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Brand evolution in the time of anti-racism protests

November 2020

George Floyd’s death and subsequent anti-racism protests have pushed the corporate world to take various actions to address the issue of racial inequality. Recently, FMCG, entertainment, sport, professional and public services businesses have rebranded products and services, in response to increasing complaints from customers, sponsors and trading partners. Adjoa Anim discusses considerations businesses should keep in mind during such an exercise.

Be thorough

Companies may want to react quickly, but, knee-jerk actions usually create more problems. Businesses may wish to announce plans for a review and take the time to select a suitable replacement. For instance, Nestle SA publicised plans to rename Colombian BESO DE NEGRA (“kiss from a black woman”), Australian RED SKINS and CHICOS confectionery brands, before taking the time to carry out a review. NFL team Washington Redskins has adopted an interim name, ‘Washington Football team, until a suitable alternative is agreed upon.

Check to see if a mark is available to use

The importance of searching is manifest in the dispute concerning the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum. After announcing that it had changed its name to Lady A, a Seattle-based singer, Anita ‘Lady A’ White, stated that she has used the name for the past 20 years. Fans had referred to the band as Lady A and the band used the name on its website since 2008. Additionally, the band owned three US registrations from 2010 and filed a new US application before announcing the change. Initial joint statements on co-existence have descended into a very public dispute involving court actions. It is not known whether Lady A, the band, carried out searches before the official rebrand.

Scrutinise suitability beyond availability

Carry out rigorous reviews to see whether the new mark is globally sensitive. Berlin Transport Authority caused further outrage with attempts to rename Mohrenstrasse (Moor Street) Metro Station. The proposed change to Glinkastrasse, after Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, caused further offence as it transpired that he had anti-Semitic views.

To coexist or acquire

Where there is a conflicting right, try to acquire it or agree co-existence before publicising the rebrand. The Chicks (formerly, the Dixie Chicks) appear to have successfully done this with a New Zealand duo of the same name.

Start the application process for new mark

Mars filed the first application for BEN’S ORIGINAL, the new name for the Uncle Ben’s rice products, in Jamaica on 15 July, nearly three months before it publicly confirmed the new name in September. If businesses have the budget to file priority applications while completing their searches, they can do so and abandon the unsuitable marks at later date.

Historic goodwill, reputation and evidence of use

Businesses should think about how to manage the IP connected to the existing brand. Thought should be given to whether some of the historic goodwill, reputation and/or evidence of use can be used to support the new iteration. The possibility of this depends on how far a new brand departs from the old. Land O’ Lakes Inc. rebranded in February, for its 100th anniversary, by removing the image of a Native American woman from the packaging of its butter products. However, it is likely that the business has considered how it can keep some of its historic evidence for future enforcement and maintenance of its rights.

Handling live applications and registrations

Balance the cost-effectiveness of abandoning applications and lapsing registrations for the existing brand against the strength of a bold statement of severance by actively withdrawing and surrendering them. The latter may endear businesses to a socially conscious customer-base and/or critics but will cost money. For big corporations, this may be a unique way to bolster customer loyalty and win over new business.

Existing conflicts

Consider how to tie up any pending conflicts based on the old rights. Even if there is legal standing to continue such actions, it may be unpopular to maintain them when a decision has been made to eschew a brand.

Now, to bring everyone on board

Inform the public of the reasoning behind the change. Consumers appreciate brands that have stories to tell. However, many will be against the change. Several Chinese customers are against the brand review of the DARLIE toothpaste and its minstrel imagery. Companies should prepare a strategy for educating customers on the evolution of the brand, including the unacceptable roots. Such a narrative may help make the adaptation of the new name easier to remember and accept. It may be uncomfortable, but once brands acknowledge the roots of these brands and explain them to consumers, it may convince more to come on board.

Update brand guidelines

It is all well and good making changes at board level and educating consumers, but companies must take rigorous action with staff and trading partners. If not, mixed messages will cause damage.

These changes will not get rid of prejudicial attitudes and views. However, they go a long way to help in questioning longstanding icons that reinforce stereotypes. Also, they serve as a reminder of what was deemed to be acceptable at a certain time. It is vital for brands to acknowledge this history when publicising the new iterations.

 

This article was prepared by HGF Trade Mark Director Adjoa Anim.

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