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Branding and race

Responsibility of representation

Brands hold incredible power and influence over consumers.

They are not only the products we use daily, they are the images that jump front of mind when we are triggered by certain emotions or desires, the subconscious connections we make in interpreting advertising images, and the cultural references that define generations. For example a sudden desire for "indulgence" might connote an image of Häagen-Dazs, or a need for lazy entertainment, of Netflix. In seeing an advert, we might unknowingly relate the thoughts "that powerful, attractive man wearing tailored suit owns a Mercedes" with "if I own a Mercedes, I will have the same attributes". And, any 90's kid will remember Nokia, Tamagotchi and Kodak in emotional technicolour. The idea that brands are a one-dimensional entity designed only for the selling of goods and services no longer holds.

Brands, a mirror of society.

The use of image by brands frames our societal aspirations, inspiring and directing consumers towards what they (should) want. This includes the visible, aesthetic : voluminous hair, fewer wrinkles, stronger muscles - the list goes on - with the conceptual: freedom, confidence, sexiness, power, etc. Branding specialists like myself might argue we only respond to societal desires, not create them. But, regardless of the proverbial chicken or egg, there is an inherent responsibility for all actors involved in this process of image creation to ensure accurate representation.

With great power, comes great responsibility.

In these times of change and, hopefully, of greater awareness of inherent biases, multiple brands are being called to remove racial stereotypes such as the faces of former slaves.

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Read full article by following the link in the image or here.

It is important to note that these criticisms started before the current Black Lives Matter movement (with petitions going back as far as 1910), but it is the recent tidal wive of calls-to-action that has finally pushed these brands to change. The power and influence of these changes should be noted, especially for those saying "racism happens between individuals". Certainly, there is work to be done on an individual basis, but brands can help shift the needle on a societal level. Each branded product or service is a walking billboard that puts forward its view of the world for all to see. The fast-moving-consumer-goods of Aunt Jemima's pancake mix, Uncle Ben's rice, Cream of Wheat cereal or Mrs Butterworth's syrup propagate deeply harmful racist caricatures. This is why representation matters, for the self-esteem of children who identify with these figures, and for their future understanding as adults that no-one can decide for another what they are or are not. Exclusion, in addition to being primitive, is bad branding strategy: you are loosing out on potentially hundreds of consumers. This process of "othering" is explained below:

"Chiquita Banana has that sort of alluring representation that is meant to give people this vision of something that is exotic and other, but othering people is really problematic. It marginalizes people and suggests that they’re not important or equal to the majority.”


Rebecca Hains, Professor of Media and Communication

at Salem State University in Massachusetts.

(From NYTimes article, listed above)

The social media age

As consumers increasingly live online, the "brand environment" (traditionally limited to retail stores, in-person interactions, magazines) has evolved to meet consumers where they are. Brands attempt to fulfil consumers' high expectations for interaction with engaging, quality content across multiple channels and mediums. In addition, to compete with influencers, brands now need equally human characteristics: a voice, a personality, an opinion. This creates inherent tension between the desire to sell products or services, with the need and expectation to share genuine thoughts on current affairs, racism, disaster, politics, and the like. The result, as we all experience, is a confusing and overwhelming one.

"People experience collective trauma on the internet in real time. Images of police violence, school shootings, or racist attacks appear on the same social-media platforms where companies sell mascaras or sneakers or delivery services, often side by side."


Amanda Mull in The Atlantic, "Brands Have Nothing Real to Say About Racism" June 3 2020

Guidelines for action

What should brands publish, or not, in such a context? There are many textbooks on best practices for content marketing but unfortunately, highly prescriptive recommendations nearly always backfire. Indeed, consumers notice language trends from brands and immediately lose trust, as explained in the article below.

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The alternative is to approach a brand as an entity with a mission, vision, tone of voice, personality and set of values which guide action. Once these are established, it is easier to address key societal questions and problematics in a way which is aligned with the brand. For example, in a guidebook I published with suggestions for COVID-response, I compel brand ambassadors to be responsive to change and reevaluate their marketing strategy. Not to blindly apply recommendations.

Similarly, having understood the responsibility of brands towards representation, I suggest below a check-list of questions that each brand manager / content creator / marketing director / online publisher can ask themselves and others on their (hopefully diverse) team.

Note: these questions were originally created by talented screenwriter LilyLyor in the context of the film industry. With her permission, I have updated them to fit the context of brand management.

  • In creating my own visual or written content, am I consciously showcasing diversity?
  • Who does my brand narrative currently cater to? What can I do to be a source of inclusion and inspiration for all, at every touch-point in the consumer journey?
  • If an executive / client refuses the use of imagery of non-white people I have suggested, do I further the conversation? Am I willing to contradict them or even to change collaborators? 
  • Am I in any way creating or furthering stereotypes which perpetuate implicit biases against anyone who isn’t white, cis-gendered and able bodied?
  • If I specifically cast or use imagery of Black/POC individuals, am I thoroughly checking my intentions for doing so, examining my motives for telling their stories? Am I checking the accuracy of the content I have created?
Finally, and most importantly:
  • Am I championing Black and POC voices in my field? Am I collaborating with Black artists, photographers, experts, writers and brand managers?

On a personal note:

  • Whose stories am I watching and reading? Do I extend my readership and viewership to content created by all races and voices?
  • Which brands do I support, and why? What do they stand for, and who is behind them?
  • “Small” words, “small” jokes go a very long way in perpetuating racism. Am I contradicting and standing up to family/ friends/ other white people when they do so?

Next steps

Accept that this process is continuous, not static. Creating a strong, genuine, and long-lasting brand takes time and is truly only possible through action. By practicing trial and error, learning by doing, and adapting to changing contexts, you are generating more data for your brand on what works, and doesn't. This adaptability is the very essence of digital marketing: a nascent field with few rules which anyway change every 6 months, and make the work exhilarating. Thankfully, just as you attempt this for your brand, so does every other brand manager, allowing us to learn and benefit from each others' efforts to truly create change.

Update June 23: The families of Nancy Green, Anna Short Harrington and Lillian Richard, some of the women who portrayed Aunt Jemima over the last 70 years, have expressed their discontent against Quaker Oats, following the removal of her face from the brand image. These women promoted the brand throughout the United States, doing cooking demonstrations at county fairs and city halls, and the families believe their hard work and family legacy should not be erased. To hear this from the voice of one of the grand-daughters, listen to a 6-min NPR excerpt here.