Trader Joe’s says ‘never mind’ on private label name changes

Discussion
Source: Trader Joe’s
Aug 03, 2020
George Anderson

Trader Joe’s announced earlier last month that it planned to rename a number of private labels, such as Trader José’s and Trader Ming’s, that some deemed racially insensitive. The announced move came around the same time that an online petition on Change.org called for the grocery chain to make the change. Within a few days of its first announcement, Trader Joe’s posted another on its site that it was not planning any brand name changes, contending that its labels were not racist. The chain’s decision-making was based on input from its customers and employees, not petitions, according to the statement.

“Decades ago, our buying team started using product names, like Trader Giotto’s, Trader José’s, Trader Ming’s, etc. We thought then — and still do — that this naming of products could be fun and show appreciation for other cultures,” the announcement reads.

The company said products that don’t meet its requirements are discontinued. Those that do will be kept on its stores shelves for customers to buy and enjoy.

“Recently we have heard from many customers reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended­ — as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing. We continue our ongoing evaluation, and those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves.”

When news of the online petition first hit, a statement issued by Trader Joe’s led many to conclude that the chain took the issues raised in the online petition seriously.

At the time, Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokesperson for Trader Joe’s, said in a statement, “While this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, we recognize that it may now have the opposite effect — one that is contrary to the welcoming, rewarding customer experience we strive to create every day.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will Trader Joe’s suffer any pushback from customers for its clarification that brand name changes will not be tied to online petitions? Do you think the chain is making the right decision regarding the brands that at least some find racially insensitive?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"The company may get some pushback from the petitioners, but it seems to have the support of its own employees and customers."
"There’s ample evidence of racism in our society — but the idea that Trader Joe’s is feeding it just doesn’t ring true."
"The issue here is not whether the names are or are not racist or demeaning. The issue is the flip-flop in policy."

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23 Comments on "Trader Joe’s says ‘never mind’ on private label name changes"


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Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

This is like Bezos’ wobbly answers to Congress last week – customers don’t care. That said, it is a bit of a head-turner at a time of head-turning news cycles. Not sure why Trader Joe’s didn’t vet this prior to announcement #1. The lesson for all of us is to slow down, analyze, then make one consistent point.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Reminds me of the the old saying from carpentry — think twice, speak once.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

Yes there will be pushback. Ten people will stop shopping at Trader Joe’s because they are not changing the names, nine of whom never shopped there in the first place. Good for Trader Joe’s!

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

As I said when this issue first came up, I see a big difference between “Trader Jose’s” and brand names like Uncle Ben’s or Aunt Jemima — with their echoes of antebellum house slaves. I don’t think Trader Joe’s is guilty of the same sort of conscious tone-deafness (unless I’m being tone-deaf myself). The company may get some pushback from the petitioners, but it seems to have the support of its own employees and customers.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

No, there will be very little pushback here. The point is that there was absolutely no ill intent when naming these products and the vast majority of consumers appreciate that fact. While I think companies must be sensitive to issues of race and should deal with any genuine discrimination, they simply cannot pander to every petition or complaint. To do so would be distracting and would undermine running the business. Trader Joe’s should listen to its customers, note the petition, and then make a decision that it feels to be right. Anyone that doesn’t like that decision is free to vote with their feet!

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

I agree Trader Joe’s will get a pass based on the perception that their “intent” was lighthearted and in keeping with their overall image. But can we be sure there was “ill intent” when Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima were chosen as successful brand names? The caricatures on the package certainly came to be seen as disparaging as social attitudes changed for the better. But at one time we struggled with how to handle the images of Betty Crocker too. Despite multiple updates to keep “Betty” contemporary, the eventual decision was to highlight the iconic “Red Spoon” and simply do away with the imagery altogether. Attitudes and mores evolve. Sometimes intent can be determined in the past tense, but we are always looking through our own (current) prism when we gaze back into previous generations’ minds.

Al McClain
Staff

This decision may not stop many people from shopping there, but it’s still an unforced error by a retailer that so many have respect for. As Bob said, it’s better to slow down in the first place, then announce a reasoned decision. Better still to get rid of product names that are in the gray area of possibly making fun of groups and/or cultures, even if you just do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

There’s ample evidence of racism in our society — but the idea that Trader Joe’s is feeding it just doesn’t ring true.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I imagine the referenced petition came from people who do not shop at Trader Joe’s.

Sadly I think petitions like these, which target institutions for being racially insensitive with no basis (as opposed to ones like The Washington Redskins), demean the seriousness of real racial insensitivity. Surely those who are opposed to today’s movement to make people more aware of racial insensitivity will use this petition to mock the entire movement.

I don’t know how much agreement I will find from my BrainTrust colleagues but my son-in-law, José, is pleased.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

Thank you Gene.

George Anderson
Staff

For factual discussion sakes, it’s been reported that the young woman who started the petition, Briones Bedell, 17, of Oakley, CA, has said her family have been regular customers at Trader Joe’s.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she said, “I think that the central issue at the heart of all this is that when any community isn’t allowed control over their representation, harmful stereotypes and caricatures are allowed to be perpetuated. I think we can derive and apply some of the lessons learned within the protecting intangible cultural contents sphere to other instances of cultural insensitivity, as in the case of Trader Joe’s branding of ethnic foods with these names like Trader Ming’s, Trader Jose, Thai Joe’s, etc.”

You may not agree with her, I personally remain unconvinced based on my past experience working, albeit briefly, for Trader Joe’s, but her words are certainly worthy of consideration for all retailers and brands, again IMO.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I don’t disagree that care should be taken. But my personal experience says that the Hispanic person in my family thought it was pretty cool. And though I am a generation removed from my Italian ancestors, I think using Giotto for Italian products is pretty cool as well. Who gets to decide? Do we want to wipe all ethnicity from our culture? I do not.

George Anderson
Staff

My comment was a reply to your statement that the petition was from people who do not shop at Trader Joe’s as referenced in the first sentence. I didn’t take issue with your post, in general.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

True, my statement was opinion, not fact. Maybe with a touch of cynicism.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

Trader Joe’s has taken the right stance here. There is a difference between fun and racism. These names are not racist but in today’s culture it seems that even things that are not objectionable or offensive get categorized as such. We need to carefully weigh the social and political implications of what we keep and what we discard and avoid the whiplash effect that influencers currently spawn.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

A bit of light-heartedness has been part of Trader Joe’s brand all the way through to the Fearless Flyer. As a retailer in the community they are one of the best at making their guest’s shopping experience both light-hearted and safe. I agree a little more “stop and think” before making the first statement was in order, but I think they are on the right path now.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Good for Trader Joe’s. As others have mentioned, most likely none of the small group of petitioners even shop Trader Joe’s. If they did they would have never petitioned. Trader Joe’s is one of the last truly friendly and fun places to shop for everyone! New and interesting food products every day, priced very reasonably compared to the big chains. With so many macro challenges going on in society today, curious time was spent petitioning against Trader Joe’s frozen food product names.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Of course Trader Joe’s will suffer “some” feedback around the decision. For one thing Change.org will keep pushing them on that, but they won’t be alone. Will it significantly hurt sales? Probably not, but Al McClain is right. This is an unforced error. Make enough unforced errors, and a brand that has always been seen as “progressive” could begin to suffer cracks in its halo. I know there are those who will say things like, “Hey, they were only having fun,” or, “They didn’t mean any harm.” Well I’m sure Frito-Lay didn’t mean any harm when they introduced the “Frito Bandito” — but many members of the LatinX community didn’t see it that way anymore than, as an Irish-American, I enjoy those (non-Irish) drunken idiots, swilling green beer, wearing leprechaun hats and “Kiss Me I’m Irish” buttons on St. Patrick’s Day. My vote? They should have changed the name.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

I almost brought up the “Frito Bandito” as well, since it is part of my own brand history. That advertising, developed in 1967, only ran for less than 18 months. As late as the 1990s, the “Bandito” still had the highest recall of any Frito — or any other Frito Lay brand advertising — in history. There were still a few vets of that era around when I worked at the company and had Fritos in my portfolio. I never sensed “ill intent” and some felt downright offended that any was ascribed. My point in the parable is not to say that the advertising was or was not offensive. Rather, to reiterate comments above, that assuming perspective on the mindset of others when they do something is dicey business at best. Rectify — but don’t vilify.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

Like some others here, I was a little surprised to learn that TJ’s decided to stand fast on the ethnic branding issue. The whole matter could have been addressed by changing a single word on a few dozen product labels.
I suppose it’s possible the company made the effort to honestly investigate actual shopper sentiment about its “whimsical” store brands and learned that there was no significant push-back.

It’s also possible that TJ’s management decided it would not be bullied by a group of non-shoppers.

I’m no fan of “cancel culture” but I do believe consumer-facing companies must be conscious of the evolving semiotics of their brands. What seemed “light-hearted” yesterday may be odious today. Benign intent is no antidote to this.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

The issue here is not whether the names are or are not racist or demeaning. The issue is the flip-flop in policy. It seems that in the heat of the moment of protests there was a decision to be politically correct and potentially mitigate a backlash and then later a choice to not be politically correct. Corporate values don’t have meaning if they change every time there’s a social or political issue. If corporate values have meaning/resonance, (like anyone’s values) they do not waiver under any circumstance.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

A retailing “who dunnit”… or as close to it as we find. While as indicated in the earlier post on this, I didn’t support the change, and so logically I shouldn’t object to them staying, unfortunately, this has morphed from a simple branding issue into a PR fiasco. Did they actually reverse course or was there an earlier “miscommunication” … and if so how did it occur? A rare misstep from TJ’s.

storewanderer
Guest
1 month 25 days ago

Trader Joe’s made a mistake responding to the petition saying they were going to change the names. This was a mistake. I think we can forgive them for that and just forget this whole thing ever happened.

We like the Trader Joe’s store and products, right? The quirky format. These brand names are part of that quirky format and you take that little quirk home with you with the Trader Giotto products and Trader Ming and Jose products. Nothing has changed with Trader Joe’s store and products that we like. Not even a few letters changing on some labels.

I am glad to see they have taken control over their business and marketing and not caved to this petition.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"The company may get some pushback from the petitioners, but it seems to have the support of its own employees and customers."
"There’s ample evidence of racism in our society — but the idea that Trader Joe’s is feeding it just doesn’t ring true."
"The issue here is not whether the names are or are not racist or demeaning. The issue is the flip-flop in policy."

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