The Dark Side of Brand Names

Political correctness—and the scrutiny of language it spawned—might not be the cultural neurosis it was in the early 90’s, but we’re still sensitive to it. Except when it comes to certain brand names. These names, like all brand names, are able to acquire their own meaning and associations over time. But taken out of their fuzzy, protective brand context, they have unintended—and often unfortunate—associations.

Without further ado, here is a short list of brand names whose questionable derivations many of us tend to forget or ignore.

Banana Republic

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary provides the following definition: “a small dependent country usually of the tropics; especially: one run despotically.” A pejorative expression, “banana republic” connotes human and environmental rights violations, foreign exploitation, and dictatorships. We think merino V-neck sweaters and sheath dresses.

Washington Redskins

Considered a racial slur by Native American groups, the name continues to be used by the NFL, in spite of attempts by opponents to have the trademark revoked. And in spite of other teams having changed their racially offensive names.

Quaker Oats

The company states on its website: “The ‘Quaker man’ is not an actual person. His image is that of a man dressed in the Quaker garb.”(1) Positive associations with the Religious Society of Friends (the proper name for Quakerism) aside, the name and image have been criticized for stereotyping a religious group that has no connection to the brand or product.

Uncle Ben’s Rice

In the American South, the term “uncle” was often used for elderly African American men (see: Uncle Tom, Uncle Remus). Paired with the image of a smiling, bow-tied black man on the package, the name quickly construes the racial stereotype of an ingratiating house servant. To counteract this stereotype, Mars, Inc. has recently “promoted” Uncle Ben to a fictitious boardroom in their advertising and marketing.

Aunt Jemima

A brand name owned, interestingly, by Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima was first described in marketing materials as a former slave.(2) Her name and original likeness (she’s had several makeovers) characterized Jemima as a stereotypical “mammy” of the antebellum South and projected a regrettable nostalgia for slavery. In spite of this antecedent, the product name is still used.

Red Man Chewing Tobacco

The packaging depicts an Indian in feathered headdress whose image serves to illustrate the name—a derogatory catchall term for tribes and ethnic groups indigenous to North America.

Fritos Corn Chips

For a short time, the product name was paired with Frito Bandito, a character based on the stereotype of the Mexican bandit. Following pressure from Mexican American opponents, the cartoon image was retired. But the product name lives on.

Northwest Orient Airlines

You might remember Northwest Airlines’ former moniker, which was actually a brand name, not the company’s legal name. The “Orient” was dropped in the 1980s to reflect Northwest’s status as a national and international megacarrier. Fortunately, the loss of “Orient” was also the loss of a dated term that, according to critics, inaccurately homogenizes several different Asian countries and cultures.

Thus the power of brands and their names. For many of us, brand associations can eclipse a name’s literal meaning or derivation. We forget the negative and remember the positive. And that’s why companies are often unwilling to abandon the equity they’ve built into otherwise questionable names.

(1) retrieved November 5, 2009
(2) retrieved November 5, 2009


tappu666's picture
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good's picture
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Funny timing.
I actually looked into the A.J. syrup brand yesterday.
Amazing how that term was a female gender of an Uncle Tom, even more amazing that, though her image has changed through the years, it is hardly up to what I would consider, modern standards.
Having dinner over my parents last night I brought the subject up to my father, my stance was that, while not being overtly offensive, wouldn't it be respectful if everyone knew the full history of that term and imagery..
My father whom is in his late 60's (and by no means whatsoever racially ignorant or biased), reacted defensively, as if someone was trying to take "his" childhood syrup (and subsequent happy memories) away from him.
The power of good branding never ceases to amaze me.