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How Do You Fix A Brand With A Racist Stereotype?

by Rudy Sanchez on 10/07/2020 | 6 Minute Read

While a lot of us will look back on 2020 as the year defined by the global coronavirus pandemic, it was also indelibly marked by demonstrations held in cities worldwide in protest of police brutality and racially-based systemic injustice sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody. 

Lead in large part by the Black Lives Matter movement, these calls for the end of racial injustice ignited other conversations surrounding race, including the depiction of Black people in media. Brands that have long used visual elements, that when created, were accepted broadly in a more inequitable society, are suddenly taking tangible steps at removing racist imagery. Brand mascots such as Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth, and Cream of Wheat's Rastus are now on the verge of getting removed or reimagined to be less racist.

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Uncle Ben’s also found themselves in the spotlight, and they swiftly moved to make a change to their branding, removing the African-American mascot entirely and changing the name to Ben’s Original. For its part, parent company Mars and Uncle Ben’s recognized the racist issues with the brand, but an attempt to reimagine Ben as an international rice tycoon ultimately fell flat, being poorly received and quickly dropped as a concept. The idea of retconning Ben as a CEO was to create an aspirational Black business person, and while well-intentioned, the rethink couldn't overcome the public’s skepticism.

Although the approach 13 years ago was unsuccessful, was removing Ben and dropping the Uncle enough? The country is not the same as it was in 2007, except for when it comes to issues of race and systemic oppression, but is the safest approach to start over instead of attempting a course-correct amid widespread distaste? Could Mars have done more or perhaps approached the rebranding in a completely different manner?

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While the ethnic and racial makeup of the teams working on Ben’s Original brand is unknown, what is certain is the lack of diversity in the design and marketing industries as a whole. That lack of representation can cause brands to continue to make decisions that are insensitive and offensive to some communities. The absence of diverse life experiences to draw from can also serve as a barometer to the ideation process, creating missed opportunities to represent BIPOC positively and realistically, while building brand equity and earning new customers.

According to the latest AIGA/Google Design Census of 2019, 71% of designers are white, while 3% are Black. According to a survey of members, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) found that 70% of marketing departments are white, and seven percent Black; by contrast, the entire U.S. population is over 13% Black according to the U.S. Census. The C-Suites are even less diverse, and the same ANA survey found that 88% of CMOs are White.

John Glasgow is the co-founder and creative director of New York and London design agency Vault49. He's also Black, and not only knows what it's like to be the sole BIPOC in a meeting, but he's also that rare unicorn that heads up a studio. Though originally from the UK, he's seen firsthand the lack of diversity in the industry and how harmful it can be to a rebrand centered on eliminating racist depictions.

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“Based on some of my experience, it was shocking going into these meeting rooms and being the only diverse voice sitting there," John says. "That's when you know you don't have more than one perspective."

"From a brand point of view, if you don't have shared experiences or that wide diversity of voices as well, you're not going to get whether something is racist, based on negative stereotypes, or comes from inequality."

While that might seem like a super obvious outcome, there are plenty of studios and agencies that still don't recognize this vital point. If your team isn't diverse, the end product won't be either. 

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"You won't have all of those rich processes as a part of it, those rich experiences, feedback, or brainstorming of ideas bouncing back and forth. You have to be able to drill down to something which is going to be super impactful and create great content, which is going to affect consumers,” he adds.

In an environment lacking representation, a redesign that takes into consideration the preservation of any salvageable brand equity presents serious hurdles. Cultural inferences and subtexts will be difficult to spot for those whose lives lack the firsthand experience of being subjected to offensive portrayals of their own culture and people. 

“I think, fundamentally, you have to answer and challenge these stereotypes," John says. "If you don't have a diversity of voices and experiences, I don't think you're going to get anyone challenging or identifying missteps that brands make,” John explains.

“Another side, based on my experience, especially at the start of my career, having made it, even though I was in the room, I was the only [Black] voice in the room," John says. "Feeling confident enough to share my experiences and my opinions was a challenge, because I had no allies in the room that understand where we're coming from or had similar experiences to me as well. I felt like my ideas or challenges would fall flat in the room because people don't have those similar backgrounds or experiences. So I think there are multiple layers to this as well.”

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The most manageable solution for brands with a mascot depicted based on past societal inequities would be to remove the visual element, as was the case with Land O Lakes and Uncle Ben’s. But this can also present a missed opportunity to go past “not offending” to leveling up to more diverse representation. It would also be demonstrative of a brand that’s reached a level of cultural unstranding that allows them to craft an authentic, positive depiction of people of color.

John suggests that brands like Ben’s be open about their design process by bringing in consumers, eliciting feedback from the community, and speaking to the design choices made. Open and collaborative processes help brands avoid pratfalls surrounding identity, but also lead to a more representative branding that resonates with a diverse consumer base.

“You can’t conduct it all behind closed doors. You have to speak out loud. You have to learn along the way from a diverse set of voices as well. For the creative process, you have to put everything on the table, and you have to think about all the equities, what you can consider keeping, and what you definitely need to change. Then, you need to engage with the community a lot more, and it would be better if you say it out loud and live it out loud as well.”

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Glasgow’s advice for those sole BIPOC designers sitting where he did before and still sometimes does? 

You can't afford not to be outspoken. Share your experiences, and don’t allow imposter syndrome or being in the minority intimidate you into silence. “Your training and creativity got you into the room, but you need to continue to be bold and brave," he says.

“Things won't change overnight, unfortunately. But keep pushing. Keep pushing the boundaries, as well. Slowly, I think, over the years, you'll find your way and you'll gain allies along the way. You'll come up against more and more challenges as well, but you'll also get more and more allies.”