There’s no denying that 2020 has seen a lot of changes. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, prominent CPG companies are reevaluating what their branding and packaging are communicating. On June 17, the calls for change spread to the world of food and beverage marketing when The Quaker Oats Company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, Inc., announced its plan to overhaul the Aunt Jemima brand.
The packaging will start to appear without the character image starting in Q4 and then will be followed by a new brand name. The announcement quotes Kristin Kroepfl, VP and CMO of Quaker Foods North America, as saying, “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype. While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.”
Kroepfl seems to reference the 60s- and 80s-era changes from a kerchief-wearing, obviously stereotyped figure to that of a more modern character, first with a slimmer face and plaid headband and then with pearl earrings and no hair covering. As AdAge says, “During the 1950s and ’60s the trademark was gradually modernized, with the most recent changes being made in 1989.”
The name Jemima itself, however, has its roots deep in minstrel show culture, appearing in Vaudeville song and dance numbers and evoking the “mammy” stereotype of Black women as domestic workers and childcare providers in white, antebellum households.
The Quaker Oats announcement came as the first of several big stories to drop. Mars released a statement just hours later, titled Uncle Ben’s Brand Evolution, saying that “As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our Associates worldwide, we recognize that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do.” Mars is clearly reacting in real-time, as they admit “We don’t yet know what the exact changes or timing will be, but we are evaluating all possibilities.”
Also on June 17, in a press release, B&G Foods announced an “immediate review of the Cream of Wheat brand packaging” as they “understand there are concerns regarding the Chef image, and we are committed to evaluating our packaging and will proactively take steps to ensure that we and our brands do not inadvertently contribute to systemic racism.”
Attempts to Distance from a Problematic History
Racist tropes in packaging and branding were once ubiquitous. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Cream of Wheat are among the last holdouts still on grocery store shelves. Seeking to distance themselves from that history, all three brands have tried to change, incrementally, and update their images before.
The “Chef image” initially used by Cream of Wheat was created around 1890 and referred to in ads as “Rastus,” a name that traces back to the Uncle Remus books and minstrel shows. The brand underwent a change in the 1920s when Rastus was replaced with the chef image that has appeared on boxes ever since, believed to be modeled after Chicago chef Frank L. White.
Aunt Jemima, Cream of Wheat and Uncle Ben’s all kept the brand mascots in place even as they adjusted placement and moved away from featuring them in ads. According to The Museum of Public Relations, Uncle Ben’s was named for a renowned rice farmer but featured the image of a restaurant maître d’ named Frank Brown. As they note, Mr. Brown’s image covered the box for many years but was later relegated to a less prominent position.
In addition to updating the logo image by removing the kerchief and updating the look, Quaker Oats hired Gladys Knight as a spokesperson in 1994, again seeking to bring the brand into alignment with a contemporary audience. These sorts of moves have a counterpart in Uncle Ben’s ambitious 2007 attempt to refresh the character’s image and once again feature him, this time in a revised capacity, reimagined as a successful businessman. Stuart Elliott discusses the campaign, titled “Ben Knows Best,” in a contemporaneous New York Times writeup, quoting scholar Marilyn Kern Foxworth and echoing what seems to be media critics’ mostly negative consensus on the effort. Ms. Kerns notes that the ads are “asking us to make the leap from Uncle Ben being someone who looks like a butler to overnight being a chairman of the board. It does not work for me.”
Further, the Times article points out the potential problem with anything short of a full rename for brands like Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima, noting that Chairman of the Board Uncle Ben was still “wearing a bow tie evocative of servants and Pullman porters and bearing a title reflecting how white Southerners once used ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ as honorifics for older blacks because they refused to use ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’”
AdAge offered a more positive take on the “Ben Knows Best” effort, noting it’s $181 million price tag, and quoted Robert Entman, Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, who called it “a very post-modern moment” as Mars attempted to salvage the brand by taking Uncle Ben to the “extreme opposite, making him a busy executive vs. the faithful, loving slave in the house serving your meals.”
A Recent Shift
Clearly until now, all three brands, while showing varying degrees of unease and awareness of trouble on the horizon, have been reluctant to completely abandon their brand heritage. The agency behind the 2007 Uncle Ben’s makeover, TBWA/Chiat/Day, cited market research in which consumers described Uncle Ben as someone “they know and love.” And AdAge explains that, at that time, Mars research found consumers saw Uncle Ben “as a self-taught, self-made man who is witty, intelligent and wise, with a common-sense approach to solving problems and life in general.” These brands have decades — or, in the case of Aunt Jemima and Cream of Wheat, a century — of name recognition.
The 2007 New York Times article quotes David Wenner, B&G chief executive, speaking of “doing consumer focus work right now to understand how important the [Cream of Wheat chef] character is,” and saying that if changes are made “you would need to be very careful and you would want to do it with dignity.”
And, as recently as 2014, Quaker Oats defended the Aunt Jemima image in a lawsuit brought by the heirs of various women who had represented the brand and whose likenesses had appeared in marketing materials. In response to the suit, Quaker Oats claimed Aunt Jemima was a purely fictional character and that “the image symbolizes a sense of caring, warmth, hospitality and comfort.”
The seismic shift that, as of June 17, has caused all three iconic brands to abandon their reticence to remove the characters and/or names apparently stems from recent, widespread protests and subsequent increased attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for a larger conversation about race. The day before Aunt Jemima announced its intention to rebrand, the singer Kirby posted a TikTok video captioned “How to make a Non-Racist Breakfast” that was viewed millions of times and had Aunt Jemima trending on Twitter.
Clearly, brand managers feel the time for half measures has passed. Whereas in the past political currents might have moved more slowly, modern cultural trends can move with dizzying speed, carried by 24-hour news cycles and real-time social media reactions.
In addition to the logo and packaging changes, some brands are making a full-on push to demonstrate their social responsibility and sensitivity with deeds as well as words.
Pepsico, the parent company of Quaker Oats’ Aunt Jemima brand, is rolling out a “more than $400 million initiative over 5 years to lift up Black communities and Black representation” intended to “address issues of inequality and create opportunity” and including commitments to diversity in hiring and scholarship funding, mandatory unconscious bias training and community impact grants. A message from their CEO states, “These steps are only the beginning. Over the next few years, we will expand our pursuit of racial and social justice in communities around the world. We proudly stand with our Black associates and Black communities, and we believe unequivocally that Black Lives Matter.”
Whether such moves are seen as sincere or as merely market calculations, it’s clear that, in 2020, the choice to say and do nothing is no longer available for brands long tied to issues of race. Judy Davis, a marketing professor at Eastern Michigan University, told the Los Angeles Times, “If your company is committed to change, it can’t just be about changing the symbolism. Dropping certain names and imagery is a start, but there’s a lot more companies can do.”
The push to do more than simply jettison branding now considered offensive without further addressing the issues raised by a history of profiting from the imagery is neatly summed up by Larnell Evans Sr., great-grandson of Anna Short Harrington, one of the women who embodied the Aunt Jemima character on products, ads and in personal appearances from 1935 to 1954. Evans told reporter Mark Konkol for Patch, “How many white people were raised looking at characters like Aunt Jemima at breakfast every morning? How many white corporations made all them profits, and didn’t give us a dime? I think they should have to look at it. They can’t just wipe it out while we still suffer.”
Marketing that is out of step with public sentiment runs the risk of hurting the very products it seeks to promote. It’s clear that more and more brands are seeing and responding to shifts in consumer attitudes and a new urgency around matters of race and, much like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s and Cream of Wheat, are either announcing brand changes and reviews (Mrs. Butterworth’s, Eskimo Pie, Land O’Lakes, Dixie Beer, Washington Redskins) or are facing increased pressure to change from consumers and advocacy groups (Chiquita Banana, Atlanta Braves).
Companies with a problematic history around the subject of race face a tough PR challenge. The ones that incorporate a full-throated commitment to diversity and social responsibility will probably have the best chance of salvaging consumer goodwill toward the brands they manage. Time will tell, however, which marketing strategies are the most effective and whether the market is receptive to their efforts at rehabilitation.
Jeremy Ballard, Director of Design