The controversy flared last month after a Change.org petition called on Trader Joe's to change the packaging on some food items -- instead of being branded under the usual Trader Joe's name, some Mexican-style food products are labeled "Trader Jose's," and some Chinese-style foods, "Trader Ming's."
The grocery chain has also used "Trader Joe San" for Japanese-style food, "Trader Giotto's" for Italian-style food and "Trader Jacques' " for French-style items, and it says it has fully phased out "Arabian Joe's" and "Armenian Joe's," which used to appear on Middle Eastern- and Armenian-style products, respectively. Some of these are other languages' versions of the name Joe, while others clearly are not.
The petition, which garnered more than 5,000 signatures, said the variation on packaging "perpetuates harmful stereotypes" and "exoticizes other cultures."
The nation is facing a reckoning over race that has prompted reconsideration of brands that have peddled racial stereotypes, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben's. Ice cream bar Eskimo Pie will also be rebranded after its owner said in June that it recognized the term was "derogatory."
After news of the petition broke, Trader Joe's released a statement saying it had actually decided several years ago to start phasing out the product labels.
"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," spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said at the time.
But days later, Trader Joe's issued a second statement, this time saying, "We disagree that any of these labels are racist." The company added that the petition did not influence its actions and that it had discontinued some names and products because not enough people bought them. "Products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves," it said at the time.
The second public statement seemed to undermine the first -- an unusual move, said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
"Most brands, when it comes to issues of racism, they work very hard to avoid controversy," he said. "Trader Joe's is doing the opposite. Trader Joe's is inviting people to opine on whether these labels are appropriate in the world today."
The second statement may have been the company's attempt to set the record straight, particularly if it felt it was being criticized or misunderstood, said Fred Cook, director of the USC Center for Public Relations at the Annenberg School and chairman of public relations firm Golin.