Branding in 2021: a minefield

In the era of polarization and rebranding, branding has become less about exploration and more about treading on a minefield.

‘What’s in a name?’

A lot of emotions, actually. Every name has a purpose and a story attached to it. Be it your favourite film character or a brand. No matter how erratic the name may sound to you, there is a well-established story backing it.

For a time being, brands were named on the principle of disemvoweling. You remove some or all of the vowels from a particular word to stand out. It made sense at the time it emerged. Smartphones had become incredibly popular and texting lingo had emerged under the limelight. It was hip to disemvowel and therefore, brands with that demographic-target started adopting this naming practice. Tumblr and Scribd are just some of the brands who adopted this idea.

While now startups are choosing more normal names, the problem isn’t to be catchy anymore. Rather, in this era of polarization and rebranding, it is better if you just blend in.

Especially when a study done by Pew Research center shows that a significant amount of the population wholeheartedly believe that views contradicting their ideology are dangerous for the lives of the nation. There is an intense attachment to the ideologies citizens possess now; and it is not something that brands can afford to ignore anymore. Being silent in this age becomes equivalent to being compliant to whatever your consumer-audience considers ill-fit. Opinions have become less diverse and more polarized; it all boils down to two facets of political ideology and brands are expected to do something.

But what can brands do? Allow the consumer mindset to affect their marketing strategies and inevitably pick a side or use their platform to unite consumers on common ground? In the former, you make your product a means to an end of ‘us v/s them’. Which is equally scary considering if the product is used to polarize the other group in the society, it could escalate the animosity and perhaps, lead to even more instability. But the latter is equally unpromising considering the recent fiasco over the Tanishq advertisement. Because if there is anything the consumers despise more than unity, it is when brands tell them how to live their lives.

But even when brands don’t take a stance: not even Switzerland, polarization is bound to strike. Let’s just take a look at Walmart’s private label clothing brand, Free Assembly. The apparel line contains “timeless and versatile wardrobe staples that are easy to mix, match and assemble freely.” Now, here the term ‘assemble’ refers to piecing together outfits. However, because of the political climate in the United States at the time (post-Capitol Hill riots), there are some customers who are associating the brand name with the ‘freedom of assembly’ given to US citizens under the First Amendment of the US constitution. Which is needless to say, ironic when contrasted with the Capitol Hill riots. While Walmart’s private clothing brand may be one of those brands for whom this correlation may cease at some point, it is still extremely reflective of how difficult it is for brands to stand out for the right reasons.

Language has deeper political connotations now. Two people are bound to perceive one word differently just like what happened with Walmart’s Free Assembly. And with how dynamic the political atmosphere is, it gets extremely difficult to pinpoint what exactly will evoke a positive response and what won’t.

In situations like these, what can a brand really do?

Be aware of evolving identities

For existing brands, a rebranding exercise can help them remain relevant as identities and ideas they have associated with their brand evolve. The Pearl Milling Company (formerly called Aunt Jemima)’s recent rebranding exercise is an example of this. Their original logo and name had racist connotations because the Aunt Jemima character was based loosely on the enslaved archetype of a ‘Mammy’, a black nursemaid in charge of white children. This was a move to forward the conversation regarding racial inclusion.

Source: Quaker Oats Company

The solution is quite straightforward for existing brands who get called out. But for brands just starting out? Unfortunately, there is nothing they can do but…

Prepare for potential backlash

There’s a million ways people perceive language and how polarizing and political it can get. That’s why brands really need to prepare for backlash. Telling brands to be extremely careful seems futile so what they need to do is not water down language around them so that your copy remains completely passive. However anything can cause uproar now.

The safest bet is to prepare for a negative customer reaction. Because a crisis is bound to hit you. The only difference is how fast you tackle and respond to it.

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