings evolve to being offensive and inherently problematic, rebranding offers a way to respond to demands for accountability and to move forward.
Out with the old and in with the new?
Rebranding can be a precarious marketing tightrope to walk. Oftentimes a brand has a complex and diverse set of meanings built and managed over many years. Brands may have a long history and strong affinity with consumers. The question is how do they rebrand to take a stand against sociopolitical issues such as racial injustice, distancing themselves from problematic associations while still honouring the affinity consumers have with the brand? This requires an evolution towards a purposeful, meaningful space for the brand that is acceptable in currently heightened political climates, while also offering assurance to consumers that the product underneath the brand is still the same one they have used and trusted.
One way to manage this process is to overhaul the offending brand element and keep others. A brand is not just the name. Consumers can derive valuable meaning from other trademarked elements such as logos, slogans, symbols, and even colour. In the case of Cheer, it shed the racist Coon name yet held onto the overall look and feel of the label and packaging. Presumably this will help trigger recognition for consumers when perusing the supermarket fridges.
There are other ways to go about rebranding as well. In New Zealand, Super Rugby club The Crusaders took a different approach to the widespread calls for a name change. The team name ‘The Crusaders’ was called into question in the aftermath of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, citing links between the club name and the centuries-old Crusades, bloody medieval conflicts between Muslims and Christians. Different from Coon (or Cheer), The Crusaders made the decision to keep their name but change their logo from a Knight on horseback to a Maori motif, symbolically distancing from the negative connotations regarding the battles.
Further afield, prominent brands such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s have rebranded in a bid to contribute to racial equity. Aunt Jemima, for instance, will not only change its name but also the brand’s imagery which had symbolized a deeply entrenched racial caricature of African American women.
Rebranding as a form of activism
Typically, rebranding occurs when brands lag and become tired. Now, rebranding is an attempt at activism, wielded by companies to redress their transgressions and enter the conversation around sociopolitical justice. Rebranding is a critical step that entrenched, problematic, and out-of-touch brands can take to enact more responsible branding. Of course, it is a prudent business move too. Thus engaging in brand activism in an authentic way is key.
While some may say that a brand name is just a word, brands are imbued with meaning and carry cultural significance. The challenge in rebranding is to create a new brand that is meaningful and potent enough to enter a responsible and authentic space.
Is Cheer, for example, compelling enough to continue the conversation on racism? Is changing just one element of the brand sufficient or is a more complete overhaul of the brand needed? And while brand activism peaks at significant dates such as January 26 in Australia and in response to movements like Black Lives Matter, the onus is increasingly on brands to disrupt societal norms and contribute to changing the status quo.
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