Promoted to CEO of the fictional Uncle Ben's Inc., Ben will gain full mobility as a modern-day executive wise in the ways of life (and rice) in a print campaign and online efforts that breaks this month. Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa Del Rey, Calif., handles.
"It's a very post-modern moment," said Robert Entman, Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and co-author of the University of Chicago Press's "The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America." Mars, he said, has taken the Uncle Ben icon to the "extreme opposite, making him a busy executive vs. the faithful, loving slave in the house serving your meals" -- a clever approach to salvaging a brand they have invested money in for decades. Otherwise, he said, it would "require retiring the brand."
"Uncle Tom characters designed to invoke the spirit of the South but not upset white values and dispositions don't play a part anymore," agreed Robert Passikof, founder and president of Brand Keys, New York. But that is hardly an issue for many of today's consumers, he said, most of whom won't remember when the Uncle Ben character was featured on the radio in a protrayal that today would be considered highly offensive. The new effort, Mr. Passikof said, "seems like a seamless way of migrating from the trade character on the box to something that allows [Mars] to create a better emotional bond between customers and the product."
An initial first wave of "Ben knows best" print ads in publications such as People and Real Simple will feature "Benisms" such as "My rice is perfect with a side dish, like beef, chicken or fish." Then Uncle Ben will become a walking, talking boss who welcomes employees to his office to share his knowledge about rice. According to Mars research, consumers said they 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.
Awareness vs. equity
Although Uncle Ben may be familiar to consumers, David Altschul, president of the Portland, Ore.-based agency Character, warned that "awareness is certainly not the same thing as equity." But, he said, "it's a great place to start." Mars faces a situation, he said, not unlike Maytag, whose repairman character had "a lot of awareness and fondness but stood for something that was no longer motivating."
Uncle Ben has a lot of heritage because he's been on the package a long time, but Mars will need to use him to communicate something real and authentic about the brand today, Mr. Altschul said.
Mars aims to do that through a redesigned Unclebens.com, which offers a virtual tour of Ben's office and will be updated to feature evolving aspects of the character.
Mars spent $181 million on Uncle Ben in the 52-weeks ended Feb. 25 in food, drug and mass stores excluding Wal-Mart, according to IRI.