Removing racist packaging is a step in the right direction, but what about long-term effects?

By: Sarah Pulkowski, Staff Writer

In the past months, major food brands have removed racist Black figures from packaging. The long-lived lives of figures such as Mrs. Butterworth, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are leaving store shelves. The Black Lives Matter movement asked businesses to take a position in the anti-racist campaign and the corporate brands have done so; seemingly with pleasure.

The recent actions of companies of late are the response to an anti-racist market. Consumers that create the anti-racist market do not look through a peep hole for change. A Piplsay survey of over 30,000 Americans showed: 61% are not completely certain that removing racist brand mascots or labels will make a huge difference, 31% think companies should get rid of racial bias within their organization first and 56%  are most willing to buy from brands that speak out against racism, with Gen Z-ers and millennials over-indexing at 60%. 

Dr. Americus Reed, Marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, elaborated in an article with Forbes on the reasons that corporate America took this step to stay connected to its customers. 

‘“There’s a general trend toward executives in the C-suite: being called out and pressure-tested by consumers who want to know where they stand — there’s an opportunity to differentiate not just on function, on what’s a better mousetrap, but on values,’” Reed said. “‘It’s smart — they’re taking a stand, hopefully, because it’s moral, but also because they understand the long-term economic game.’”

Dr. Reed is pointing out this new opportunity that brands are taking, but what about the first chance American’s gave them? Americans grew up with Aunt Jemima syrup on their pancakes. Generations of youths’ formative years were shaped while gazing at a racist depiction. As a result, relationships with these companies and brands are tainted with ignorance. 

Dr. Plamen Peev, Marketing Professor at Towson University, explained that long-term effects to the marketing world have been made by CPG companies who removed racist figures such as Darlie (a Colgate brand), Cream of Wheat (of B&G Foods), Uncle Ben’s rice (a Mars product), Mrs. Butterworth’s (a Conagra Brands product) and Aunt Jemima (a Quaker Oats product)

“Those legacy brands are playing catch-up with changes that are well overdue,” Peev said. “At the end of the day, no contemporary marketing executive/brand manager would approve of the use of those brands/logos had they been ideas that came up during the creative stage of the branding process today.”

With the anti-racist market there will be more Everlanes, a clothing brand that was called out for faking a diverse, empowering company culture which it toted to build their brand’s image. The next Everlanes and re-branded CPGs of corporate America will soon show us what they think diversity looks like to improve sales and their brand image. 

But is it unethical for companies to target the ethics of a brand’s desired audience during the BLM Movement, and to potentially profit off the death of those whose brands have used racist depictions of?

“The direct answer to this question is obviously ‘No, nobody should profit off somebody’s death/suffering,’” Dr. Peev said, “Does that mean that a brand/company cannot take a position on a social issue, though? Furthermore, is every position brands take on a social issue a result of a careful cost-benefit analysis?”

Dr. Peev says consumers hope for genuine concern in doing the right thing from beloved brands, however, we can’t be sure without access to internal communications.

“[…] Corporate social responsibility certainly reflects the values of at least some of the brand managers/company leadership, but to assume that potential positive and negative outcomes are not considered may be somewhat naïve.”

 

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