In the latest of a series of moves by brands to update their images and messaging with regard to racism and other social ills, Unilever has announced that it’s dropping its “Fair & Lovely” skin lightening product name. This follows PepsiCo and Quaker’s announcement that it would drop the Aunt Jemima image and rebrand the product line.
These changes and others like them, whereby brands have stepped up in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death to either take a stand against racism or bring their own images and messaging more in line with current times, are a good and long overdue start.
But they’re just that — a start. Although changing logos and images with racist undertones, making solidarity statements against racism and creating support for the Black community is good, there is much more brands can and should do. “Retiring” a name does not take the place of systemic change, but it does signal that the brands are prepared to do the hard work of confronting racism and other injustices and acknowledging their roles in having perpetuated these stereotypes.
As I’ve written before, brands have a responsibility to make sure that their communications to consumers about social purpose (“brand say”) translate into actually addressing social problems (“brand do”). However, to do so in a truly genuine and impactful way, they must dig deep into every aspect of their identities and operations and change whatever does not align with the values they are communicating.
Making this deep and genuine impact requires a number of initiatives:
Rarely has there been a time in history when this fundamental human gesture has been more necessary across the board. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been widely (and rightly) criticized for stopping short of apologizing to Colin Kaepernick. Quaker Foods has said, “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype. While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.” The NFL, Quaker Foods, Unilever and countless others in similar predicaments should rise to the occasion and apologize in all humility to the individuals and communities they have wronged and for following trends in societies that perpetuated hurtful stereotypes.
Create new and improved social footprints
Unilever’s move to change the Fair & Lovely name has been called “hugely disappointing” by writer and activist Pooma Bell, who added, “It doesn’t do enough to make reparations for the untold mental and emotional damage done by colorism.”
Critics, including Unilever employees, are calling for Unilever to stop sales of Fair & Lovely altogether rather than continuing to sell the same formulation under a new name. Unilever’s current CEO Alan Jope has in fact apologized about Fair & Lovely’s past advertising, saying “we were wrong to equate social economic advancement to colorism.”
Nevertheless, truly taking change to the next level means apologies are not enough. To make the reparations that Bell suggests, we need a new model of enlightened capitalism that accounts not only for brands’ environmental impact but also for their social footprints. Because brands have the power to create the stereotypes that drive this type of demand, the corporations behind them must take responsibility and leverage their power, reach and authority for a mission.
Finally, metrics such as a health and well-being balance sheet should be added to assess businesses’ social footprint. By showing an alternative approach to marketing and growth in which doing good is still profitable, we could shift that dynamic and embed real moral values that are fully inclusive.
Empower the communities that have been wronged by the stereotypes
The Aunt Jemima brand was built upon a racial stereotype of a slave happy to please her white masters. According to Adweek, it tapped into nostalgia for slavery by using a mascot from the Jim Crow era. A former slave, Nancy Green, was hired to act as Aunt Jemima and sell the pancake flour at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
PepsiCo is taking steps toward giving back to the Black community through a $5 million initiative, but what exactly will this look like, and what meaningful change will it lead to? Ideally, we will see financial support, educational opportunities, additional jobs for the Black community and the real transition of this brand into a genuine brand on a mission — not just conversation and more “brand say”.
Create better career opportunities for Black and diverse employees
Strengthening diversity and inclusion programs with the goal of helping more Black and other diverse people get hired and hold management and board positions is another important step brands must take. The recent Facebook ad boycott by many companies is a response to the disconnect between Facebook’s brand say and brand do in many regards, including D&I.
A shining example of creating better career opportunities for Black and diverse employees is Ben & Jerry’s. For many years, the company has supported work among indigenous Americans – financially and with legal aid protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. It has worked with the LGBT community: In 1989, long before it was legally required, it extended health insurance benefits to partners of its LGBT employees. Its commitment to D&I is also reflected on its board.
Driving a mission authentically with your product to help improve lives and health
Brands on a mission are brands that stand up and make moral values core to their operations and strategies. I believe we should support and encourage brands making a move to align with more positive standards. Brands like Aunt Jemima and Fair & Lovely, which are re-aligning their images and messaging in these times, have an inherent responsibility to help improve the lives of those they impact. That includes their customers and people affected by the past social stereotypes that their products perpetuated.
As it moves on from Aunt Jemima, PepsiCo should look at the communities it sells to and ask what health and nutrition impacts its products have on them. Is the impact potentially harmful — for example, contributing to diabetes or obesity? How does this weigh against the positive outcome of changing a logo? Depending on the answers, there might be product changes to make and educational initiatives to take to help consumers understand the health consequences of their choices. This is what brands on a mission do. They embed a real change through their products and act to repair and move with positive intent.