Quaker Oats is the owner of the Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mixes and syrups that has been around for 131 years. The company has announced their decision to retire the brand in its effort to work “to make progress toward racial equality.”
For years, Quaker Oats has been aware of the problematic image and message of the brand and began to make changes decades ago when they added jewelry and a headband to replace a scarf to the image. Aunt Jemima was portrayed by woman named Nancy Green at the 1893 World’s Fair. Green had been born into slavery in 1834.
Brands clearly have the power and potential to become a fixture in culture as people become more connected to it. And when a brand has had a long shelf life, it simply becomes a way of life. Consumers stop thinking much about whether it’s a quality product or not, they simply know the brand by its longevity and assume it is good.
Moving forward, brand development must take seriously questions of sexism, racism and similar topics of known social derision. It seems like it’s a lot of work trying to avoid offense when the outrage culture appears to be the norm, but it also doesn’t need to be that difficult. You can avoid racial and gender stereotypes and the celebration of dehumanizing behaviors by working with focus groups or simply bouncing ideas off of colleagues and peers. There’s a lot of value to be gained through the experience and insight of other professionals in your sphere, so take advantage of those opportunities when considering a new or re-branding strategy.
Don’t forget to do your research. Take your image and tagline ideas to the search engine and see what you find. Sometimes what you discover is that a brand or tagline is trademarked—and you definitely don’t want to go down the road of trademark infringement—but you may also discover some correlations to cultural offenses, subtle or otherwise.
Ethics in marketing is often and primarily attributed to brand promises and associated expectations. But you won’t even get to that if your brand is immediately offensive to a people group or cause. Consumers won’t be able to evaluate the quality of what you offer if they have to hold their nose because of your branding decisions. Doing the right thing in terms of avoiding offense may feel like political correctness, but this is a case where ethical deliberation can have a positive impact on your brand and your business. Always err on the side of human dignity and compassion in developing your brands, to do otherwise will have a negative impact on someone, somewhere.