Here’s what we have in mind

Editor's note: Kelly Jasper is vice president, strategy and insights, at research firm AMC Global. 

Amid a rising conversation surrounding social justice and systemic racism, some of the world’s biggest brands are scrutinizing their images and their communication practices in order to meet the call for inclusion and equality. This is a big deal for established brands who have to navigate years of brand equity and label recognition – and balance that with their customers’ expectations, along with their own company’s social responsibility and the bottom line. 

Research has found that consumers are indeed looking to brands to take a stand1 on these important issues. This is a movement that has been many years in the making and it is not a simple flash in the pan. Many brands are facing the challenge head-on by taking another look at product names and labeling that may be considered offensive. 

Some of the most high-profile changes have been well-documented2 recently, with brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s shifting imagery, packaging and names to eliminate any perceived racial bias. After more than nine decades with the imagery, Land O’Lakes has removed the Native American woman, Mia, from its packaging – rolling in the change as part of a 100th anniversary celebration. Many other iconic brands are also discussing label and name changes. 

Some brands have chosen a different path and decided to keep existing brand names. Trader Joe’s, for example, had originally said it would stop using the designation Trader Jose’s for its Mexican food and Trader Ming’s for its Asian food. Ultimately, though, the chain said it didn’t find the labels racist and decided to keep them in play.3 

Deep understanding

How can brands decide the best course of action for branding or visual identity changes? A deep understanding of the wants, needs and perceptions of a brand’s target audience is the first big step in the right direction. In a society that is becoming increasingly divided on a variety of fronts, a consumer-centric approach is essential to success. In an emotionally charged situation like this, concerning social justice and equality, brands need to be careful to avoid a misstep. 

This means obtaining solid insights that speak to the behaviors and attitudes of individuals. Aggregate data has its place but right now brands need to uncover the subtleties of consumer sentiment and truly understand their expectations. Uncle Ben’s, for example, conducted both traditional market research surveys and backed up this data with targeted focus groups in order to truly listen to its consumers.4 Even in the midst of a pandemic, many options are available for brands to take the pulse of their core consumer, such as traditional online surveys, virtual focus groups, in-depth interviews, online journals or feedback via data collection apps and/or wearables. 

The data might show that a change isn’t necessary. Alienation is always a risk – some target consumers may feel disconnected when their brand shows a different face on the shelf. However, if the consumer-driven insights indicate that a label or brand shift is the best way to go – and can even open the door to a broader consumer base – there are ways to ease the transition. There are some best practices that brands can follow5 when it comes to design and communications surrounding packaging updates. 

Early and continuously

Before you do anything at all, bring in the voice of the consumer. Engage them early and continuously throughout the change process. Consumer input can happen as early as the brainstorming stage (where initial sketches are being developed), through optimization and, most importantly, validation. An effective way to assess consumer feedback is to look at both their System 1 (fast, automatic) and System 2 (slower, analytical) thinking. Using existing methodologies that test visual identity, you can dig into consumers’ modes of thinking – both rational and irrational. Then, use that data to apply concise and prescriptive optimizations for the final design or refresh.

Maintaining some level of consistency is key. One rule of thumb is to keep the colors that your current consumer associates with your brand the same. Our research shows that regardless of category, even with a brand change or packaging design update, it is important to keep your logo colors as consistent6 as possible. Color is one of your company’s strongest brand cues for consumer recognition and association – especially at-shelf. 

When updating a brand or visual identity system, keep it simple. Simplification can mean many things, but in this case, make sure important claims and messages are clearly visible and resonate with your target audience, while at the same time communicating all the applicable information needed. We have seen, during our work in this area, that a packaging update is a great time to also update your claims and claims also need to be tested. When consumers are making trade-offs at-shelf, it often comes down to the on-pack claims, so this is not an area to overlook. 

Being creative is one thing but don’t push the envelope too far, especially when it comes to modernizing your look. Be mindful of your target consumer and understand what design updates will work for them. A holistic qualitative and quantitative approach should be used to obtain consumer reactions to your product redesign. If your refresh or redesign is not far enough along in the process for a full-blown quantitative evaluation, your first step should include having live, qualitative conversations with potential consumers. Bring them in for initial design brainstorming sessions, allowing them to co-create with key stakeholders or, when multiple designs are already up for consideration, collaborate with consumers to identify and prioritize which top designs to carry into an optimization and validation phase.

From refining naming conventions to conducting rapid refinement qualitative sessions to revamping packaging designs (we do these virtually with a sketch artist!) and from quantitative optimization and validation, consumers can provide invaluable feedback throughout the entire process. 

After the package is developed and hits shelves, keep a pulse on your early buyers to make sure that the target consumer isn’t changing (i.e., you haven’t alienated your core consumer), that your product is still visually capturing attention at the shelf and that purchase dynamics haven’t been negatively impacted – believe me, it’s worth the disaster check. This can be done at-shelf in a real shopping environment with proprietary methodologies. 

In the right way

Once you’ve decided to make the change it’s critical to tell everyone – but you must tell them in the right way. Market research can also inform how to communicate your brand updates or visual identity changes to your core consumer base and beyond. The insights gathered will inform how you should communicate why the change is being made and how the change supports the core values of your company. Don’t forget to reassure your long-time consumers that they can still expect the same product they know and love inside the packaging – the last thing a brand update or visual identity change should do is drive people away from your product. 

Using the right market research approach, you can ensure your messaging and positioning are clear and compelling. By testing which messages are most motivating to your consumers, you can create a communication hierarchy that serves as a roadmap for successful messaging distribution and execution. There are developed, tried-and-true approaches to guide this methodology, using advanced analytical techniques to ensure proper positioning. By creating marketing communications using the information gathered from research, you can ensure the greatest resonance and acceptance with your audience.

At every step

In light of current events and calls for justice, equality and inclusion, some of the world’s most iconic brands are examining their visual identities. These changes are significant and can be risky. One way, which we consider the best way, to minimize risk and engage with core audiences is to involve them at every step of the process. 

Your consumers can give you critical insights when it comes to marketing communication, packaging and visual identity changes or claims testing. We have found that, regardless of how you get there, the consumer absolutely must be the guiding light for the changes. Obtain feedback early in the process, identify if a change is even necessary and, if it is, continue the feedback loop  throughout all phases of the design process – through validation and launch. There are specific methodologies out there to help you gather this data and apply it to your business. Take advantage of them and put the consumer at the center of your decision making. 


1 “A majority of consumers expect brands to take a stand on issues before purchasing, survey finds.” 

2 “Eskimo Pie becomes Edy’s Pie: here are all the brands that are changing racist names and packaging.”

3 “Trader Joe’s says no to changing ethnic-sounding label names.”

4 “Uncle Ben’s changes to Ben’s Original amid rebrand of racist labeling.”

5 “Five things you need to know before changing your brand to be more inclusive.”

6 “When is it OK to mess with your brand’s color?”,a%20brand%20first%20by%20color.&text=For%20starters%2C%20it’s%20a%20limited,educated%20why%20the%20color%20changed.