Grocer Listens to Its Customers and Defends the Appropriateness of Its Playful Product Names
8/7/2020 – – In the final years of her life, my mother cherished her visits to Trader Joe’s. Armed with her logoed canvas shopping bag and the latest edition of the grocer’s Fearless Flyer newsletter, she cheerfully explored the shelves of quirky products and sampled the dishes served by friendly, chatty presenters. She was especially delighted by the discovery of items never found at Stop & Shop.
Millions of consumers across the country share my mother’s emotional connection to Trader Joe’s. Briones Bedell, a California high school student, does not. Last month she started a Change.org petition demanding that Trader Joe’s “remove racist branding and packaging from its stores,” charging that labeling its ethnic cuisine offerings as Trader Ming’s (Chinese), Arabian Joe (Middle Eastern), Trader José (Mexican), Trader Giotto’s (Italian) and Trader Joe San (Japanese) “belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.”
Responding to the petition, which at the time had garnered about 2,000 signatures, a Trader Joe’s spokesperson seemed to capitulate:
“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. Since then, we have been in the process of updating older labels and replacing any variations with the name Trader Joe’s, and we will continue to do so until we complete this important work.”
Not so fast.
Within days, the company issued “clarification” of its position, confidently stating, “We disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions.”
Trader Joe’s heard from its angry customers (my mother would have shared their sense of betrayal):
“Recently we have heard from many customers reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended—as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing. We continue our ongoing evaluation, and those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves.”
In addition to listening to its customers, I have to believe Trader Joe’s management paid closer attention to the more troubling criticism in Ms. Bedell’s petition. She closes her indictment with this challenge to the company’s founding and mission:
“Furthermore, the Trader Joe’s company takes pride in the fact that the founder, Joe Coulombe, took inspiration in building the Trader Joe’s brand from a racist book and a controversial theme park attraction, both of which have received criticism for romanticizing Western Imperialism and fetishizing non-Western peoples.”
(The book she refers to is the 1919 novel White Shadows in the South Seas by Frederick O’Brien, and the theme park attraction is Disney’s Jungle Cruise Ride. These are mentioned in background on the company’s website.)
In an environment raw with racial tension, changing the product names to avoid the shame of racism might have seemed like a quick fix (threats of shame can cloud your judgement in a crisis), but allowing the assertion to stand that Trader Joe’s distinctive character and culture were founded in romanticizing Western Imperialism and fetishizing non-Western peoples would call the legitimacy of the company into question.
In Chapter 11 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Determining Guilt or Innocence”) I emphasize the importance of determining the fairness of charges made against you — your guilt or innocence — before you respond in a crisis, no matter how much pressure you’re facing. We examine three response options:
Hold Your Fire – You really don’t know if what you’ve been charged with is accurate or justified.
We Didn’t Do It – After being brutally honest with yourselves, you determine that you’re getting a bum rap.
Okay, We Did It – You know that the charges are legitimate (at least in part), so you accept responsibility.
Speed is an important element of effective crisis response. However, getting ahead of yourself in an attempt to silence criticism can make things much worse. Believing in yourself and staying a bit longer in “Hold Your Fire” mode while you think things through, rather than rushing into a “Okay, We Did It” mode, would have served Trader Joe’s well, avoiding the need to flip-flop and anger people on both sides of the issue.
While it’s not hard to get thousands of people to sign onto a Change.org petition for any proposition, their voices should be respected. But there are other important voices to be heard, starting with your customers. This week The Los Angeles Times asked readers to express their thoughts about Trader Joe’s marketing. Here’s what the paper reported:
“More than 80 of the 100-plus readers who responded to The Times’ call for opinions said the labels would not change their feelings about Trader Joe’s or its products. Several said that the controversy was overblown, that the labels were simply part of the chain’s whimsical brand or that the packaging paid proper tribute to cultures.”
The “Hold Your Fire” mode is uncomfortable, especially when reporters are pressing you for response. It’s not a long-term stance. But it sure beats having to reverse capitulation and falling into what I call the “Now We’ve Pissed Everybody Off” predicament.
A final thought:
In researching this post I learned that Trader Joe’s guacamole products are branded “Avocado’s Number,” a playful reference to Avogadro’s Number, a theory used in mathematics and chemistry. I hadn’t thought about Avogadro’s Number and the anguish it caused me since high school. Hoping that life experience would give me the intellectual capacity to finally understand the concept, I turned to Wikipedia and here’s what I found:
“The numeric value of the Avogadro constant expressed in reciprocal mole, a dimensionless number, is called the Avogadro number, sometimes denoted N or N 0, which is thus the number of particles that are contained in one mole, exactly 6.022 140 76 × 10 23.”
So much for life experience.