Offensive brands are exiting stage left. What took so long?

Linda J. Dodson

The following is a guest post from Gregg S. Lipman, managing partner of brand strategy agency CBX. Opinions are the authors’ own.

Brands tend to perform best when they act like people, with their own distinctive behaviors and personalities. Right now, people everywhere are engaging in a long-overdue exercise of pausing to look in the mirror and think harder about their actions’ effects.

It’s why we’ve seen the sudden reappraisal of longstanding brands such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Eskimo Pie.

But isn’t it shocking that it took a moment of such magnitude — hundreds of thousands of people all over the world taking to the streets amid a pandemic — for this reckoning to occur? These brands have been unacceptable for years, and yet, there they sat on the shelf.

To understand how this can happen, consider an underappreciated truth about brand equities: They come with all kinds of hidden risks. In fact, the more valuable a set of brand equities, the greater the temptation to leave those equities preserved, year after year or decade after decade.

But brands do not live in a time capsule. They’re enmeshed in a dynamic society in which the way people think, feel and perceive continually evolves, and where culture continually morphs. That’s why it’s so important to consider three basic aspects of their relationship to the consumer when studying brand equities.

Evaluating equities: a three-step process

The first step is to simply ask if the particular brand equity — a color, icon, font, logo or mark — is still recognizable to consumers. “I know red’s in the soda aisle. I can’t tell you what brand it is or what flavor it is, but it’s familiar.”

The next level is identification. “Oh, I know what red stands for,” a consumer might say. “It’s Coca-Cola.” When people can put a name to an equity, there’s value creation. Various brand assets can be developed and deployed to reinforce the brand’s purpose and positioning such that the brand receives direct credit.

The third axis is relevancy. What is the implication of the particular brand equity in question? What mind states does it trigger in consumers when they encounter it? How does it make them feel? What are the positive and negative consequences of such choices? When it comes to societal reappraisals of brand equities, relevancy is particularly important. If the product was launched at the 1893 World’s Fair and its relevancy hasn’t been revisited, be forewarned.

All three of these attributes can change over time. But in addition to looking at dynamics in the present-day, it’s critically important to consider how consumer perceptions of those brand equities may change in the future, given the broader arc of social evolution.

The painful soul-searching that we’re seeing today, with brands being edited or canceled outright as a too-late reaction to rapid social change, is precisely what happens when companies fail to stay attuned in this way.

Evolutionary vs. reactive change

When CPG decision-makers take a broad and open view of brand equities, they can start to make evolutionary — rather than revolutionary — changes that incrementally move brands in the right direction. However, making small changes over time may not always be enough. A case in point: Those efforts to update Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben now look woefully inadequate. They were just attempts to keep those old, no-longer-relevant equities intact.

The old consumer lens was transactional (“What’s in it for me?”). The new one is much more about our common humanity (“Does this fit in with who I am?”). If the answer to that is “no,” then bigger changes may be required.

To carry them out, you may need to show courage in the face of financial and other pressures. Back in the late 1990s, I was part of a team that redesigned the pack for Children’s Tylenol. We proactively replaced its dated, black-and-white drawing of a young Caucasian boy with an artist’s rendering of what the average mother and child would look like far into the future, based on computer-modeled demographic projections. The prior pack felt exclusive; the latter image was inclusive, nurturing and ahead of the curve.

Asking Johnson & Johnson to ditch that black-and-white picture, which had graced the pack for years, was a gut-check moment. It was a childhood sketch of one of the company’s most senior executives.

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