Jan Gooding: Toppling our own statues
There can be few things as important to a brand as its name, iconography and heritage, writes Jan Gooding - but companies are now having to assess the true meaning of these prized assets in order to find their place in today’s society
Over this summer we have been reminded of the importance of symbols and their meaning.
The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, kicked off a national conversation in the UK about what we no longer find tolerable in our public spaces. Statues, memorials, flags and long forgotten symbols of racism and repression have burst into political discourse.
We are discovering that it takes courage to even confront and talk about the past, let alone decide how to move forward. Nevertheless, we are compelled to engage with and navigate the legacy of our ancestors.
Flagging uncomfortable truths
Debates about symbols can be seen by some as trivial. However, we also know that flags, statues, names, and rituals can mean everything to people. They exist precisely because they enable a shorthand embodiment of who we are, what we stand for and value. They can make us feel we belong or are excluded. That applies to people and brands.
It is heartening to see that there are brands already shifting their position, unable to endure what their name and imagery is now seen to represent. There has undoubtably been a global shift in mindset and a united sentiment calling for urgent action. This is a moment for brands and business to lead. Possibly ahead of many politicians, trade bodies and regulators.
It began with renaming places
Twenty years ago, I went to Mumbai on a week-long business trip. India had renamed this capital city just a few years before, having argued that ‘Bombay’ was a corrupted English version of 'Mumbai', and an unwanted legacy of British colonial rule.
The change was controversial at the time, and there are those who still resent it. As recently as 2016, The Independent newspaper here in UK ‘announced’ it would revert to using the City’s ‘older’ name of Bombay. The paper’s editor, Amol Rajan, described the move as designed ‘to defend the tradition of a country whose commitment to openness, tolerance and pluralism is ancient and endangered’.
Bleaching skin white
On the very same trip, I saw a presentation made by a Unilever brand manager about a brand called ‘Fair & Lovely’. It was explained to us that India was a country that favoured lighter skin tones. So much so, that ads in the Times of India described brides in search of a husband as ‘fair skinned’ to increase their appeal.
We were shown the brand’s new TV commercial. It was a classic ‘before and after’ ad. First showing us a woman walking down the street with dark skin, completely ignored by men. And then, after using ‘Fair & Lovely’, we saw the same woman, turning heads as she walked the very same street, and laughing with delight. Whiter skin had improved her beauty and marriage prospects.
Words are cheap
In the last few weeks, I learnt that the very same Hindustan Unilever’s ‘Fair & Lovely’ brand, is finally going to drop the word ‘fair’ from its name. Given the product still performs the same function - to lighten a person’s skin - surely the product and proposition itself need revisiting too?
Johnson & Johnson has gone much further and announced that it will be discontinuing skin lightening creams Neutrogena ‘Fine Fairness’ and Clean & Clear ‘Clear Fairness’ altogether. Cynics will say they were not sufficiently profitable to warrant reinvention. But regardless, they are gone from the shelves.
Brands can cause real harm
Sonoo Singh, a journalist I greatly admire, on hearing the news about the proposed changes wrote on Twitter. ‘Growing up in India, it took all my Pa’s resolve to make me stand in front of a mirror and say “I’m the best”. Sister Anne at my school would show me pics of a dark-skinned Mother Mary to make me believe my colour wasn’t a sign of shame! A bit tearful when I read this.’
Why would any of us want to work on a brand that played any part in such feelings?
Choose to lead rather than follow public opinion
No doubt, there will be those who will resent this change and tell us that women have a right to lighten their skin colour if they choose to. But surely no brand wants to be part of such a belief system that reinforces prejudice and discrimination?
I applaud any business that is ahead of public attitudes on social justice. Brands can play a significant leadership role in helping to change people’s minds. If they don’t step up, the demand for such products will continue whatever they are called.
Brands still promote racial stereotypes
Elsewhere, we learnt American brand Uncle Ben’s rice is to scrap the image of a black farmer the brand has used since the 1940s and could also change its name. The parent company, Mars, said Uncle Ben was a fictional character whose name was first used in 1946 as a reference to ‘an African American Texan rice farmer’.
Those of us in the UK may not realise the damaging connotations of this kind of caricature. They are part of a suite of advertising stereotypes, dating back to the shameful Jim Crow era in America, such as Uncle Tom, Old Black Joe, Rastus and Uncle Remus.
Far from being benign fictional characters, they consciously perpetuated and exploited the racial stereotype of the ‘happy black man’. And helped lead to the racial epithet of ‘Uncle Tom’, which is used to describe black men as self-hating racial ‘sell-outs’ pandering to the idea of white supremacy.
Brands as apologists for slavery
The move to rebrand Uncle Ben’s follows a similar announcement from the Quaker food company, which plans to change the 130 year-old Aunt Jemima pancake and syrup name and logo.
Aunt Jemima, also a fictional character, is regarded as the most well-known and enduring racial caricature of African American women. The trademark is based on the “mammy” stereotype.
During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that black women were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laughter and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.
British brands are guilty too
Before we once again regard this as a problem ‘over there’, and not alive here in the UK, remember the old Robinson’s jams and marmalade collectable ‘Golly’, which was with us as recently as 2001?
I am told creative agencies are still struggling to get mainstream clients to accept black casting in their advertising, or other visual content, even if they try to address representation. We can anticipate more whistle-blower stories on this kind of everyday racism unless brand owners start to proactively address it.
If I was still at Aviva I would be asking our archivist to help me understand how legacy insurance brands in our portfolio profited from slavery. I would want to use and share this knowledge inside the company, so everyone was educated on our history.
I would expect that to bring this discussion close to home for everyone there, to shake up the conversation on diversity and inclusion still further, and lead to some further positive changes in attitude and behaviour. I know that one of the enduring values at Aviva is ‘create legacy’ so I am sure it is already on the case.
Brands have some thinking to do
As a sector that relies heavily on the convenience of stereotypes, and the power of consistent iconography, we have a lot of further thinking, talking and walking to do.
Brands like ‘Fair & Lovely’, Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima represent the low hanging fruit. Like the statue of Edward Colston, the discussion about rectifying the insult of their continued existence had already gone on for too long. Action has finally been taken. That is something to celebrate.
We must all now continue to reflect on our use of language, how we represent society and work out how we best redress the harms from our past.
Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of PAMCo, Given (London), the president of the Market Research Society, and the former chair of Stonewall. She writes for Mediatel News each month.
On July 14 Mediatel Events hosted the Future of Diversity: Standing Shoulder to Shoulder - a full day digital event focused on exploring and debating questions around racism, white allyship and multicultural diversity and inclusion. Click here for details on how to access the sessions on demand.