Spur Circles the Wagons — Or Does It?

There is an adage in the marketing community that rebranding isn’t just about changing a logo, it’s risking an identity, and any organisation embarking on the journey needs to proceed with clarity, not just creativity. And that thinking is being tested by the Spur family restaurant chain, which has refreshed its look and logo.

The process is being criticised for what some perceive as its continued cultural appropriation of Native American culture. The brand’s famous badge is an eagle feather headdress, also called a war bonnet. It is traditionally a symbol of power and authority reserved for highly respected Native American men. Eagle feathers are given to individuals to acknowledge or commemorate a significant accomplishment.

In recent years the cultural appropriation debate has gathered momentum and the consensus among critics and consumers is that brands have a responsibility to approach cultures with sensitivity and respect. They are expected to do their due diligence by engaging with cultural consultants, focusing on collaboration over-exploitation and being more mindful in their representation.

Spur CMO Vuyokazi Henda tells the FM that since 2021 “progress has been made in retiring the Native American imagery in the restaurant network”. This includes the removal of a white model dressed as a Native American in advertising and the removal of Native American statues in restaurants.

He says this process is ongoing, given the franchise nature of the business and the timing of revamp cycles, which are contractually every five years.

“Due to the brand history, including having a human-looking icon as part of the logo, customer attitudes towards the theme and the previous logo design have been extensively researched. Various research methodologies were used, including a study conducted with a diverse group of over 3,500 participants.

“Our research indicated that the symbol embodies the brand’s founding ideals of wisdom, leadership, acceptance, adventure and belonging. Most customers indicated a strong emotional connection to the icon, indicating its memorability and strong association with the brand.”

Henda says the new brand design system seeks to balance the new and the familiar to maintain distinctiveness.

“In refreshing the design, thought went into delinking it from specific Native American cues while leveraging its uniqueness via colour, shape and word. The symbol is now a stylised mosaic and a vibrant representation of the diverse families we serve. With a respectful nod to the brand’s history, the image has been reimagined — inspired by the beauty of humanity.”

Henda says the organisation is sensitive to the fact that rebrands may elicit strong emotions and opinions, especially when a brand has had the same look and feel for 27 years. She says the company will remain vigilant in monitoring feedback and sentiment to address the needs of customers and franchisees.

The move has not been without criticism. In a strong trade press op-ed, the CEO of the agency VMLY&R, Jarred Cinman, says the brand’s entire thematic has ended up at odds with modern culture.

“What must have seemed fun and harmless decades ago is now egregiously offensive to an entire population group, albeit one that is far away and out of sight. It is perplexing that the company didn’t grab the opportunity to spend millions of rand reinventing itself for a more enlightened time.”

Cinman says Native Americans are part of a culture that has been colonised and abused. “Like most postcolonial societies, the US continues to reckon with the consequences of stealing other people’s land at gunpoint … this is a culture that has been brutalised and subjugated and one that therefore demands to be treated with care and sensitivity now. Just because victims are far away doesn’t make transgressing against them acceptable.”

Jeremy Sampson, local chair of brand valuation agency Brand Finance, tells the FM: “Of late, quite a few US sports brands have changed their name and look, bowing to pressure to be more socially acceptable. Hopefully, Spur has considered this very carefully. A rebrand [or] brand refresh is so much more than a logo change … it should signal the whole culture of the brand evolving while maintaining the positive brand equity.”

A similar debate is happening in the US, where calls are still being made for the Kansas City Chiefs football team to retire the name, its arrowhead logo and the team’s famous “Tomahawk chop” of supporters making a chopping-hand gesture mimicking the Native American tomahawk while chanting a war song.

This piece originally appeared in the Financial Mail.