retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday, MNB took note of a New York Times report that Trader Joe's has declared that its ethnic food labels, using terms such as "Trader José," "Trader Giotto," and "Trader Ming," are not racist, and that it will not change them.

"The announcement comes after an online petition argued that these names tended to reinforce racial stereotypes.  Trader Joe's responded by saying last month that even before the petition it was re-evaluating the names.

"Kenya Friend-Daniel, the company’s national director of public relations, said that 'while this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, we recognize that it may now have the opposite effect — one that is contrary to the welcoming, rewarding customer experience we strive to create every day.  With this in mind, we made the decision several years ago to use only the Trader Joe’s name on our products moving forward.'  This weekend, however, Friend-Daniel said that she only was referring to labels created since 2017.

"Now, the company is saying that 'we disagree that any of these labels are racist.  We do not make decisions based on petitions'."

I commented:

I don't know what decision Trader Joe's ought to be making about its labels, but I am pretty sure that they need to make some changes in how it handles public relations.  There are few things worth than the kind of public dithering in which it engaged.

I assume that Trader Joe's decided that it would do less harm to its brand by keeping the names than changing them, and that's a legitimate conclusion … as long as they realize that they may take a hit from consumers who feel differently.  It is a calculation.

Me, I would've changed the names and erred on the side of sensitivity.  I would've decided that what I saw as lighthearted might be seen as offensive by others.

When people use derogatory terms to talk about me, they usually are not specific to my heritage.  I can imagine that I might be offended if a retailer started describing Irish products as being perfect for "bog trotters."

MNB reader Tony Moore responded:

I’m Irish American and I never heard the term “Bog Trotter”, so I am not sure I would be offended if directed at me.  Perhaps dumb Mick, but I think having not really been harassed because of my ethnicity, at this point in my life I would laugh that off if some actually threw a line like that at me in an attempt to offend.  Maybe that is “white privilege”?

I rarely shop at Trader Joe’s, so I was not familiar with the brand variations such as Trader Jose and Trade Ming.  However, I did check out the packages images and  I really saw nothing “offense”, at least to me.   I have been mulling through my thoughts on the cultural/racial sensitivity issues since the reaction to George Flynn exploded a couple of months age.  Base on conversations I have had with people there is a compendium of sensitivity and willingness to change ( I guess this is true on every issue). I am in the camp that a lot needs to change - certainly Confederate statues and team logos /names that have been issues for years.  I am less sure about objects that at least for me are a stretch.  Of course what is a stretch is subjective, but my concern here is that for us as a society to move forward, levels of support for change are needed.  If forced too far down this compendium, support will erode and a backlash could occur. 

Two example that frankly surprised me were union employees at Ford asking the company to stop manufacturing police cars and an article evoking images of the torching of Atlanta by Sherman in the Civil War with the Calgary Flames NHL team logo.

Subjectively,  this goes too far down this compendium for me and potentially starts to cause backlash or  at least a loss of support .  As with a lot of highly reactive issues, the pendulum goes to far, and over some time settles down.  I would like to think when the pendulum comes to a rest, real, permanent change on racial/cultural issues has been effected.

I would certainly agree with you about Ford - I think it is important to be able to understand that misconduct by some police officers does not diminish the critical work that police officers do every day in every community.  

As for the use of certain terms that strike some as racially insensitive, I would say that the most important phrase in your email was this one:  "…having not really been harassed because of my ethnicity…"

MNB reader Tom Hahn wrote:

Congrats to Trader Joe’s for standing up to the cancel culture!

My friend Beatrice Orlandini provided some context:

Funny, I always thought that Trader Joe's was such a fun place to shop at and that these names made it even more fun.

BUT, I am Italian and European.  We are not as sensitive as you are on all of these issues.   Our society is not (yet) as diverse as yours.

At any rate, NO Italian could be offended by being called "Giotto", the great painter.

There could only be pride.

When I was a child living in the USA the names used to offend Italians were quite different, believe me.  They would never have made it to a product label.

From another reader:

Simply trying to shame people into conformity.  Appears their labeling has produced results so why change......marketing is like politics, you can’t please everyone but you make decisions for the market, and profitability of your company.  In these times a strong statement about your position could be welcomed by those that shop your products.  Petitions should not drive marketing, just buyer behavior.  I’m actually offended by Apple since it’s a statement about the way  of the Devil and how he continually baits us into sin and I am considering a petition and boycott 🙂 Come on, man.

Actually, a pretty good argument can be made that petitions - if they represent the passions of your customers - should drive marketing decisions.  Not always, but I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss them.

Let me be clear about my opinion here.

Trader Joe's is perfectly entitled to keep those names despite petitions and public pressure.  I assume that they've made the calculations, and worked out that it made more economic sense to keep them than get rid of them.  That's fine.  They made the decision, and now they'll live with the results, whatever they happen to be.

I probably would've made a different decision, but that's me.  I tend to be sensitive about these issues, precisely because in my life I've never had to be.

I'm much more critical of how they dealt with the issue, sending mixed messages that only made them look worse.  It was ham-handed at best.  (Apologies to the pork lobby, which probably be sending me an angry email.)

To digress just a little, I did want to mention an email received from another MNB reader:

Don’t cave into the MOB! I agree with Trader Joe’s that they have the balls to stay the course!

My wife and daughter have pointed out to me that it is a strange fact of our cultural life that when we want to say that when someone has physical or moral courage, they have "balls."  And, they've added, when we want to say that someone is soft morally or physically, the inclination often is to use an epithet that refers to female genitalia.

It is especially strange since when we think of a man thinking with his balls, it is usually to suggest that he's doing something stupid.

I get their point.