Who’s Behind Your Brand? The Challenge of Historical Names

Who’s Behind Your Brand? The Challenge of Historical Names

We have talked before about the dangers of tying your brand to an individual personality. This is because living people can behave badly, causing damage to the brands they endorse. Even using historical brand names of famous people can become an awkward liability for a brand. While historical figures can no longer make mistakes, some of their previous actions or beliefs can cause controversy. The recent events in Charlotte and an article in the San Francisco Chronicle have pointed out several of these problematic identities:

Robert E. Lee – Dozens, if not hundreds, of Robert E. Lee branded schools and streets in the south have been stripped of the Confederate General’s name. His statue was at the epicenter of last weekend’s violence in Charlotte. 

Junipero Serra – We now know that this priest, who established California’s chain of Missions, tortured and suppressed Native Americans. Stanford University has established a commission to consider re-branding dorms, a street and all addresses bearing Serra’s name.

John Wayne – In 2016, California nearly branded this legendary actor’s birthday as John Wayne Day. But then legislators questioned statements he made about African-Americans and his support of the anticommunist House Un-American Activities Commission. The Orange County Airport is still named after John Wayne, for now.

James Phelan – For six decades, UC Berkeley students slept in the Phelan Hall dormitory, named after a former San Francisco Mayor. Recently, students rediscovered Phelan’s opposition to Asian immigration and his campaign slogan, Keep California White. The hall has been renamed.

David Jordan – The Parents and School district in Palo Alto had the founding President of Stanford University’s name removed from a Palo Alto elementary school. This was after revelations surfaced about his belief in eugenics, the idea of selective breeding and sterilization to improve the human race.

Whether we agree or not with these changes in historical identities and brand names, present day sensitivities can turn history’s heroes into contemporary villains, and historical identities can become liabilities for your brand.

Some major brands today are still using historical names that have not yet cast shadows over them. Tesla, for example is named after a historical figure who symbolizes invention and electrification. But even Nikola Tesla could eventually turn out to be a problem for the car company that uses his name.

Our advice is to focus on building a brand identity that you can control, manage, and prove valuable by delivering on your brand promise. Don’t rely on historical names to do this for you.




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