Stellantis, the company that makes the Jeep Cherokee, has an opportunity to prevent a public dispute from turning into something worse. Will the car manufacturer take advantage of this opportunity or go down a road that can lead to a crisis?

As reported last week by the New York Times, “The Cherokee Nation, for the first time, has asked Jeep to change the name of its Grand Cherokee vehicle, a move that the carmaker, preparing to release the next generation of the line, has so far resisted.”

Jeep Defends Decision

“I’m sure this comes from a place that is well-intended, but it does not honor us by having our name plastered on the side of a car,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. told Car and Driver magazine. “The best way to honor us is to learn about our sovereign government, our role in this country, our history, culture and language, and have meaningful dialogue with federally recognized tribes on cultural appropriateness.”

A Jeep brand spokesperson told me, “Our vehicle names have been carefully chosen and nurtured over the years to honor and celebrate Native American people for their nobility, prowess, and pride. We are, more than ever, committed to a respectful and open dialogue… “ with Hoskin.

As with any crisis situation, it’s important to eliminate the cause as soon as possible. And if you can stop an issue from turning into a crisis in the first place, so much the better.

Fortunately, there are six basic best practices that Jeep and other companies could follow that would help ensure the names they select for their products do not lead to harmful headlines and crisis situations later.

Choose Brand Names Carefully

Start With Core Values

Jack Spaulding is executive director of strategy at Planit, a marketing and communications firm. He noted that, “The best brands start with core values that form a strong moral compass and guide what they look and sound like in the market, but they are also highly responsive to the constantly changing dynamics of what the world needs right now.”

What To Avoid

Luc Wathieu is a professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and an expert in consumer behavior, branding, and marketing. He said, “Generally, brands should stay away from adopting a name because of connotations that might change or evolve.”

Wathieu noted that of the top 50 brands in the Interbrand ranking of global brands:

  • 44% are descriptive names related to the underlying product or ingredient such as Netflix or Volkswagen
  • 32% are names of people like Chanel or Ford
  • 14% are names that belong to something else that has a special connotation that might change and backfire: two Greek goddesses (Nike and Hermes), three evocative locations (Amazon, American Express, Budweiser (from a Czech town), plus Apple and Adobe
  • 10% are made up names like Zara or Axa

Do Your Research

“As you develop new products, logos, and brands, you must take the time to consider those images and names from multiple angles,” suggested Niles Koenigsberg, a digital marketing specialist at Real Fig Advertising + Marketing. “Do your due diligence and conduct some historical research on those images or names. A particular name could sound harmless at first, but a little bit of digging could reveal a deeper issue that your brand may want to avoid,” he said.

Seek Outside Perspectives

“Before introducing new products or icons, companies should scrutinize them from multiple angles to ensure they cannot be construed as inappropriate. They should seek input from outside focus groups for perspectives they may not have considered,” advised Denise Graziano, CEO of Graziano Associates, a branding, messaging, and communication agency.

Listen

Graziano said, “Being tone deaf is no excuse for organizations to create or retain overtly offensive names or branding. Such actions leave them exposed to backlash that affects revenue and brand image.

“However, in today’s hyper sensitive environment the definition of ‘offensive’ can be a moving target. The worst thing companies can do is make snap judgments and actions about their brands. When companies bend to every outside expectation it can erode trust from customers, employees and investors,” she said.

Take The Initiative

Real Fig’s Koenigsberg said, “…. companies shouldn’t wait for the bad PR to start pouring in over social media before changing their images or names. Instead, the companies should take the initiative to examine the history of their brands in tandem with the cultural and societal histories of our country and consider whether or not it would be appropriate to adjust their branding.

“As an increasing number of brands and organizations are making the decision to change their branding and make it less offensive, it has become clear that most companies are acting reactively and are suffering for it. We believe it is far wiser to get ahead of the storm and be proactive in your branding decisions,” he counseled.

Graziano recommended that, “…when there is a clear need to pull a brand or name, organizations should use active language such as ‘ these are the actions we have taken and this is why…’ In this way they retain control of the announcement instead of becoming a cancel culture news story.”

Stay Ahead Of Consumers

“Brands need to recognize that if they don’t stay ahead of the rising tide of consumer sentiment, or at least attempt to keep up with it, they will not survive long-term,” predicted Planit’s Spaulding, who has advised Fortune 500 brands, small businesses, and nonprofits on how to build lasting brands that connect with their audiences.

[The brands] may have some time left to keep chugging along and ignoring important cultural signals, but the ride won’t last forever and it likely won’t end well,” he warned.

Conduct Annual Brand Audits

Spaulding recommended that, “To avoid diagnosis as a ‘terminal brand,’ organizations should conduct a brand audit at least once a year. This audit should help assess what your brand stands for, how well its current image reflects the organization’s values, and how effectively your brand is connecting (or not) with your audiences. Collect input from staff, customers, key stakeholders, and even public opinion to gauge hotspots that may be of concern and provide awareness beyond your own line of sight. 

“As soon as you discover misalignment, plan for change,” he counseled. “Walking away from an existing name or brand identity is never easy, especially if it has built up valuable equity and some customers are still happily buying. But the sooner organizations recognize a problem, the better.”

Don’t Ignore The Crisis

Spaulding observed that, “Discovering an identity crisis is difficult, but ignoring it is fatal. To their credit, brands like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, and the Washington Redskins realized they were facing challenges. Unfortunately, each of them waited exceptionally long (decades, even) to take action after first realizing the offense, allowing consumers to build negative perceptions and ultimately demand change.

“Of course,” Spaulding said, “a brand would rather drive their evolution from within than have it controlled for them. Had these companies audited their brands more regularly, they might have been better prepared to change with the times on their own terms—creating untold upside value instead of the opposite.”

What’s Next For Jeep?

Melissa Packham, a branding and marketing expert, observed that, “Any company failing to ‘read the room’ and act on changing offensive names and logos simply won’t last. In extreme cases we’ll see boycotts and cancel culture being activated. In others, it will be a slow decline into irrelevance.”

Is this what’s in store for Jeep if they continue to use the Cherokee name for their brand?  Stay tuned.

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