What to do with the racist brand name?


Marketing is certainly no stranger to claims that it is inherently racist, and racism remains a controversial topic today (see, for example, this article by Mark Tadajewski discussing some of the issues). While racisim in market research, actual marketing processes and marketing communication is one thing – what do you do if your brand name is racist? This problem was (and is!) faced by the popular toothpaste brand “Darlie“.

Originally, the toothpaste was known as “Darkie”, a slang term referring to black people. This association was further made by using a logo that showed a black male in a top hat (with a bright, white smile). The brand name continued in use until it was renamed in 1990 as “Darlie”, concurrent with a change in logo, which now showed a racially ambiguous male, but maintaining the top hat and smile.

While it was relatively straightforward for Colgate Palmolive (the owners of the parent company) to rebrand the toothpaste in English, the translation of the brand was less consistent. The packaging on sale in Hong Kong does not make any reference to the any other name than Darlie – and uses only the English version clearly. However, a visit to the Chinese-language website of Darlie reveals that here the brand is still consistently referred to as “black person” (黑人) – see the screen shot above, where the word is circled in red.

This raises many interesting questions: Why is the rebranding inconsistent in different languages? How could it be rebranded in Chinese? How should the brand respond to changed attitudes? E.g. was the term always offensive? How can a brand respond if their historical brandname later on becomes offensive? What if the brand name is offensive in one language – but potentially not in another? … What do you think?

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