In 1977, a fish merchant named Lee Lantz noticed that Chilean fishermen were catching a delicious new fish with a distinctly unappetizing name: the Patagonian toothfish. Realizing that the fish would never sell under its existing name, Lantz rechristened it “Chilean sea bass”—even though the toothfish, a member of the cod family, isn’t a bass at all. The gambit worked. 25 years later, Chilean sea bass has become one of the world’s most valuable fisheries and routinely sells for $50 or more in restaurants.
The success of the Chilean sea bass provides a useful lesson for businesses that run up against popular stigma: sometimes all it takes to restore confidence and win back customers is a simple name change. The tactic has been used by, among others, Valujet, which was renamed AirTran after a 1996 crash in the Florida Everglades, Blackwater, a security contractor which changed to Xe Services and then Academi after allegations of killing unarmed Iraqi civilians emerged, and Philip Morris, which quietly became Altria in the face of mounting opposition to its core tobacco products.
Some brands, however, are so iconic that changing names is out of the question. Consider McDonald’s. By most measures, the hamburger chain is one of the world’s most successful companies — in 2014, McDonald’s reported $27.44 billion in revenue. But in recent years, the company has come under sustained public scrutiny for the nutritional content of its food and its questionable agricultural practices. As a result, the brand has lost popularity with younger consumers, with American customers between 19 and 21 years old visiting McDonald’s 12.9 percent less than they did just five years ago.
The prevailing trends would seem to leave companies like McDonald’s facing a nearly impossible situation, but Adam Galinsky believes they might have something to learn from some of histories most marginalized groups: if you can’t control what others call you, the best thing you can do is own it.
Galinksy points to the word “queer,” which for much of the 20th century was used as a slur against gay men. But in 1990, a manifesto posted anonymously at New York’s Gay Pride Parade called on the gay community to embrace, rather than repudiate, the word. “Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us of how we are perceived by the rest of the world,” the manifesto read. “So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer.” 25 years later, “queer” is widely used in the names of gay rights organizations and as a term of self-identification across the LGBT community. Similarly, in 1996 a group of young women came together to produce a feminist magazine aimed squarely at what they perceived to be a misogynistic culture. The title of their project? Bitch.
This tactic of reappropriating stigmatizing labels has been deployed by a wide variety of marginalized groups in the past few decades. Galinsky also mentions the example of “geek,” which has moved beyond its pejorative connotations to become a term of pride, signaling connoisseurship and expertise. “People are ashamed and hide things,” Galinsky says. “But by using the very word that stigmatizes them, they can turn a weakness into a strength.”
For McDonald’s this may mean embracing its unhealthy image. That negative image, built up through a series of muckraking books and documentaries, has been capitalized on in recent years by new “fast casual” restaurants, which have sought to differentiate themselves through marketing campaigns portraying them as a healthier alternative. The standard bearer of the fast casual movement, Chipotle reported 57 percent growth in the third quarter of 2014 as McDonald’s income fell by 30 percent.
Despite their claims to the contrary, few of the fast-casual upstarts have much to hold over McDonald’s. A February investigation from the New York Times’ Upshot revealed that the average order at Chipotle amounted to about 1,070 calories — more than twice as much as a McDonald’s Big Mac. At Smashburger, another rapidly growing fast-casual chain, both their standard burgers and fries contain about one-and-a-half times the calories of equivalent meals at McDonald’s.
Over the last few years, McDonald’s has reacted to the movement toward healthier food by introducing new items like the McWrap, a freshly made chicken salad wrapped in pita bread. But the wraps created supply chain headaches for McDonald’s and slowed down the company’s famously fast turnaround. “Operations got so complicated that waiting times went up, and people didn’t come in droves for the new menu items,” Barry Klein, a former McDonald’s marketing executive, told the New York Times last month. Once reliably faster than its healthier competitors, new menu items jeopardized the one advantage McDonald’s hadn’t already lost.
Rather than attempting to beat the competition at their own game, Galinsky says, “perhaps the company is better off saying this: ‘We’re not healthy and we don’t care. We’re fast and our burgers taste good, and that’s what matters.’”
Galinsky admitted that for McDonald’s this reappropriation wouldn’t be easy, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented either. Pabst Blue Ribbon, a light beer manufacturer, suffered declining sales in the 1970s and 1980s as more Americans switched to foreign or craft beers. But as other mass-market brands rolled out new products attempting to keep up with changing tastes, PBR stuck with its formula—to great success.
“Stigmatized companies aren’t better off hiding from their characteristics,” Galinsky says. “They’re better off owning them.”
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About the researcher
Adam Galinsky is currently the chair of the Management Division and the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. Read more.