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Graeme Fearon



19th May 2017



Toxic brands

In order to perform its function effectively, a brand must remain culturally relevant to its consumers. Brand owners 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 (see 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 its Golly mascot in 2002, not apparently out of political correctness but because the character no longer resonated with modern children (although BrandSoup is not sure there’s much distinction to be made between these two concepts). AFL franchise 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 (rather closer to home for BrandSoup) is Bristol’s largest concert venue, Colston Hall, which has 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, including the Countering Colston campaign group.

Colston Hall is a commercial outfit and BrandSoup respects 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. Brand owners can find easily themselves caught between a rock 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.

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Graeme Fearon - 
						
							
								Partner

Graeme Fearon
Partner

The Paragon
Counterslip
Bristol BS1 6BX

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