How to Reclaim and Redefine a Tarnished Brand Name



  • Reappropriating negative slurs into badges of pride can be a source of personal empowerment
  • When a company makes mistakes, it should fix the problem before campaigning to restore its image
  • When the time is right, companies and their employees should proudly associate with the brand without dwelling on the past stigma

What’s in a name? When your name is General Motors, the answer these days might be: mud. After revelations that the automaker failed for a decade to recall cars with deadly defects in ignition switches, its name has become fodder for political cartoons and a punchline for late-night comedians.

As the company works to reboot its reputation, Jennifer Whitson suggests looking beyond the standard image consultants. GM, says the assistant management professor at the McCombs School of Business, could take some lessons from minority groups that have wrestled with a parallel problem: how to wipe away the stigma from a name and replace it with a positive connotation.

“If your organization becomes associated with something stigmatizing, you have a problem,” says Whitson. “Do you change your company name, or do you make a concerted effort to retake the name of your own organization?”

Some companies, she notes, have taken the first approach. The discount airline ValuJet, after a 1996 crash highlighted its poor safety record, merged with another airline and took the name AirTran Airways.

The alternative approach is one she calls reappropriation, and she’s studied it in some extreme cases: groups like African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and other communities that have turned degrading slurs into badges of pride.

In a 2013 paper, Whitson and five co-authors examined how groups took the sting out of words like “queer” and “bitch” by adopting them to label themselves. The researchers ran 10 small-scale online surveys, ranging from 33 to 235 participants. They found that consistently, members of those groups felt stronger when they reappropriated those labels.

One survey involved 73 subjects from a mix of ethnic groups. They rated how powerful they felt in a variety of situations involving slurs, from a low of 1 to a high of 7. When they used the labels on themselves, their feelings of power averaged 4.80. When other people labeled them, the average was 3.85.

Outsiders viewed the power balance in similar ways. In another survey, 33 participants read fictitious scenarios in which two boys pass in a hall. In the first instance, a boy named Bill says, “I’m queer!” In the second, the other boy tells Bill, “You’re queer!” Observers perceived Bill as more powerful when he labeled himself, by a rating of 4.84 to 3.62.

What can a corporation like GM learn from Whitson’s research? First, she says, the automaker has to fix its safety problems and convince car buyers they won’t recur. “When a company makes mistakes that undermine its core competency, they need to rectify, not reappropriate,” she says. “Reappropriation is not effective if the stigma is deserved. It can be seen as callous or cause the stigma to stick more fiercely.”

But if GM’s stigma lingers, even after correcting its problems and addressing the damage done, she offers several tactics for taking back its name.

Frame with pride. A sometimes-stigmatized religious minority recently ran billboards that featured smiling people and said, simply, “I’m a Mormon.” GM, says Whitson, might launch a similar campaign.

“It could be an advertising campaign featuring GM employees, or customers who drive their cars, saying, ‘I am GM,’ or ‘I’m proud to drive a GM car,’” she says. It would make no mention of the carmaker’s former problems. “Proudly associating with the brand without acknowledging the stigmatized definition is more effective than trying to deflate the stigmatized definition,” she says.

Replace the old guard. Weeks before the scandal exploded, GM named a new CEO, its first female in that position. If Mary Barra can persuade consumers she’s putting safety first — a big if — she has an opportunity to distance the company from its previous leaders.

“They can frame the problem as inherited from the past,” says Whitson. “They can frame her leadership as sort of a new guard. They can say what they’re building here is something new and responsible, increasing transparency and helping people harmed by these past decisions.”

Build employee ID. In a separate working paper, Whitson found that when members identify strongly with a group, they’re more likely to reappropriate negative names. The more GM’s workers feel a positive identification with the company, she says, the more they’ll talk it up. “At a granular, person by person level, they might say they’re proud to work at GM,” she says.

A powerful way to build identification, she suggests, would be to involve employees in fixing the problems. That way, she says, “They’re more likely to say, ‘We fixed it. I was part of the solution. It’s not going to happen again.’"

The Reappropriation of Stigmatizing Labels: The Reciprocal Relationship Between Power and Self-Labeling. Adam D. Galinsky, Cynthia S. Wang, Jennifer A. Whitson, Eric M. Anicich, Kurt Hugenberg, Galen V. Bodenhausen


Faculty in this Article

Jennifer Whitson

Assistant Professor of Management McCombs School of Business

Jennifer Whitson received her Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Management and Organizations, and her B.A. from the University of California,...

About The Author

Steve Brooks

In a quarter-century as a journalist, Steve Brooks has won two Neal awards for excellence in trade reporting and a Press Club of New Orleans award...

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