Opportunities in the Rebranding of America

There’s a wave of rebranding taking place across the country in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and a realization that Black dollars matter as well.

For many major brands, it has been a long time coming.

“The names and images on so many products were weaponized from their inception,” says Communication Design Professor Elvin Kince. “It has been part of a system that reinforces certain myths, stereotypes, and the social and economic hierarchy of America. For this reason, it has been tough to get rid of them.”

Three professors from the schools of Art and Design and Advertising and Marketing Communications (AMC) shared thoughts about this reckoning and their ideas for addressing it in the classroom.

“We need to empower students to get ahead of these issues and participate in decisions in the organizations they will work for” says “Sandra Krasovec, Program Coordinator of Packaging Design.

The need for rebranding is only one manifestation of racism and “present sudden awareness” says Professor Elena Romero of AMC and a correspondent for LATiNAS on CUNY TV. “It is not likely to be a short-term societal concern that will get swallowed up by the pandemic.”

Changing the name of an established product or service is not always simple. The name and packaging of Aunt Jemima is certainly racist, but how many other pancake mixes can most people name? On the other hand, a football team does not have to be chosen on a supermarket shelf. If you’re in Washington DC you really don’t have many options. But now, only after decades of complaints, is the Washington Redskins on the brink of change.

The situation differs from the 1970s, when companies realized their brands, slogans, and even corporate names meant different – often derogatory — things in different languages. As businesses globalized, they turned mainly to consulting firms that used then-new computers to search through hundreds of languages and check for bad or awkward words.

Reducing racism in branding today, however, requires more than a dictionary or thesaurus. And it requires a sustained effort.

Prof. Krasovec has seen rebranding efforts recede once public outcry has died down. “Black Lives Matter is the catalyst” she says. “Hopefully society sustains its outrage and we can do a better job teaching the next generation.”

Maybe this American branding issue  has hit a critical mass of rejection of the older ways and attitudes” says Prof. Kince. After all, ‘Black Lives Matter’ itself is a great slogan and a basic truth.” Yet it is controversial and even provocative to those who want to deny or dismiss the concept. Black lives matter doesn’t actually seem to matter to those who scream ‘all lives matter.'”

“We have a wide range of students of different backgrounds and experiences. To teach as if there’s one experience or expectation may not serve the student body as well as it once might have. For instance, when I was a student, our designs were focused on White Anglo-Saxon Protestant tastes” says Prof. Kince.

To answer the question of “What makes it different this time?” Prof. Romero suggests looking at historic moments that got corporate America to face systematic racism:

She notes the election of Barack Obama as symbolic and a historic first. “Finally America could see a Black man and his family beyond the usual stereotypical images perpetuated in the media. But we did not become a post-racial society as some predicted. Old wounds were still there” she says.

“We then moved from campaign slogans pushing ‘change’ and ‘hope’ to ‘Make America Great Again,’ leading to a retreat from ideas of diversity, inclusion and equity” she says.

The killing of George Floyd, of course, was not isolated. “Its impact was compounded by a long history of discrimination and outright ‘legal’ murders and incarceration of Black men and women making the time ripe for a cultural shift. BLM is a second Civil Rights movement” she says.

“Finally, the effects of COVID-19 made people re-evaluate life and the pursuit of happiness: COVID-revealed racial disparities and the fragility of life. This produced a new calling out of injustices, forcing individuals and organizations to take a hard look at what was considered to be the social norm or at least acceptable.”

Courtesy of Prof. Curtis Willocks

THE TEACHING MOMENT

Prof. Krasovec says students have to be equipped with more than platitudes.

“I worked on Uncle Ben’s in the 80s. Even then the name was in question. We took it off. We put it back on. As a young designer I was naïve but it made me uncomfortable. Brand managers were reluctant about changing. Now I agree it’s definitely derogatory. It’s alluding to plantations and an acceptance of slavery. Back then it was considered brilliant branding, but it’s shameful that they’re still around” she says.

“To train students to be sensitive to stereotypes, I have used that and other brands as examples. I worked on the Mars Inc. brand Suzi Wan. It was not considered racially insensitive by brand managers.” Yet Suzi Wan was based of the name of a 1957 novel Suzie Wong, a Hong King prostitute.

From Women’s Day

Diversity in corporations matter says Prof. Kraovec. “I remember using a pattern from Asian-Indian symbolism meaning infinity, but with no attention to a small inner piece resembling a swastika. A print run had been completed when a manager called and asked if we realized what the pattern looked like. The package was pulled and redesigned. These experiences made me more culturally aware about developing brand identities” says Krasovec.

“The future will not have these degrading references so easily available” says Prof. Kince,“but that’s a start, not the final goal.”

It’s important to address these issues “without sugarcoating” says Prof. Kince. “The various ways bias is used in society should become an active part of the classroom conversation and curriculum.”

After all, biases makes the economy less efficient and thus makes everyone poorer.

“We have a wide range of students of different backgrounds and experiences. To teach as if there’s one experience or expectation may not serve the student body as well as it once might have. For instance, when I was a student, our designs were focused on White Anglo-Saxon Protestant tastes” says Prof. Kince.

From midcenturymenu.com

“We need to practice what we preach” says Prof. Romero. “Whatever we say we are, or are not, how does that translate in our pedagogy, curriculum and faculty? We need to continually evaluate our course work. Are topics of race, class, and gender infused in the subjects we teach, not only in terms of history and context, but in terms of reaching audiences such as BIPOC, LGBTQIA+. And we need to diversify our guest lecturers and faculty.”

Prof. Romero favors “creating learning spaces that include student voices and experiences. Have students participate in projects where they’ll create solutions to real-life problems. For example, in AMC, we might develop anti-racist campaigns and propose solutions for businesses.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Says Prof. Krasovec, “Our students come from all over the world. They come with their own cultural biases and are sensitive to these issues. The challenge is to make those needed discussions comfortable.”

She remains cautious about industry. “I don’t think brands are doing enough. They’re just saying they are. The pandemic and global climate change have put a lot on their plate – new package safety and sustainability issues will continue to push innovation. Tackling systemic racism will force a new dialogue on the ‘why’ of  brands and what they mean. All are within our ability to teach.”

“The future will not have these degrading references so easily available” says Professor Kince, “but that’s a start, not the final goal.”

 

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7 Responses to Opportunities in the Rebranding of America

  1. Leo says:

    Great job, Eli.
    I’m very proud of you!

    Leo Diaz

  2. Michael (Misha) Broikou says:

    This is informative and important,
    especially right now. Thanks for sharing!

    Misha Broikou

  3. Chris says:

    Very interesting article on a very present issue.
    Also, Kince’s words are as inspiring as always
    Great work !

    – Christopher Coughlin

  4. Kaliel says:

    This was very insightful. A lot of people will he offend by the truth and deny it, or make excuses. Culture has a big impact on design, as I had no idea some of these designs were so elusive and subliminal. Maybe there should be a course on these topics, or it should be taught in a class, or various classes.

  5. Aswin says:

    I wasn’t aware of these brands since I was a foreign student. It would have been nice to know these things when I studied at FIT in early 2000.

  6. Jackson D Green says:

    Capital inherently serves systems of oppression. As long as our primary goal is profits, these issues will never go away. A rebranding is a step in the right direction, but does little to address the racism inherent in many of these companies.

  7. Shem says:

    Very interesting read. With students from diverse backgrounds, how does one account for said backgrounds? What is bias for another may not be bias to me. I agree on the points stated in the article, I just wonder is this even possible, to account for someone else’s background, geography and upbringing. I find it hard to believe that one professor can account for so many backgrounds…I really think the article was a powerful read though. As time unfolds we will see if people can truly understand each other.

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