Can a Box of Pancake Mix Be Racist?
By George Anderson
The Quaker Oats Company, a PepsiCo subsidiary, and Mars have each announced plans to do away with long-established brands that display imagery many see as racist.
Quaker is planning to discontinue its Aunt Jemima brand and replace the line with a new name. The switch is expected to take place by the fourth quarter.
“As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations,” Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer, Quaker Foods North America, said in a statement. “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.”
The Aunt Jemima brand has been around for 131 years. While it could be argued that the brand has always been insensitive, the current environment with nationwide peaceful protests against racial inequality seems to have made the inappropriateness of its image clear beyond the point of debate.
“The brand has not progressed enough to appropriately reflect the confidence, warmth and dignity that we would like it to stand for today,” said Ms. Kroepfl. “We are starting by removing the image and changing the name. We will continue the conversation by gathering diverse perspectives from both our organization and the black community to further evolve the brand and make it one everyone can be proud to have in their pantry.”
Mars also issued a statement that unspecified changes would be coming to the company’s Uncle Ben’s brand.
“We know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices” the company said in a statement. “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 has not specified a timeline for its rebranding of Uncle Ben’s.
Conagra is another company that has announced a review of a brand — Mrs. Butterworth’s — that some see as inappropriate at a time when Americans of all races are showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We understand that our actions help play an important role in eliminating racial bias and as a result, we have begun a complete brand and packaging review on Mrs. Butterworth’s,” said Conagra in a statement.
B&G Foods’ also announced that it was initiating a review of its Cream of Wheat brand with its image of a black man on the box.
“We 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,” said the company in a statement.
What is your take on the decision by brands to reevaluate how they go to market with imagery deemed to be racially insensitive? Are there brands that stand out in your mind for making a similar mistake and what is your recommendation for what they should do?
Comments from the RetailWire BrainTrust:
I had an interesting conversation with my son about this last night when he saw the news report. As someone who had no connection to the brands in question other than seeing the face on the box, he asked how it was racist, and wasn’t it helpful to show diversity in the faces featured on brands. I said there is a difference between showing people of color as users of a product, associating the brand to someone who was genuinely the founder of a brand, and starting from a racist premise as the origination of a brand that actually has no cultural ties to the people or culture being represented. It’s beyond time to erase all of those brands in the last category. It’s beyond time to ensure representation among the second category. And it’s beyond time to be diverse and equal in the first category. Brands shouldn’t just be focused on the last, but on all three.
Nikki Baird, VP of Retail Innovation, Aptos
To be very honest, when I was young I thought Aunt Jemima was the business lady who owned the brand! However, when I was older I learned that is sadly not the context of the imagery. Its history is rooted in racism and the oppression of black people and that is reason enough for it to go. We are imaginative enough to have images that are inclusive and non-offensive.
Neil Saunders, Managing Director, GlobalData
These changes make sense from a marketing perspective by removing any potential degradation of a potential target market. Perception is reality here. However, the real winner is the establishment of a public policy position in these times where companies and individuals try to move from talk about racial inequality to transformative action. Sports teams need to undertake the same introspection on their way to similar public policy changes.
Richard J. George, Ph.D., Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph's University
We have accepted such branding for years without thinking about it. In today’s time of reflection, it is correct for food makers to reconsider all branding that may be considered racially insensitive. But we can go too far as well. I have read that the image of Snap, Crackle, and Pop figures on Rice Krispies is insensitive because they are all white.
John Karolefski, Editor-in-Chief, CPGmatters
On the one hand, we can say that at some point, brands take on a life of their own. I’m sure anyone under the age of 70 does not think about the person, John F. Kennedy, when they fly into “JFK.” But it’s also sadly clear that the U.S. has a long way to go to overcome the underlying racism that is still prevalent in the country.
And so it has to happen. I mean, there was a time when people had little statues of black livery on their lawns. Thankfully that is gone now. Let’s move the rest of the way, and hope that minds and hearts follow someday.
Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research
It is almost shocking to see what was deemed normal and acceptable in the past. There is no way some of that advertising and marketing would fly today. We are in a world where sensitivity is more important than ever. (It should have always been that way.) I applaud the companies who recognize this and do their best to be inclusive, sensitive and fair to everyone.
Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC
Purity of intent rings hollow when a brand image resonates past racism. It’s high time to retire all of it: flags, statues, sport mascots, and yes, consumer brands whose history and imagery are anchored in systematic oppression of any minority group. Put it all in museums, so that future generations will never forget the shameful legacy of systemic discrimination.
Sure, re-branding does have its costs. The owners will just have to take the hit, but I have faith that their customers will reward them with renewed loyalty.
To all the brand managers out there who care about serving ALL their customers: This is a very opportune moment to convert pure intentions into meaningful actions.
James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies