Is Your Brand Racist or Racial? - Bruce Turkel

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Recently all of these storied brands have come under protest and scrutiny for being offensive: Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Mrs. Butterworth’s, Eskimo Pie, Barbie, GI Joe, the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves.

How about all of those Disney movies you grew up with? Jungle Book, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Or just about any film or cartoon with a princess in it?

And what of band names such as The Busboys, NWA, and The Gypsy Kings? Not to put too fine a point on it, but how about bands with names like The Black Crowes, The Black Keys, The Violent Femmes, and Queen? Will they have to change their names, too?

Think I’m exaggerating?

Look what happened to Trader Joe’s brand of Mexican beer, sold under the Trader Jose’s label.

According to an online petition posted about two weeks ago calling for Trader Joe’s to remove and rebrand a variety of products with “racist” labeling, the popular grocery store chain has created “a narrative of exoticism.”

The petition, posted by 17-year old Briones Bedell, said this: “The Trader Joe’s branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures — it presents ‘Joe’ as the default ‘normal’ and the other characters falling outside of it.”

Trader Joe’s acknowledged that the names of its products were “rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness… that may now have the opposite effect,” and that they would be changing their packaging “very soon.”

The store’s name is Trader Joe’s. The product is a Mexican beer (like Corona or Tecate, I figure). Jose is the Spanish name for Joe. People in Mexico speak Spanish.

Hence, Trader Joe’s Mexican beer is called Trader Jose’s. As the company said, it was simply “a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness.” Get it? Lighthearted. Inclusive.

So is that racist? Merriam-Webster defines the word “racist” this way: “A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Or, is it racial? That word is defined like this: “Of, relating to, or based on a race.”

Truth is, I don’t know. What’s more, even if I did know, I don’t think my personal opinion would matter very much – not when the public is dealing with an explosive and overdue reaction to centuries of systemic mistreatment of Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, women, members of the LGBTQ community, and so many more marginalized minorities.

I’d bet the people who run Trader Joe’s don’t know the answer either. What they do know is that by not doing anything they will be perceived at best as being disinterested and at worst as giving a nod and a wink to continuing the abhorrent racist policies of the past.

Before you think you’re immune to such things, take a look at the stock images on your website or in your brochures and other printed materials. Do the people pictured look like a cross section of American society today? Or do they all share a striking resemblance to the cast of The Brady Bunch? If it’s the latter, your brand might be associating itself with inflammatory or provocative images that could give your customers the wrong idea about your values.

Is your website ADA enabled?  If not, you’re not only making your site un-surfable for a large potential market, but you also might be suggesting that you don’t care about doing business with people with disabilities.

Truth is, it doesn’t matter whether you do or don’t. It doesn’t even matter if the thought of how your site appeals to disabled users ever even entered your head (that brings up the “privilege” argument and your brand, which we’ll save for another blog post). Because from now on, it’s the perception of impropriety that will affect how your business is perceived. Whether you agree with the perception or not is irrelevant.

Just like the Trader Joe’s example above, no one’s saying your business is racist, only that it could be perceived that way. And your response, just like the grocery chain’s, should probably be to do the right thing by changing your potentially problematic packaging “very soon.”


  1. Dan
    July 29, 2020

    As you said in your last paragraph, you should probably do the right thing and….

    I’m not sure it is actually the “right thing” to be coerced into such changes unless something is blatantly racist (using your definition of the term). But companies will be forced into these changes, as you say, by mere perception.

  2. Banu Dadlani
    July 29, 2020

    Hi Bruce,
    Good points in your good informative newsletter.
    Gave me new insight about Trader Joe’s and the ADA branding….. Thanks.

    My best to Gloria and the family.

    Have you read about the 4Zone (USMCA, EURO, YUAN, SouthAsia) “Modern Monetary Theory” , or Helicopter Money? We are headed towards a great new era …. soon.

    Best Regards,
    Banu Dadlani

  3. Keith Schroeder
    July 29, 2020

    The era of cancel culture hyper political correctness has no bearing in reality as shown by your example of Trader Joe’s. Anyone could find something to be offended by anywhere. However, when the mob gets a hold of it and runs with it today we have to listen or companies are boycotted and cities burn, Nothing racist about Goya beans. But watch out if you voice support for the wrong person. The beauty of our small business is how we fly under the radar of this crap. But the left is turning everything upside down right now because they really only have one goal. Power.

  4. July 29, 2020

    Very interesting, and a great wording so as to bring the issue to mind without taking a stance, especially since your business focus is branding, not racial equality. Brave too, because it’s so easy to write something with good intent and click send, hoping no one takes offense (as one commenter here seemed to).

    The other day, I was writing something and started to use the phrase, “The pot calling the kettle black,” to simply describe someone who was acting in a way that she was accusing someone else of being. Neither person in my story was black nor had I mentioned anything about race in the story. Last year, I wouldn’t have thought twice, but this week, I had to stop and think if I can say that phrase anymore, even though old cast-iron pots and kettles aren’t people and the word black is literal here, not racial. In the end, I went with a phrase that I wasn’t as happy with (because it wasn’t as concise and didn’t hit the mark as well), but I just didn’t want to take the chance. It felt like the right choice, avoiding even the potential for hurt feelings, but it left me with the question of, “Did I make that change for nothing? Would anyone of color have given it a thought? Or any white person, perhaps trying extra hard to be sensitive on behalf of others?”

    I even thought about asking the question on Facebook to see what people thought, but that brought up the fear that I could take backlash for even posting the question. I have seen that happen to people who were trying to learn and expand their minds. So I just went with the lesser wording at let it go. Interesting times we live in and the conversation is good, regardless of pitfalls along the way. Even for Trader Joe’s.

    • Karen D
      July 29, 2020

      Bravo Milo! Well said. I am so cautious now that I don’t even want to enter into discourse. But truthfully, I feel that that would be giving in to those who are simply afraid to open up to other points of view– the basis for open and honest discussions.

  5. Stephen Sawitz
    July 29, 2020

    Could The Beatles produce the White Album today?

  6. Scott Baena
    July 29, 2020

    Kudos on your blog today regarding race versus racism. I think you are spot on that much of the transformation we are seeing is not based on corporate histories of racism or implicit bias but rather, an opportunity to be part of the narrative on race and a fear that doing nothing says tomes and may even be a lost marketing opportunity. From my perspective, that’s fine, albeit somewhat disingenuous at some level, as it stirs the conversation and forces others to participate or not at their own risk. I think Trader Joe’s got it right. There’s no good reason to try to justify or ameliorate or explain away why their intentions with Trader Jose were not grounded in bias or racism. They moved the narrative forward in a very positive way by declaring, “Whatever our motivations were, it was offensive and insensitive and this shit has to stop.”

  7. Andy Parrish
    July 29, 2020

    Bruce: At what point does this stop? I wish you had called out this Trader Joe flap as ludicrous. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben I can see. But Trader Joe? It’s like Yale having to do away with “Masters’ in charge of residence halls. No more “Master Plans” either. I’m afraid you are helping stoke a backlash from even moderates like me.

    C.S. Lewis famously said that language has to mean something other than a personal emotional reaction to it. He was talking about the word “Christian” having a specific meaning which was different than the adjective “good.” He drove his point home by dissecting the gradual abuse of the word “gentleman” that meant someone with a coat of arms and some land, and not all the baggage that that specific word has acquired, rendering the present use of that word meaningless.

    Your bias is showing, as is mine.


  8. Casper Beltham
    July 29, 2020

    Overdue? Systemic? Those are mighty words that don’t apply to this – this is a social engineering project period. The BLM movement was named to sow division (as is the “defund the police” cheering). Systemic – means part of or relating to a part of a broader whole. Systemic racism would be easy to spot – as there would be processes to point to. What we have is true legal equality and systemic egalitarianism, which (as has been proven with gender studies) leads to a reflection of reality that takes into account the people that are a part of these systems.

    As black luminaries from Malcolm X to Thomas Sowell (all of which tend to be the most educated, most successful, and most well-spoken on the matter) have said repeatedly for decades… the problem, primarily, lies in these communities and their decisions, culture, and behavior – not in the systems that surround these communities. There’s a reason a tiny percentage of groups cause a majority of the violent crimes throughout the United States, and it’s not “racism or racist” to point out these facts. The data is clear, and has been for decades.

    Unfortunately, the machinations of our world do lead people to chase ghosts as they try to figure things out. Engineered culture like rap music (which is bastardized hip hop – seeking the cultural destruction of all that consume it primarily) as well as the nefarious actions of HUD and the CIA in pushing cocaine and crack (as well as the military industrial complex’ involvement in the drug trade – which is completely CONFIRMED, as well as their involvement in street gangs) is the real enemy we should all be collectively fighting.

    I think there is no better movie to reflect upon than 1983’s Trading Places.

    “It [is] the Duke’s”

    Time to but politics and racism aside, and turn our attention to the real controllers of this world that want us fighting and hating each other. Otherwise the U.S. is either going to have another Civil War, or a South African/Zimbabwe genocide.

  9. George Knox
    July 29, 2020

    Here’s a perspective that may be worthy of consideration:
    What’s important for well-meaning people and companies to acknowledge and convey is that a message or image has reference to race, has an impact on others, is hurtful; and that hurt is authentic; invokes respect, appreciation, empathy and understanding, regardless of the absence of malevolent animus. To fail to acknowledge the presence of a blind spot based on historic, systemic racial insensitivity is an example of what is called “Racialism”. There is a difference in substance between ignorance and “not knowing”
    It never occurred to many that Black people were affronted, angry and insulted by the images of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jamima over the years. Now it is known. Now knowing, why not change out of respect for what the image conveys to relevant members of the market?
    Inoffensive Intentions sometimes mask deeper meaning in the context of branding and marketing.
    As a current, subtle yet powerful example, without judgment,
    think of ALL the implications and racial messages embedded in in tweets and texts from influential players that depict violence, peacefulness, expertise on management of The Virus. Think about which audience the images are designed to reach, and what resonates in that market.
    Is there a deliberate, racially-inspired motive beneath the decision to use Dr. Dr. Stella Immanuel to sell the merits of hydrochloroquinine to the American people?
    Racial sensitivity is expressed in asking the question. Insensitivity can be called “Racialism” because of a refusal to take the question seriously.
    …Just Saying.

  10. Laureen Gutierrez
    July 29, 2020

    Presently, it is not a concern. Losers are using this to get their way. Young, insecure, angry folks are looking for offense everywhere. Also pushing an agenda with a very loud mic thanks to our media. Business’s are just caving to these messed up young folks. Taking offense is a choice, and I will not let them control my narrative. Get another topic or I would be happy to flush you even though I like you.

    • Bruce Turkel
      July 29, 2020

      I’m glad you like me Laureen, and I’m glad you’re here. Please feel free to stay or to “flush” me as you see fit, just as I will feel free to write about the issues I believe are important to my readers. My blog is about building brand value. Specifically it’s about showing people how to make and keep their brands relevant. And because all of our brands live in the world of differing opinions, it’s not always about what I might think is the proper social response to an online boycott. It’s about what matters to your business.

  11. Seth Berkowitz
    July 29, 2020

    “Lightheartedly inclusive” has become a recipe for disaster. There doesn’t seem to be room for humor in any discussion of inclusiveness. This is markedly different from earlier attempts to bridge the gaps between groups through humor. It seems the only acceptable approach to updating a problematic corporate image or symbol is to banish it totally and immediately, apologize for your decades old offense, not fall upon the easy excuse of being well intentioned and to place yourself at the mercy of the court of public opinion an willingly accept the flogging that will inevitably come from self appointed critics. I skeptical about how this forced enlightenment based on a fear will create a more open and inclusive society, but we’ll see.

  12. July 29, 2020

    I am so glad you posted this because it’s the topic that has consumed much of my brainpower this summer. Right after the Aunt Jemima a few months ago, I posted an article about the Black founder of the brand. Her intention was to “claim” that image as one that was relatable, friendly and someone who you knew cooked good food for you. While I totally understand that the time is now right (and ripe) to make amends to all those who have been marginalized, stripped of their rights, bound to slavery , made to do the work of others for their own gain, etc, I also believe we must remember a few things: 1) context and 2) history and 3) you cannot please everyone all the time . I do believe that brands can and should try to make amends and come up with new, non-offensive brands, but, we cannot wipe away history. The fact that Aunt Jemima was created by a proud and successful Black woman at a time when she was singularly successful among her peers is a story we should all know. I believe Black history is OUR history. We cannot whitewash and throw away all effects, but rather we need to find the stories worth telling and exonerate them. SOOOOOO , long story short, when I posted something like this on FB, one of my dearest friends and colleagues felt I was racist and stopped talking to me– but I didn’t realize this, because she simply did not return any texts, emails, phone calls or Zoom invites. I was so worried (because she also has cancer) that I began reaching out to everyone I could think of– her family, mutual friends, other colleagues. Finally after about 2 months, I saw her on a group Zoom and she returned a text telling me about the FB posting being the culprit.
    This points out something incredibly important: in these tough and often confusing times, we MUST NOT stop talking to each other about what matters or we may be doomed .

  13. July 29, 2020

    Why only two choices? And why these two? Any time I see two, and only two, choices, I just know someone wants to manipulate me.

  14. Mark Weisser
    July 29, 2020

    Very good post. I am not in the black, hispanic, asian or any other visually ethnic background. I am a white Jewish kid from Brooklyn. I did not grow up with the same prejudices towards me, as being caucasian, I look like other white people. As for all the product brands that are being attacked for being racist, I feel it is safe to say, IMO, that for some it is racist. For others, they would not know what Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, etc. even represents. You and I have been Gators since 1976, in my entire adult life, maybe I am just ignorant, I never thought any negative connotations towards “GATOR BAIT”. Never ever gave it a thought about its history, origin, what it represented until all this is being brought out.
    I can understand and appreciate where people are coming from on all fronts from their perspective as it being a knock on their race. I do not think the companies that used those names, IMO, did it in a harmful way. There is a positive way to see it as well.


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