Toxic brands

By Brand Heeler

A brand with slave-owning connotations decides to do the decent thing

In order to perform its function effectively, a brand must remain culturally relevant to its consumers. Brandowners have to be continually on their guard against changing attitudes, and those who fail risk seeing their goodwill evaporate. Some brands have come off the rails in truly spectacular fashion, becoming ‘toxic’ and leaving their owners with no choice but to put them out of their misery: NEWS OF THE WORLD, UNION CARBIDE (literally toxic), ARTHUR ANDERSEN, RATNERS.

But not all toxic brands are the result of catastrophe; sometimes it’s down to gradual shifts in public sensibilities. Robertson’s Jam retired their GOLLY mascot in 2002, not apparently out of political correctness but because the character no longer resonated with modern children (although we’re not sure there’s much distinction to be drawn between these two concepts). American football franchise the WASHINGTON REDSKINS have recently lost several trade mark registrations to challenges brought by campaigners against their use of a ‘derogatory and dishonorable’ term

Another example, this time from the UK, is COLSTON HALL – Bristol’s biggest concert venue. It’s recently announced plans to change its name following ongoing protests and boycotts against its perceived commemoration of the eponymous Edward Colston. Colston became immensely wealthy in the 17th and 18th centuries and left generous endowments for institutions across Bristol – the list of streets, schools, buildings and other things (even buns!) named after him is truly impressive. However, much of his fortune derived from the slave trade and his legacy is therefore now seen as unacceptable by many. Colston Hall is a commercial outfit and we respect its decision to rebrand itself as it sees fit. But we would also have been supportive of a decision to stick with the current name – after all, it’s been in use for 150 years and the connection between the Hall and Edward Colston is only tenuous (the one stands on land formerly occupied by a school founded by the other).

In today’s digital world, anyone with internet access has a global platform from which to broadcast their views and pressure others to fall into line. Brandowners can find easily themselves caught between a hammer and a hard place, between causing (unwitting) offence on the one hand, and incurring the cost and disruption of a rebrand on the other. Treading that fine line has never been more difficult.  

This article contains our thoughts and opinions on an issue of general interest and is written from the perspective of Australian and/or English law. It is not legal advice and is not provided in the context of a solicitor-client relationship. It may not even be relevant to your jurisdiction. No duty of care is assumed or accepted. Please carry out appropriate research and consult with a suitably qualified legal expert before taking any action or making any decisions.