Americans Divided on Controversial Brand Name Changes

Aunt Jemima recently announced that the brand's name would be changed to Pearl Milling Company. Nong Vang / Unsplash

A recent study by The Harris Poll on behalf of Ad Age finds that U.S. consumers are evenly divided on the rebranding of companies with controversial brand names, especially in light of the recent announcement by Aunt Jemima to change its name to Pearl Milling Company.

In general, Americans are evenly dividing on rebranding decisions, but such opinions vary significantly by age and race/ethnicity. Fifty-one percent of all Americans say brands with controversial names should not rebrand while another 49% say they should.

Younger Americans are more likely to endorse a rebrand compared to their older counterparts. Almost two-thirds (63%) of consumers ages 18-34 say brands with controversial names should be rebranded compared to just 35% of consumers ages 55-64.

People of color are also more likely to advocate for such changes. Nearly two-thirds of Black and Hispanic consumers (63% and 61%, respectively) say such brands should have their names changed compared to only 42% of White consumers.

Such opinions become more apparent when examining responses to Aunt Jemima’s recent announcement that the brand’s name would change to Pearl Milling Company. Most consumers are aware of the name change, suggesting Pearl Milling Company was successful in its external communications around the rebrand. However, the impact on sales is more nebulous with many consumers saying it won’t impact whether they buy from the brand.

Overall, 66% of consumers say they are aware of the change, but only 23% say the name change will make them more likely to buy from the brand in the future. In fact, nearly twice as many (43%) say that the name change will have no impact on their decision to buy products from Pearl Milling Company. Nevertheless, another a quarter (28%) of consumers say that the name change will make them less likely to buy products from the brand moving forward.

The most common deterrent for future purchases was a dislike of the new brand name and the perception of pandering. Among consumers who say the name change makes them less likely to buy Pearl Milling Company products, 45% say it’s because they dislike the new name, and 44% say it’s because the brand is “just trying to satisfy people of color.”

On the other hand, the most common motivator for future purchases was that the brand appeared to be showing respect for people of color. Among consumers who say they’re more likely to buy from Pearl Milling Company after the name change, 57% say it’s because the brand is “showing it respects people of color.”

Even among Americans of color, purchase consideration varies between groups. Thirty-eight percent of Hispanic Americans say the Pearl Milling Company name change will make them more likely to buy from the brand compared to only 23% of African American consumers and 19% of White consumers. However, over a third of Hispanic American consumers (35%) also say they are less likely to buy from the brand in light of the name change — a percentage higher than any other racial/ethnic group surveyed.

Among White consumers, the impact on purchase consideration skews negative. Twenty-eight percent say the name change makes them less likely to buy products from the brand compared to only 19% who say the are more likely to buy from the brand because of the name change.

Overall, though, opinions on rebranding boil down to emotional responses from consumers versus financial constraints.

For consumers who agreed to rebrands for companies with controversial names, the rebranding hinges more on the emotional and social impact than the financial or reputation impact. When asked to provide reasons for their support, such consumers say brands should care about respecting people from different backgrounds and lifestyles (52%), brands should be respectful to certain groups of people (50%), it’s the right thing to do (49%), and that although these names are from a different era, it’s time they are changed (43%). Just over a third (35%) say such name changes would cause them to respect those brands more, and only a third (33%) also say that a rebrand would have a positive financial impact on those brands.

Among consumers who think that controversial brand names should not change, the primary reasons cited were more preservationist than monetary. Fifty-eight percent say these brands should not change their names because the companies are already well known as they are. Additionally, 45% say that since the name is from a different era, consumers should not take offense. In fact, just over a third (34%) say that there are better ways that such brands can show they care about people of color.

Looking at finances, only 25% of these consumers say brands shouldn’t change the name because rebrands are expensive and the cost will trickle down to customers. Additionally, Twenty-two percent don’t support such rebrands because they believe such changes will have a negative financial impact on these brands.

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Ad Age during February 12-15, 2021, among 1,082 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. For more information on methodology, please contact Dami Rosanwo.

Download full data here.