Elle Morris On Branding and Race

Elle Morris is founder and CEO of SnapDragon Branding Design Consultancy, a Minority and Women-Owned and Led firm. She is Irish Cuban and her husband of over 20 years is Black. Morris has been working in the Black Beauty Care segment since 2002 when she was a team member for the Pantene Relaxed & Natural launch while with LPK. She also led work on Fashion Fair Skin and Makeup as well as Latina-based insights for Beauty Retail while at LPK. She and SnapDragon created the Just for Me Curl Peace design (a GDUSA award winner) and the Queen Helene redesign in 2019. Being Latina with bi-racial family has compelled Morris to speak to the industry since 2009 about African American and Latina beauty consumers, the difference in habits and practices and the unmet needs of these consumers. The firm draws upon designers and marketers with culturally appropriate backgrounds for work and leverages their expertise to bring consumers the brands that they love with beauty and cultural meaning.

Eliminating Racial Bias In Branding

After George Floyd was killed by a police officer on May 25, 2020, this country came to the brutal awakening that there are two Americas: the America that white Americans live in and the America that Black Americans and everyone else lives in. Black Lives Matter (BLM) gained thousands of white protestors overnight and the country finally seemed to unite against the racially motivated violence that has terrorized Black Americans since their ancestors arrived on this continent. In conjunction with this, there seems to finally be a movement to acknowledge and begin the hard work of eliminating systemic racism in our society.

The George Floyd incident caused deeper reflection in White Americans. Questions were posed that shook White people to their core: How would you feel if your 12-year-old son was shot and killed by police while playing with a plastic gun in the park? When you shop are you followed around a store to see if you’re going to steal anything? Are your beauty and grooming products locked up by retailers (so the only way you can consider them is if the retailer unlocks the case for you)? Do you have to have a “talk” with your adolescent children about how to behave with law enforcement so they don’t get killed? Do you have to wear your hair in a style that’s culturally unnatural so you won’t get fired? The idea that any American had to experience any of these situations was appalling to almost everyone. There was shame and disbelief that our Black friends and family had been living a parallel life – one that we see and another that we did not or chose not to see – which was difficult and constantly filled with fear and indignity. How could we have all been so entitled and blind for so long?

The Brands We Love

Pepsi did it first. In a radical but righteous move, Pepsi announced that it was dropping the brand name and image of the Aunt Jemima brand because of racial bias. That move sent a shock wave through the marketing and design community. If Pepsi was doing this, then certainly other brands like Uncle Ben’s, Cream of Wheat and Mrs. Butterworth’s should do the same thing. Most followed suit with announcements later in the week and at a minimum committed to review their brands through a racially biased lens.

The shocking part was the protest that came from White people about their beloved Aunt Jemima going away. “I don’t understand. I thought it was just somebody’s Aunt. I don’t see a slave there.” “This is political correctness gone too far, people are seeing racism in syrup.” “I always heard the woman on the bottle was paid millions for her recipe and helped impoverished black people. So, taking it off is an insult to her.” If I shared every discussion I had with White friends on this topic, we’d be here all day. I think the most telling question and response was this from a mutual friend of mine and my husband, Ed, who is Black.

“Does Ed have a problem with this?”

Me: “Yes, he does. He’s always hated the Aunt Jemima package.”

Friend: “He’s never said anything to me in the 20 years I’ve known him.”

Me: “No, of course he didn’t, because Black people have accepted this type of racial portrayal and discrimination since the beginning of time. What good would it do him to complain to his White friend about it?”

Friend: “I never thought about it that way.”

Design Needs to Lead

“I never thought about it that way.” Those words pretty much sum up the marketing and design community with regard to using racial stereotypes on packaging. There’s a reason why Uncle Ben is still on the rice package. And a reason Mrs. Butterworth is still shaped like a “Black Mammy.” And yes, there’s a reason that Rastus is still on the Cream of Wheat package.

Slave narratives for food have been so culturally accepted by Americans that it demanded a huge act of violence in the year 2020 be the catalyst for change. The amendment to end slavery was passed in 1865. It took one hundred and fifty-five years for America to realize using slave narrative and imagery in branding is NOT OK. For those who don’t know, slave cooking was the gold standard in the old South. Once slavery was eliminated, whites who couldn’t afford Black help, were longing for the old recipes that the slaves had prepared. Food companies were smart enough to meet this need by buying recipes for small amounts of money from former slaves (no, the former slaves didn’t become millionaires) and sometimes using them and their imagery to sell the product – i.e., Aunt Jemima leveraged Nancy Green as the face and voice of the brand for years. Over time, other women modeled for the package for a more “updated” look.

As Design leaders, we need to show consumers that these brands will be just as compelling, just as delicious and just as trusted, with a new narrative and a new design. We can pay homage to Black culture with dignity in our approach. We don’t have to “white wash” the brand but can represent the narrative and appropriate imagery with respect. This will require insight from ALL consumers and design firms that know how to leverage the insight appropriately using creatives with diverse racial backgrounds.

We also can’t stop with these brands. As a Cuban American, I am highly sensitive to the “Latin” characters that are used to show Americans how “authentically Latin” a product is. Images of Uncle Jose with the floppy Mexican hat and huge moustache, Tio Juan with his outlandishly Latin facial characteristics, Manuelita with the provocative gaze and off the shoulder blouse, Rosalita with her big floppy hat on. Do we really need to show racial stereotypes of any people in our brands? Aren’t we more creative than that? Isn’t a bit lazy to rely on those ancient design tropes to communicate to consumers? We are all smart. We are worldly. We have the Internet. Culture has never been more accessible. We must start leveraging creativity and narrative to build compelling brand stories and stop relying on visual and verbal stereotypes to tell a brand story. We must also lean into creatives who come from these cultures and will have the insights to represent them authentically and call us out on it when we culturally appropriate.

What’s Next

Let’s commit as a Design community to look at things in a perspective that is different than our own.

Things we can do right now:

• Hire people of color for influential roles and value their perspective

• Enable broader perspectives in decision making

• Accept and get used to your own discomfort as a White person – things are going to be very different now

• Read everything you can on how to actively shift to a racially equitable society (Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel, Witnessing Whiteness by Shelly Tochluk and Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum are good books).

Let’s recruit and hire more minority designers to help understand what’s culturally biased and what’s not. Let’s leverage creativity and design to solve this problem and do our part to end systemic racism.