The Washington Football Team, the NFL team based in the nation’s capital, was called the Washington Redskins from 1932 until 2020. The Indian head logo has disappeared from the team’s helmets. The organization was pressured for several years to drop its longtime name. Many critics made the point the team had waited too long and that the late decision hurt its reputation.
Jeep, the car company, now faces the same dilemma. Its highest-end models carry the Cherokee brand name. The head of the Cherokee Nation wants it removed. Over time, odds are reasonable that Jeep will have to agree.
Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, wrote to Car & Driver magazine that “The best way to honor us is to learn about our sovereign government, our role in this country, our history, culture, and language and have meaningful dialogue with federally recognized tribes on cultural appropriateness.” He remarked that the use of the Native American name should be dropped from company branding. Hoskin pressed the point as an issue of racial justice.
Jeep is not the only nationally known organization with the problem. The Cleveland Indians, that city’s Major League Baseball team, has used the name since 1915. The press reports the team intends to drop it. The “Chief Wahoo” mascot was retired three years ago.
Jeep has used the Cherokee name off and on since 1974. Jeep’s two most expensive models are the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. It certainly has built up hundreds of millions of dollars in brand equity and brand visibility over the decades. It will be costly to give those up if it drops that name.
Jeep is well behind the times. Many college and university teams have dropped Native American names and mascots on the grounds that they are racist. A most visible holdout in professional sports is the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that played in this year’s Super Bowl.
Jeep’s parent, Netherlands-based Stellantis, faces ongoing charges of racism. It is too early to tell if people will stop buying the Jeep product, or whether Stellantis will be challenged with a backlash greater than the most recent one, one that is unlikely to be lost in the news cycle.
The Jeep brand already has the trouble that it does poorly in consumer ratings, in particular at J.D. Power and Consumer Reports. Management may decide it is not worth it to add more weight to a crush of problems.
Jeep has the Washington Redskins problem and, until it drops the Cherokee name, it is not going away.