Amidst the ongoing reckoning over America's largely shameful treatment of people of color, branding probably ranks as a secondary or tertiary concern, but it is a concern nonetheless. Changes in that arena aren't going to be as meaningful or substantive as changes to broader social policy, but there is a case to be made that we can't move forward, or even hope to move forward, until we make changes to the signifiers and reminders we see everyday without thought or consideration. Just last month, Cleveland's baseball team announced they'll be dropping the name "Indians" after over a century of use, after Washington's NFL franchise announced their own name change earlier in the year.
And it's not just racist team names that are on the way out; brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben's seeking to change their names and logos in an overdue recognition tat dealing in racial stereotypes isn't a great business model in 2020. But, like the issue of racism itself, branding is never truly gone but only waiting to be revived.
Fortune delves into the industry that has built up around the business of claiming and resurrecting discarded trademarks, including those of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Eskimo Pies. As the article notes, it is a tricky business; these trademark vultures need to demonstrate that the mark is no longer in use, and most companies with significant brand assets are astute enough to keep out-of-date branding in use enough to hold onto the trademarks. In this case, each of the brands in question has tried to cleverly change their branding to just those ends: Uncle Ben's is now Ben's Original, and while Aunt Jemima doesn't yet have a new name, its parent company stated that the old logo will stay on the back of the packaging to preserver the history (and the trademark.)
More distressing in the story are the people eager to take advantage of the discarded marks, in this case a man named Jeff Kaplan whose company Retrobrands filed for trademarks on all three. It's easy to understand the commercial reasoning behind the move: branding holds power, and brands that have existed in the consciousness for decades represent incredible value. But commercial reasoning is why stereotypes such as these have existed in the public sphere for decades, long past the point when a decision shorn of financial implications would have been both correct and easy.
Perhaps each company didn't make the choice for purely altruistic reasons, with the threat of a boycott or lost customer share hanging overhead, but the right outcome was arrived at regardless. In trying to revive these brands, the wrong decision is being made for the most cynical of reasons. To paraphrase Jurassic Park, these trademark scrappers were so consumed with whether or not they could to stop and consider whether they should.