As Aunt Jemima becomes Pearl Milling Company, here's what should happen next
With Aunt Jemima’s rebranding as Pearl Milling Company officially underway, the brand faces a daunting task, trying to erase ties to a racial stereotype while hoping to hold onto the heritage that has kept it as a leader in the pancake category for more than a century.
Quaker Foods North America met with internal and external advisers, including a diverse group of consumers and a Black woman-owned agency, in its work on the new branding. The work done behind the scenes was extensive. At one point, a list of roughly 300 potential names was drawn up, says Kristin Kroepfl, VP and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America. This month, the choice was revealed: Pearl Milling Company.
It’s the right move to change the name, branding experts say, but the choice is one that will take some time for consumers to adopt. Pearl Milling Company doesn’t have the connotation of pancakes that Aunt Jemima’s name and imagery have conjured since 1889. Quaker must make its next moves wisely to project change and, at the same time, try to claw back some market share its roughly $350 million brand lost during the past year.
Pearl Milling Company is a return to the name of the company founded in 1888 in St. Joseph, Missouri, that introduced self-rising pancake mix in 1889. The name Aunt Jemima came to Chris Rutt, one of the company’s white male founders, after seeing a song “Old Aunt Jemima” performed in a minstrel show.
“For me, the rebrand is a great place to start but for it to truly be an impactful moment, they need to mean it,” says Madison Butler, a Black woman who works as a consultant on issues including diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-racism at the company she founded, Blue Haired Unicorn. “Too often, anti-racism in branding and marketing is done purely for optics and recognition rather than impact. My recommendation to them would be to truly educate themselves on systemic racism and how their previous branding helped uphold oppressive structures.”
Up until now the brand made incremental design updates, including replacing Aunt Jemima’s kerchief with a headband in 1968, and then removing the headband and adding pearl earrings in 1989. Those changes were made before PepsiCo acquired Quaker in 2001. “The brand had been updated gradually over time,” says Kroepfl.
But in June 2020, PepsiCo admitted prior moves weren’t enough. During the heightened period of racial unrest following the killing of George Floyd, Quaker announced plans for overhaul, and pledged to support the Black community with $5 million.
“The time was right to wrestle with what does the brand need to be and look like for a healthy future,” says Kroepfl, quick to add that Quaker values “inclusion and respect for all consumers."
Now, this overhaul gives it the opportunity to walk the talk.
“I want to be very clear: Black Lives Matter”
PepsiCo didn’t undertake such a massive brand review until the push for racial justice spurred by the killing of George Floyd forced the company and other packaged food marketers to admit their historic brands were in need of massive overhauls. Uncle Ben’s and Eskimo Pie have already rebranded as Ben’s Original and Edy’s Pie, respectively. Cream of Wheat is removing the Black man from its packaging. And Mrs. Butterworth’s is in the midst of its own review.
To some branding experts, it’s a bit late.
“They’ve been making adjustments over the last couple of decades knowing something that was maybe an issue but didn’t take it seriously enough until it was demanded of them,” says Alex Center, founder of design and branding company Center. “I think that will always paint this in a way that feels reactive versus proactive.”
PepsiCo was one of the more outspoken companies last year, outlining a series of initiatives to support Black people inside and outside the company, backed by more than $400 million over five years (separate from Aunt Jemima’s $5 million commitment). CEO Ramon Laguarta issued a statement in June, including: “We know that the first step toward change is to speak up, so I want to be very clear: Black Lives Matter, to our company and to me.”
Quaker should educate consumers on the name change “loudly and publicly,” says Butler. “It is not enough to change the name, or remove the logo. Brands must be willing to be fiercely anti-racist. This could be an immense education opportunity for the masses, for the people who not only work for them but buy from them.”
Quaker listened to consumers, its employee resource group, and an external advisory board on the name change. Kroepfl didn’t name specific participants but says the group included experts in marketing including hiring a female, black-owned agency and a diverse group of creatives on the project.
About 300 potential brand names were considered, including some with female personas, others that cued a breakfast occasion, more emotive options, and taste-driven names, says Kroepfl. Telling the history of the brand, and leading with its start, rose to the top of the list. And so Pearl Milling Company was born, or reborn. The mill featured in the new image is no longer standing. But it evokes the history of a brand that started in 1889 and is being reborn in 2021.
Explaining the new name to consumers requires a delicate balance. Some people criticize the move, saying the change is unnecessary. Others suggest the Aunt Jemima character could have been updated to represent a strong Black woman rather than erasing the character. Plenty may wonder what Pearl Milling Company even stands for, especially since it doesn’t use cues that refer to breakfast.
“You’re not going to be able to please everybody,” says Kroepfl.
Consumers overall appreciate, or will come to appreciate, what the brand is doing, she believes. “The stand that we’re taking is consistent with our values of diversity and inclusion,” says Kroepfl.
The company is still soliciting feedback. Some people are upset about the change, others say it took too long, and some say it buries the legacy of women including Nancy Green, who portrayed the character years ago. The brand has also heard from people who said they never considered buying Aunt Jemima before “who are now saying ‘thank you, I am all in,’” says Kroepfl.
Culture starting to shape commerce
Pearl Milling Company was a good name to choose as it has an authentic tie to the brand’s heritage, says Ashleigh Hansberger, co-founder and chief of strategy at branding and leadership company Motto. It’s a bit long, but it tells the story.
“Only they know how genuine or authentic it actually feels on the inside,” says Hansberger. “You want to see culture starting to shape commerce in this way … it takes a lot of leadership courage in order to do this, to make this change.”
Butler says she wants to see Quaker acknowledge Aunt Jemima’s past and show the work it is doing externally as well as internally. More broadly, one of PepsiCo’s pledges announced in 2020 is to increase the number of Black people in management.
“Caring about Black people and caring about your image and reputation are different things,” says Butler. “If you are branding yourself as an anti-racist organization, this means you don't shy away from the hard conversations, the hurt, the pain.”Is Pearl Milling Company going to promote an anti-racist message? “I wouldn’t say it’s anti-racist but certainly we as a brand do not want to associate ourselves with any kind of racist undertones, that’s not who we are,” says Kroepfl.
Sales leader with minimal marketing
The true signal of success will be sales. And it’s going to be hard to top the category’s recent run.
Overall, the U.S. pancake syrup and mix category has been growing at 27% during the pandemic, though Aunt Jemima lagged the category’s stellar growth, an issue Kroepfl attributes to capacity constraints.
Aunt Jemima had $353 million in sales In the latest 52-week period ended in January, according to data provided by Quaker Oats. The brand over-indexes versus the overall category with Black and Hispanic consumers, and with households with five or more members and female-led households, according to Quaker Oats. And it appeals to younger millennial and Gen X households, says Kroepfl.
Looking just at pancake mix, not syrup or other products, Aunt Jemima's market share fell from 32% in 2017 to 24% in 2020, according to data from Mintel. Still, it leads other brands including General Mills' Betty Crocker, Continental Mills' Krusteaz, and private-label store brands.
Marketing activity on the brand was minimal. “Just maintenance-level spend,” Kroepfl says.
Media spending on Aunt Jemima in 2019, the last full year for which data was available, totaled $19,000, according to Kantar data.
Now, Quaker needs to invest, telling people about the new name, announcing the transition, and using tools such as the package, in-store shopper marketing and targeted media to note that it’s the same product. Quaker also hopes to build off of the “moments that matter through food” idea that has taken on increased meaning during the pandemic, as many people have been spending more time preparing meals at home.
“There’s an emotion and a connection that is part of our brand and will continue to be part of our brand moving forward,” says Kroepfl.
She declined to share specifics about how the company plans to market the brand going forward.
“It is a new brand to which no controversy can be attached,” says Keith Pillow, founder and principal of Caddy Marketing and Communications, a marketing consulting firm in California. Quaker needs an integrative campaign with various components, such as TV, radio, in-store, public relations, social media content and working with food influencers to educate consumers about the change, he says. But there are risks to doing too much consumer education.
“That campaign cannot prominently feature, discuss or mention the Aunt Jemima brand, because that would defeat the purpose of the whole rebranding to begin with,” says Pillow.
Given the category, the rebranding effort will take time. Pancakes are more of a special occasion breakfast, and supplies only need to be replenished when depleted. That means there will need to be an extended timeline of reminders about the new name.
And packaging overhauls take time. Aunt Jemima announced plans to drop the character in June, but even this week some packages of pancake mix in grocery stores have the character and the name, while others have just the Aunt Jemima name but not longer feature the woman’s image.
Similarities to its past
Packaging imagery released by Quaker shows Aunt Jemima referred to in small print intended to lure former Aunt Jemima buyers without hitting too strong a reminder of the brand’s racist past. It states “new name same great taste.” And what about the Pearl in the name, and the pearl earrings worn by the final iteration of Aunt Jemima? It was not Quaker’s intent to name the brand after those pearls, says Kroepfl, though the symbolism exists.
“By retaining some of the original brand equities, color, shape of the bottle, etc., it feels like an update versus a rebrand,” says Center. “Equity is value. That (bottle) shape and that color, in that category, is incredibly valuable.”
Armin Vit, who critiques brand makeovers on the site he co-founded, UnderConsideration, says the name has sufficient significance but it's a "bad idea to adopt a complicated, hard-to-memorize name as a consumer product,” he wrote in a post last week. Also, the three words aren’t evocative of pancakes, he notes, adding that he doesn’t expect quick consumer adoption of the name.
And the depiction of the mill missed the mark with him.
“The water wheel looks like it’s spinning out some ravioli pasta,” writes Vit. “Perhaps later, when some ambition kicks in once the change phase has happened, they could introduce one of those cool highly detailed engravings and really create an old-time-y artisanal vibe that moves beyond the basics.”