A historic reckoning with race leaves problematic food brands without an easy path forward

Major change hit the packaged foods category last week as iconic brands including Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth, Uncle Ben’s rice and B&G Foods’ Cream of Wheat announced plans to review or retire their packaging due to associations with racial stereotypes. The trend arrives as a seismic confluence of events — a global protest movement and the coronavirus pandemic — reshape the CPG sector, both in terms of sales and consumer-facing messaging strategy.

“It’s certainly an unusual marketplace moment when so many brands are rebranding all at once for the exact same reason,” J. Walker Smith, chief knowledge officer of brand and marketing at Kantar, told Marketing Dive. “There’s no historical precedent for anything like this that I can think of.”

While some brands, including Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, have previously altered their presentation and marketing to appear more progressive, the racially-coded foundation has remained, putting increasing pressure on those labels as awareness of systematic prejudice and corporate accountability are on the rise. Sunsetting brand assets built on bias is the right and necessary move to make, analysts said, albeit one that will continue to draw skepticism due to its belatedness and the convenience of using louder calls for social justice as a reason to make the switch.

One silver lining for brands reckoning with their identities is the windfall the pandemic has provided. Many legacy packaged food labels, long avoided by pickier young consumer groups like millennials, have in recent months seen sales and consumer interest reignited as home cooking and the desire for comfort food surge amid mass lockdown orders. Companies such as Kraft Heinz and PepsiCo are ramping up marketing investments to sustain the momentum.

For marketers like The Quaker Oats Company, which owns the more than 130-year-old Aunt Jemima line, or Mars Food, which owns Uncle Ben’s rice, the smart bet would be to leverage their newfound marketplace advantages to remediate long-standing, harmful histories, according to branding experts.

“When you’re pushing on these companies to make these changes, and all of a sudden they can more easily afford it, that’s exactly the right moment to ratchet up the pressures,” Smith said.

“The fact that these brands are in a little bit better financial position, a little bit better marketplace position, makes it exactly the right moment to push forward a little bit more strongly,” Smith added. “That’s a good thing, and I don’t think we should be cynical about it.”

The domino effect

Though the current business environment may be supporting food marketers’ decisions regarding racist iconography, change likely would’ve occurred even if these brands were struggling, analysts said. Fresh calls for racial justice and equality are reverberating across industries, including those harder-hit by the novel coronavirus, resulting in ambitious pledges to reshape internal teams and support sensitive causes that brands previously avoided, like Black Lives Matter.

“In my opinion, they are not making these changes due to the pandemic turning sales around,” Marta Cyhan, CMO of shopper intelligence firm Catalina, said in emailed comments to Marketing Dive. “I’d imagine they are doing so out of respect for the impassioned drive for racial equality and social justice that is taking hold across the country and around the world.”

The wave of packaging alterations and reviews that have poured in over the last two weeks still represent a remarkable about-face from companies that, until very recently, were quiet on the matter.

In May, before mass civil unrest over the police killing of George Floyd, Adweek ran a story around Land O’Lakes retiring the Indigenous woman on its packaging. The piece, titled “There’s No Graceful Way to Update a Controversial Mascot,” probed whether other companies, including Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, would follow suit in reworking their own problematic brand characters. Adweek reporter Lisa Lacey did not hear back from Quaker on setting up an interview — a common theme — while a Mars Food spokesperson told her in an email that “Uncle Ben’s is a beloved brand with a rich history.”

Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima — the former inspired by a real person, the latter by a minstrel show character — are now potentially gone for good. Aunt Jemima will formally be removed from packaging in Q4 2020, while a name change will come later. Uncle Ben’s is undergoing a “brand evolution” that will feature changes to its visual identity. The number of brands suddenly enacting similar reviews to their iconography has an obvious link to the protest movement, but could also be attributable to a domino effect, where category leaders stepping up has spurred others to follow suit.

“Once they made the announcement about Aunt Jemima, it really does put a spotlight on all other brands that have figures that date back over 100 years,” Paul Donato, chief revenue officer at the Advertising Research Foundation, told Marketing Dive. “There are probably people looking at each of these brands now to see how they’re going to react.”

As new companies join the fray seemingly by the day — this week saw Dreyer’s 100-year-old Eskimo Pie ice cream bars pledge to rethink its name, along with Nestlé’s Beso de Negra candy — heavy investments in rebranding will be in order to reestablish consumer trust and construct healthier associations with those labels, according to Smith.

“There are all these kinds of fundamental assumptions that are built into these brands that you’re familiar with, even though [they] carry these kinds of stereotypical and racially biased images and connotations,” Smith said. “These companies are going to have to rebuild the associations that people have with new branding identities.

“I do actually think this just gets back to basic fundamentals,” Smith added. “There’s just a lot of advertising that’s going to have to go on to rebuild some of this equity.”

A sticky situation

Marketers like Quaker, which is owned by PepsiCo, or Mars Food have the creative know-how and resources to successfully pivot, Smith predicted. Quaker’s own name has enough established equity that the marketer could make the switch to Quaker-branded pancake mix and syrup fairly easily, he said. Meanwhile, some labels already appear to be seeing the benefits of announcing their intentions to change.

Aunt Jemima pancake mix saw dollar sales up 78% last week over the year-ago period after Quaker said it would rebrand the product, according to Catalina data shared exclusively with Marketing Dive. All brands in its category that are tracked by the firm have seen a boost since the coronavirus hit the U.S., but no others reported comparable spikes last week. Uncle Ben’s saw a smaller uptick, but outperformed other labels in the rice category, which has been another benefactor of the pandemic.

Sustaining momentum will be key for revitalized packaged foods companies, but what their advertising messages will look like is unclear. Experts cautioned that simply adopting the purpose-driven approach that’s popular today — and has recently evolved to directly address racial justice causes, to somewhat controversial effect — has the potential to backfire and read as inauthentic for brands with a deeply ingrained history of prejudice.

“What kind of purpose campaign is an Aunt Jemima brand or an Uncle Ben’s brand going to [run]?” Donato said. “They need to take action, it can’t just be words.”

Internal pushes for greater diversity and inclusion are one way to meet the challenge, though they will likely take longer to realize than refurbished go-to-market strategies. Mars, for instance, is accelerating efforts to increase diversity in its talent and leadership pipeline, including by developing deeper partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, a spokesperson said. The company is specifically looking to improve diversity across its marketing, advertising, sourcing and supplier communities as part of the evolution of the Uncle Ben’s brand. Quaker did not immediately respond to Marketing Dive’s request for comment on its diversity initiatives, though CMO Kristin Kroepfl previously stated the marketer is actively searching out more diverse perspectives, both from within PepsiCo and the Black community.

While in-house marketing teams won’t see a shake-up overnight, other companies can make leadership adjustments in the near-term that fortify broader realignments of their brands.

“The easiest place to create some diversity within an organization is on your board of directors,” Smith said. “We are going to see board seats added, we may see some board members replaced, overturned [or] they may step down in favor of more diverse membership.”

The board shuffle has recent precedent. Reddit founder and former CEO Alexis Ohanian stepped down from the community messaging platform’s board earlier this month, and pushed management to fill his vacant seat with a Black board member in the wake of protests over police violence. Following a racial controversy with its own founder and namesake, pizza chain Papa John’s appointed Shaquille O’Neal to its board last year, while also making the NBA star a central part of its advertising — a creative switch-up that’s appears to have resonated with consumers.

Such tweaks are incremental and will not fully redress the often painful associations that are linked to brands’ with a racist past. Still, the pandemic’s boost to the bottom line suggests that food marketers must capitalize on the situation now or lose out over the long term and as a coronavirus-driven windfall starts to cool.

“It costs you a lot of money to get brand visibility; it costs you a lot of money to change the name of a brand and get people to re-recognize it,” Smith said. “These companies are being presented not only with a moment where they can do the right thing, but a moment in which they can make a smart investment that otherwise would be difficult for them to afford.”

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