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Trader Joe's says its branding of ethnic foods is 'appreciation for other cultures' and not racist

Firmly rejecting criticism of its racist branding names—including the likes of Trader José, Trader Ming's, San Joe—the company said in a statement that it will not be changing the product names.

Trader Joe's says its branding of ethnic foods is 'appreciation for other cultures' and not racist
Image Source: Getty/ Trader Joe's beer is seen on the shelf during the grand opening of a Trader Joe's in Pinecrest, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle)

Two weeks after admitting that some of its international-themed product labels may not have had the desired effect of inclusiveness it had aimed for, Trader Joe's is doing a 180. While many of its competitors chose to take heed of the ongoing cultural shift that's slowly but surely dismantling numerous racial and ethnic stereotypes, the grocery store chain is taking a different (unpopular) approach. Firmly rejecting criticism of its racist branding names—including the likes of Trader José, Trader Ming's, San Joe—the company said in a statement on July 24 that it will not be changing the names.

 



 

"In light of recent feedback and attention we’ve received about our product naming, we have some things we’d like to say to clarify our approach. A few weeks ago, an online petition was launched calling on us to 'remove racist packaging from [our] products.' Following were inaccurate reports that the petition prompted us to take action. We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions," it said. The aforementioned petition was first started in early July by high school student, Briones Bedell, and has since been signed by over 5600 people.

 



 

Bedell explains in the petition that "the Trader Joe's branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures - it presents 'Joe' as the default 'normal' and the other characters falling outside of it." The teen added that such branding is "the perpetuation of exoticism, the goal of which is not to appreciate other cultures, but to further other and distance them from the perceived 'normal.'" However, in its statement, Trader Joe's defended the product names as merely a show of "appreciation for other cultures."

 



 

"Decades ago, our Buying Team started using product names, like Trader Giotto's, Trader José's, Trader Ming's, etc. We thought then—and still do—that this naming of products could be fun and show appreciation for other cultures. For example, we named our Mexican beer 'Trader José Premium' and a couple guacamole products are called 'Avocado’s Number' in a kitschy reference to a mathematical theory.  These products have been really popular with our customers, including some budding mathematicians," it said. The statement is a far cry from the one made two weeks ago by Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokeswoman for Trader Joe's, when the petition first gained popularity online.

 



 

"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," Friend-Daniel said at the time. "With this in mind, we made the decision several years ago to use only Trader Joe's name on our products moving forward. Packaging for a number of the products has already been changed, but there’s a small number of products in which the packaging is still going through the process."

 

 



 

This clearly doesn't seem to be the case now as Trader Joe's said in its statement that "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." Speaking to The New York Times about the company suddenly changing its stance, Bedell said she was "honestly surprised."

 



 

"I see it to be a complete reversal to their previous commitment to removing the labels from the international foods," she said. "They rely only on characters and kind of vague ideas and not anything of actual substance or legitimacy. It becomes a tool of othering." On the other hand, pundits on the right have praised the move online with Fox News commentator Stuart Varney calling it a "win for sanity."

 



 

 



 

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