Mother of All Branding Problems
Who would have thought a small shop selling cacti would thrive in Minnesota of all places? Minneapolis cacti purveyor Madre Co. was an instant hit when it opened in 2018, growing steadily since and prompting a move to a larger space in May.
But less than four weeks after re-opening just north of downtown, Madre Co. abruptly changed its name to Mother Co.—a response to an online accusation of cultural appropriation.
Owner Erik Hamline says he wanted to respond quickly. “Even if [our branding] upsets one person, or even if it’s just questionable to one person, in my mind that’s an error on my part that I need to correct to be as sensitive as possible.”
The original name, Hamline says, was intended as a nod to the Southwest U.S., where most of the shop’s plants are sourced and where Spanish names are common due to the region’s cultural and sociological history.
The idea of cultural appropriation is not universally accepted as a transgression, but in this case it’s not even clear that any culture was appropriated, says Aaron Keller, CEO of Minneapolis branding agency Capsule and a TCB columnist. “An entrepreneur, creative team, or someone coming up with a brand name isn’t usually looking to insult a culture or diminish. In fact, they are asking people to remember the story behind the name and all that is positive about the cultural nuance.”
The accusation is based on a misconception, says University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business professor Dr. Mike Porter: “The company is not trying to say they’re Latino.”
His take is not universal, though, and others believe even a single word in a brand can cross a line, says Rico Vallejos, multicultural creative director and copywriter of Twin Cities marketing consultancy RicoLatino. “I think you can make a fair argument this is cultural appropriation.”
In the end, a business must be aware of the bottom line, and the path of least resistance is to rebrand, given the brand was rather loosely established after just a year.
“I’m not seeing the culture that’s being damaged here. But if it’s perceived by people and that hurts your business, then it’s probably not a good business choice,” Porter says. —Tess Allen