Strange Fruit

Devon Thomas Treadwell | Branding,branding debacles,Naming | Wednesday, December 10th, 2014


Racist brands have littered our marketplace for decades. Some, like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, have made modest attempts to appear less offensive, while others (I’m looking at you, Washington Redskins) staunchly defend their brands against mounting criticism.

But it takes a special kind of tone-deafness to introduce a racist brand name today and serve it up for its inevitable beating in social media. A hapless PR agency in Austin, Texas, thought nobody would notice or care when it named itself “Strange Fruit.” The Twitterverse showed them just how wrong they were.

“Strange Fruit” was a famous Billie Holiday song recorded in 1939 about lynchings in the Jim Crow South.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

The meaning behind “Strange Fruit” is horrendous, and the PR firm wildly underestimated the public’s memory and tolerance for racial allusions. “We thought the term ‘strange fruit’ really could stand for someone who stood out in a crowd,” they Tweeted in semi-apology, “a talent that was different and remarkable.”

At Pollywog, we’re not a big believer in audience testing of potential brand names. It’s our opinion that audience testing is useful only as a disaster check. Are there widely held meanings in these names that we are not seeing?

The Austin’s PR company’s audience is other business professionals. Normally, we would not expect a significant cultural disparity between the PR principals and their potential clients when it comes to how names are perceived.

But once race is introduced in a name, all bets are off. Suddenly, it’s not just about how potential customers perceive the name–now it matters to the public as a whole.

So, here’s a tip. If you’re considering a brand name that could have racial connotations, test it and see. (And by “test it,” I mean hire a researcher and use proper methodology–don’t just run it past people in the hallway.)

Or better yet, find another name.

Because even if you don’t see the racism in a name, others can and will, as the makers of Slanties Eyewear discovered.

The Austin PR agency has since announced a name change to Perennial Public Relations. What a shame that they went from shockingly offensive to completely bland. On the other hand, maybe being unnoticed and easily forgotten is their best PR strategy right now.


Netflix: The Giant Stumbles

Devon Thomas Treadwell | branding debacles,Naming | Friday, September 30th, 2011

You almost have to feel sorry for Netflix. Once a towering paragon of transformative online business and delivery models, the entertainment giant has done a face plant.

Netflix launched in 1997. Using an online ordering system (the “Net” in “Netflix”), customers could choose from a huge selection of movies (the “flix”) and receive them by mail under a flat monthly subscription rate. This unique delivery system, combined with the ubiquitous red banner ads that were inescapable for many years, served to make Netflix such a powerhouse that it drove brick-and-mortar stores to bankruptcy.

A year ago, Netflix added streaming video, wisely choosing not to give this offering its own brand name. Instead, it was generically called “Watch Instantly” and was offered to subscription customers at no additional cost. Then, this past July, Netflix split its DVD-by-mail and streaming services into two separately priced offerings—a strategic decision that set off a firestorm of protest.

Adding insult to injury, they branded their DVD-by-mail service, “Quikster.” Quikster. Of all the benefits they could have named this service around—choice, flexibility, convenience, etc.), they chose speed?

In what universe is it quicker to order a movie by mail than it is to stream over the Internet?

And why would they want their brand name to remind customers of other failed Internet ventures like Napster and Friendster?

Pricing issues aside, this service did not need its own brand name. Netflix’s two offerings could have been more simply articulated as generic services under the Netflix brand, i.e., “Netflix DVDs” and “Netflix Streaming” or some such.

Eventually, as broadband infrastructure improves and smooth, seamless streaming becomes more viable in more homes (while the cost of postal delivery continues to increase), DVDs-by-mail will go the way of the dodo. Netflix will deliver the pure “online + movies” offering its name communicates best.

The only reason I can see to brand the DVD-by-mail service separately is if Netflix is planning to sell off this part of their business.

But unfortunately, Netflix will lose an estimated one million customers due to the pricing brouhaha, which has caused its stock price to plummet.

For the foreseeable future, Netflix must hang on to its cash cow. It’s a shame they scarred it with such a silly brand.

Apple Goes with the Flow.

Devon Thomas Treadwell | Branding,branding debacles,Naming | Friday, January 29th, 2010

ipadMuch has been written about Apple’s clumsy introduction of the iPad.

But the hook to this story is not that a big company made a naming mistake. This happens, sometimes in large, visible cases.

Nor is the story about alleged sexism at Apple. While it may be true that Apple’s culture is dominated by males, I don’t for a minute believe that they were unaware of the sanitary napkin connotations.

The real story here is that they didn’t care.

I can imagine Steve Jobs and crew concluding, “So what? They’ll get over it once they experience how great this device is.”

And I admire any company so confident in their products that they’ll bat off criticism of their brand name. It reminds me of Nintendo’s belief in the Wii, and how they weathered all the potty jokes when the product was first introduced.

(In Nintendo’s case “Wii” was actually a great name that deserved to be defended. “iPad,” not so much.)

Apple will survive the onslaught of jokes and criticism, and the iPad will live or die based on the viability of the category it has created. Is there really a gap between the netbook and smartphone–room in the market for a touchscreen tablet computer–or is the iPad superflowous? (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

And even though the brand name will not make or break this product, I must still ask, Why, oh why? As a brand, Apple prides itself on innovative products with the most seamless, intuitive user experience. To reach the level of user insight necessary to create new paradigms in UX, Apple has proven itself capable of living in our skin, of understanding our needs before we do.

Apple should have anticipated the effect of a product name so ripe for ridicule that it jolts us out of the Apple ethos.

In the long run, the blowback from this branding error will likely be minor. But with a slightly more bulletproof brand name, Jobs and company could have avoided the customer’s natural conclusion that, this time, Apple didn’t think of everything.

Stunt or Stupidity?

Devon Thomas Treadwell | Branding,branding debacles,Naming | Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Kraft’s most embarrassing and painful new product introduction is now complete. In what has been dubbed an epic Vegefail, The Vegemite Cheesybite Product Launch its new Vegemite + cheese spread will henceforth be known as “Vegemite Cheesybite.”

More than 30,000 people voted for a winning name by way of online and telephone polling. “Vegemite Cheesybite” received 36% of the vote. In second place with 25% of the vote was “None of the Above”.

Interestingly, according to another online survey, most people think that this was all a PR stunt. Just look at the volumes of free media exposure, they argue. Kraft would have had to spend millions on traditional media to get this much awareness.

But that’s giving the brand managers at Kraft way too much credit. These folks are as risk-averse as they come. It’s inconceivable that they would purposefully unleash such an avalanche of negative attention. After all, they were so afraid of failure that they consigned the responsibility of naming their new product to the customer hivemind.

In my view, this situation is far more likely to be exactly what it looks like. Kraft’s managers were dim and naive, but not mean and conniving enough to have knowingly set poor Dean Robbins–the creator of “iSnack 2.0”– up for humiliation. He’s the one I really feel for.

The Snack Spread That Would Not Die

Devon Thomas Treadwell | Branding,branding debacles,Line Extensions,Naming | Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Turns out the product will remain in Kraft’s Vegemite line, but will be renamed. That’s reasonable.

However, Kraft says that it has culled a short list from names submitted during the contest and will–wait for it–conduct a survey and choose whatever the public tells them to.

Again, instead of evaluating these name options on a set of relevant criteria that affects how well the brand name will perform in the marketplace, they’re just going to leave it to whatever the public likes.

“Rest assured, Kraft’s hands are off it,” spokesman Simon Talbot told the Brisbane Times. “The public can have their say and it won’t have anything to do with us.”

This reeks of “we just want this problem to go away,” but still I’m dumbfounded that a company the size of Kraft would so completely relinquish its opportunity to create this brand.

Although Kraft isn’t saying which names will be voted on, there’s a short list on its Web site with names some believe are front runners:

Golden Mite
Wow Chow
Moo in Mud
Vegemite blonde

If I were Kraft, I’d want this problem to go away, too. But now it appears the company is going to live with this branding mistake for the lifetime of the product.

iSnack 2.0 — The World’s Shortest Shelf Life

Devon Thomas Treadwell | Branding,branding debacles,Line Extensions,Naming | Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

iSnack 2.0Kraft announced today that it is discontinuing its new iSnack 2.0 product.

A line extension to Kraft’s venerable Vegemite spread–which has enjoyed decades-long popularity in Australia–iSnack 2.0 had a sad, short life characterized by a one-day fanfare followed by a three-day shower of rotten tomatoes.

Last week, Kraft Foods had proudly announced that its new product–a spread made of Vegemite and creamed cheese–had been named after a three-month, nationwide contest which provided more than 48,000 choices.

The winning name, iSnack 2.0, touched off an immediate worldwide reaction. Widely panned by industry experts and consumers alike, the iSnack 2.0 brand name is a textbook example of how not to do branding.

The problem wasn’t the contest, per se. Good brand names can come from anywhere–including contest entrants. But without a robust, valid means of evaluating name options, managers who are way too close to their brands can’t tell shit from Shinola. And as with any kind of naming contest, there’s a high risk that there may not be any Shinola coming in with the shit.

It astounds me that, in this age of dwindling trademark availability and a glutted brand landscape, some large companies are still having contests to find brand names for their products. Should “the single most important marketing decision you can make” really be left to chance like that? Do they use crowdsourcing to write their marketing and media plans, too?

Doctors bury their mistakes. Advertisers broadcast theirs. And then YouTube makes sure they go viral. How’d you like to be that product manager?

Branders with Blinders

Devon Thomas Treadwell | Branding,branding debacles,Naming | Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Communication is a two-way street. What’s sent isn’t always what’s received.

So when you find out that what you’re sending is being horribly misinterpreted–to the point of angering people and potentially damaging your business–you’d change what you’re communicating, right?

SlantiesI would, but then I’m not an artsy hipster like these guys in Baltimore. They created a brand of eyewear based on an ancient design that helped the Inuits prevent snow blindness. They’re basically big glasses with slits that you look through.

Let’s recap the dominant ideas here: eyes, Inuit, slits. These simple concepts are about the most you can expect people to grasp in the nanosecond that you have to make a marketing point.

So what did they name the product?


If you detected a whiff of racial slur, you’re not alone. The product introduction was met with a mixture of outrage (“mind-blowingly offensive”), befuddlement (“i do not get it, not at all“), derision (“fucking retarded“) and praise (“freaking cool“) One reviewer even commended the company for trying to make it cool to have slanted eyes, helpfully adding, “at least they didn’t call these things Chinkies.”

Did the makers of Slanties intend the name to be racially charged? Not from what they’re saying publicly:

The term slanties can be interpreted and perceived in many ways. In this context, Slanties are meant to directly imply having conceptually slanted vision, meaning a subjective, biased or narrower viewpoint, “to see with a slant”. The slant is caused, not by any physical characteristics (as one can see, since the slits are not slanted), but from eyewear being specifically built to limit your ability to see, allowing Slanties to antagonize your viewpoint. Such a vision can be understood as representing both a unique perspective or a flaw. The wearer decides, is it enlightenment or is it a flaw?

They go on to apologize to anyone who was offended.

But that apology rings hollow when you read elsewhere that, apparently caught off guard by the controversy, they temporarily regrouped but decided to forge ahead with the Slanties name.

There are a number of lessons to be learned here.

1. Always disaster-check your proposed brand name. When it comes to seeing the weaknesses in their own creation, many entrepreneurs have blinders on. But outside feedback is critical, and any feedback is better than none. An unscientific poll (what we ad agency creatives used to call the “secretary test”) gleans opinions that are mostly useless, except when you’re about to have a branding accident. If you try the name out on your family and friends and hear consistent concerns about racial connotations, stop. Put your product launch on hold, and either rename the product or hire a researcher to tell you what you know is true but don’t want to hear. Then rename the product.

2. Esoteric explanations do not travel well in a name. You may intend for “Slanties” to signify “antagonizing your viewpoint” (whatever that means), but brand names don’t come with an attached brochure. People will read or hear the name and form an instant impression based on their own experiences and filters–they’re the receiving end of the afore-mentioned two-way street. You can’t change what’s already in someone’s mind. You can only craft your message so that it connects with the appropriate ideas. As we’ve seen, when the context is eyewear, “Slanties” connects with ideas that already exist but are far from what the name is purportedly trying to convey.

3. If your brand name has negative connotations, it must also have positive connotations. As I’ve blogged about before here and here, there’s nothing wrong with negative connotations in a name as long as there are also positive connotations conveying the brand promise. “Slanties” has no such balance. At best, “slant” is a neutral concept lacking any strongly attractive qualities to offset the word’s potent negative connotations within an optical context.

4. If your brand name has negative connotations, they can’t be racially based. Just don’t go there. No amount of buzz will compensate for the damage to your brand (not to mention your karma). Yes, your brand will be talked about, but it will mostly end up as a punch line.

It’s disappointing that the makers of Slanties decided to dismiss all the negative customer feedback. And ultimately, it’s unfair to the product, because now this outrageous fashion statement is forever saddled with stigma. For many customers, it will be the name that puts them off buying a pair. They wouldn’t want people to think they’re racist, after all.

As for the makers of Slanties, my hat’s off to them for creating such a remarkable, brave product. I just hope they’re always wearing equally impressive flame-retardant underwear.

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