• Transform magazine
  • September 27, 2021

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The ethics of renaming

Laurel headshot

For many brands, it's way past time to re-evaluate their resonance in the 21st century. Laurel Sutton, linguist and co-founder of of naming agency Catchword, writes that the cost of renaming a company or product might be high, but weighed against the cost of losing business, bad press, and perpetuating oppression, it's a small investment for the greater good.

Aunt Jemima. Washington Redskins. Uncle Ben’s. Eskimo Pie. For these US brand names, the time of reckoning had finally come, in the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. Decades of demand for change finally lined up with widespread acknowledgement of the harm caused by everyday racism, compounded by very visible, effective criticism on social media. These names were always racist; but it took a nationwide social movement to get companies to acknowledge that fact, and concede that change was, in fact, possible.

Quaker Oats was the first to speak up, announcing in mid-June 2020 that the 130-year-old Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pancake mix would get a new name. “We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype,” the company acknowledged, and followed this up in February 2021 by announcing the new name, Pearl Milling Company—the original name of the enterprise, founded in 1888. Similarly, in September 2020 rice brand Uncle Ben's (owned by Mars, Inc.) updated its name to Ben's Original, a move to “evolve” the brand’s identity. In both cases, the titles “aunt” and “uncle” were clear references to the legacy of slavery in the US: a black female servant who was allowed to live in the house with a white family would be called “aunt,” while white Southerners addressed black men as "uncle" to avoid using the honorific "Mr.”

Eskimo Pie, an American brand of chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar wrapped in foil, was rebranded Edy’s Pie after company co-founder Joseph Edy. It had featured a cartoon Inuit boy in a fur-lined parka on the package which had drawn objections from Inuit people. Cream of Wheat also dropped the image of a black chef long featured on its products; the character, known as Rastus, had once been depicted as a cook who was barely literate and knew nothing about nutrition.

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated name change was that of the Washington Redskins football team, now temporarily rebranded as the Washington Football Team and scheduled to adopt a permanent name for the 2022 season. Despite previous statements by the owner of the team, Dan Snyder, that the name would never change, 2020 saw commercial and public pressure catalyze the toppling of one of the most visible offensive sports names in US history. This followed years of protests, trademark lawsuits (which claimed that the name disparaged Native Americans), and dozens of academic studies that enumerated the damages done to Native Americans through the use of sterotypes.

Are these companies making changes because they fear public backlash, or because they truly recognize the impact of such racist portrayals? Perhaps it’s some of both. And perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much. Names are the foundations of brands, and changing the brand name signals a willingness to change the culture around it. Brands can serve as symbols glorifying a racist history, simply by continuing to exist, and thus as the representation of a company’s moral code.

As with all interactions, intent isn’t magic. Quaker Oats didn’t mean to support white supremacy by continuing to use the Aunt Jemima name and imagery, but to Black Americans, that’s exactly what came across. If a company continues to use an offensive name, after years of being asked to change it—politely but firmly, by the very people affected—the question then becomes: Why? Are the lives of an entire class of people worth less than the cost of changing a brand?

The cost of renaming a company or product might be high, but stacked against the cost of losing business, bad press, and, most importantly, perpetuating oppression, it's a small investment for the greater good. Caring about other people wins over not caring, every time.