If any automaker understands the impact a name can have on the public’s perception of it, it’s Stellantis. The company now must grapple with another name within its corporate umbrella: Cherokee.
The automaker, which is the result of the merger of PSA Group and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V., finds itself in the same place many other businesses have in recent months: how to deal with a name that references Native American people or culture?
While not actively seeking to make an issue of Jeep’s use of the name Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, when editors at Car and Driver Magazine asked Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, if he objected to the use of the name Cherokee to sell cars, he did not hesitate.
Chief doesn’t pull punch
Hoskin told that magazine that Jeep using the name of his tribe was meant to be an honor and that he was “sure this comes from a place that is well-intended, but it does not honor us by having our name plastered on the side of car.”
Like so many businesses faced with this difficult issue, the brand was quick to respond to the burgeoning dilemma. The company said that Jeep “vehicle names have been carefully chosen and nurtured over the years to honor and celebrate Native American people for their nobility, prowess, and pride. We are, more than ever, committed to a respectful and open dialogue with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.”
Senior Vice President Rich Donley at Detroit-based MCCI Integrated Marketing, said that Jeep’s response was the right response.
“This issue is something that a lot of cities and companies are having right now,” Donley said. “For example, on Feb. 9 Pepsico announced that the company was changing the name of its Aunt Jemima pancake products because Aunt Jemima was based on a racist stereotype.”
Similar actions have been taken with Uncle Ben Rice and even the Washington Redskins football team and the Cleveland Indians baseball team. All these names were, or soon will be in the case of the Indians, dropped because of changes in how the public perceive them.
And that’s not a bad thing, Donley said.
The path forward for Jeep
“Look, I’m not surprised by the reaction of the Cherokee elders when asked about the use of ‘Cherokee’ to sell SUVs,” Donley said. “There was a time when Cherokee was felt to be appropriate, but this is a good time for the Jeep brand to revisit how it names its vehicles. I will also say that Jeep handled this difficult question appropriately, and they have not gotten defensive.”
Rather, officials for the brand said that they will respectfully review the issue, Donley said. But it is very important that Jeep be seen as actually doing the hard work of looking at the brand names and what that meaning is in today’s society.
To that end, Jeep faces a difficult task, Donley said. It’s probably impossible to come up with a course of action that will please everyone. “This is a complicated issue that has to be handled with grace and care,” Donley said. “But I think Jeep has taken the correct first step.”