Uncle Ben’s rebranding should have gone further, critics say
When Mars Food announced an overhaul of the Uncle Ben’s brand, the company glossed over some of the historical lore—and racial stereotypes—that were part of its marketing heritage. Instead, the 74-year-old brand opted for a new moniker that hints at the past: Ben’s Original.
Uncle Ben’s history, in some ways, has been erased. “We don’t know if a real ‘Ben’ ever existed,” Mars Food announced in response to queries from Ad Age. The new name allows the brand to hold onto some of the Uncle Ben's heritage while distancing itself from the servitude undertones of the word “Uncle” being associated with a Black man. But some critics say it hasn't gone far enough, and should have re-badged the brand entirely.
“It’s a watered-down solution,” says a Black creative director with experience in the food industry. “It would have been a smarter play to scrap it and start clean, but big brands don’t do that. If they were to move completely away from the name they would have to do a lot of work.”
Mars Foods has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising over decades to establish the brand and the image of a grinning Black man to sell its rice. Then, in the wake of rising unrest due to the killing of George Floyd, PepsiCo announced plans to retire the Aunt Jemima brand name and image. The “Aunt,” portrayed by a Black woman, carries similar connotations to “Uncle.” Suddenly, Uncle Ben’s and other brands were thrust into the spotlight and forced to contend with their own histories. Mars Food followed PepsiCo’s move and announced its plan to review the Uncle Ben’s brand in June.
“It’s a shame that it has taken something as devastating as George Floyd’s death to make them look at their products,” says Ross Clugston, Executive Creative Director at WPP brand agency Superunion.
Mars Food had plans in place for its Uncle Ben’s overhaul just three months after it announced its review, and pushed out an announcement of its new brand on Wednesday that includes removal of the image of a Black man from its packaging. The quick turnaround allowed the brand to beat PepsiCo and other companies that are in the midst of similar brand overhauls.
Industry professionals who were not affiliated with the project suggest it was in many ways a decent start, but just that—a start. Much like the Washington Redskins renaming itself, (for now) as the Washington Football Team, branding experts say Ben’s Original needs to do more to show consumers that it is really transforming away from its roots.
“I understand the fear in this moment,” says Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Reed, who is Black, says Uncle Ben’s announcement “passes the sniff test” but he wishes he brand would have gone further with the evolution of the name. “Right now, the safe bet is to stay under the radar on this thing.”
The premise for the Uncle Ben’s brand in the 1940s, according to people who have researched the brand, was discussed by Gordon Harwell, a business associate of Forrest E. Mars, a member of the company's founding family, and ad agency founder Leo Burnett over lunch at Chicago's The Tavern Club. The premise for the brand name, that of a farmer named Uncle Ben, was suggested by Harwell, the story goes. At lunch, Harwell noticed a Black man named Frank Brown who later became the face of the brand that has gone on to sell millions of packages of rice worldwide featuring his image on the package. Some versions of the lore suggest Brown was a maître d’, while others conclude he was a hatcheck attendant. Brown is said to have agreed to have his portrait painted and got $500 for his participation.
An Ad Age reporter who reviewed a corporate timeline of the Uncle Ben’s brand in June spotted details including that the brand was created by Mars in 1946, and named for a Black Texan farmer known as Uncle Ben “who grew rice so well, people compared” Mars’ Converted brand rice “to his standard of excellence.” The man whose image came to personify the brand was Chicago chef and waiter Frank Brown, that timeline asserted. In September, however, those details from 1946 were no longer included on the timeline. Instead, the corporate history lesson jumps from 1945, when Mars states it began to use photoelectric grading for its “CONVERTED® Brand Rice,” to 1947, when “UNCLE BEN'S® ORIGINAL CONVERTED® Brand Rice hits the grocery store shelf.”
Now, Mars Food tells Ad Age, “we don’t know if a real ‘Ben’ ever existed. After extensive research, we’ve removed what we cannot legally confirm or validate to be true.” Mars Food does assert that the image on Uncle Ben’s packaging since 1947 is a picture of Brown, who the company states was a maître d' at The Tavern Club.
And now, it plans to do more to recognize his contributions to its success, decades later. A new “Seat at the Table” fund to support aspiring Black chefs and culinary entrepreneurs was inspired by Brown, Mars Food announced. It is committing $2 million over five years to create a scholarship in partnership with the National Urban League. Mars Food is also acknowledging the economic distress of people who live near its manufacturing facility in Greenville, Mississippi, a former plantation area where it has produced its rice for more than 40 years. The area will see an influx of $2.5 million "to help more than 7,500 students gain access to better education and fresh food,” the company stated.
A 'step in the right direction'
It is unclear if there will be an actor portraying Ben going forward. Mars Food already tried to overhaul the character back in 2007, when he was shown as the CEO of the fictional Uncle Ben's Inc. in a print and online campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day. Mars Food has not yet released any Ben’s Original ads yet beyond a letter about how the company says the Uncle Ben’s brand is changing.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” says Clugston. Removing “Uncle,” he says, may lead people to question why the word was removed, and could educate people on the association of the word with a Black man constituting servitude. “Bringing that topic to the forefront to the everyday consumer is a good thing,” says Clugston.
He and others stressed that marketing organizations need to bring in people from a variety of backgrounds, both in hiring more diverse talent and reaching out to organizations that can advise on projects.
Mars Food stated that it solicited feedback from thousands of consumers around the world, “including many Black voices,” as well as from its employees, to ensure the new brand name resonated. “Throughout that process, Ben’s Original rose to the top,” the company stated.
There are plenty of other projects in this moment of racial awakening.
Aunt Jemima will begin to remove the imagery of a Black woman from its packaging in late 2020. The new brand identity, being researched with consumers “and diverse partners,” is set to appear in 2021, PepsiCo has stated. It has not yet announced the brand name that will replace Aunt Jemima.
Cream of Wheat, a brand from B&G Foods, is also dropping the image of a Black chef from its packaging. “The character is not embedded into the name, so they can recalibrate and change their brand without pulling apart all of the cards that built the house,” says Ned Brown, chief creative officer at ad agency Bader Rutter. Eskimo Pie is also rethinking its branding due to the derogatory associations of the word “Eskimo,” the brand announced in June. And the Mrs. Butterworth's brand and packaging are under review. Each brand has unique details and brand equity to consider.
Each of these brands rely on color, typography, iconography and names that have led to recognition and makes them easy for shoppers to find on shelves. Now, some of those elements need to be removed. “That combination of ingredients needs to honor the change without holding the memory of what has been,” says Brown. “You can hold onto color and typography and people will still have recognition of the brand.”
The Black creative director with experience in the food business, who asked not to be identified, says that Uncle Ben’s could have been better served going through the full process, including how the packaging will look, and then unveiling its plans.
“I think it’s a little foolish to release something in pieces,” he says. “Are they doing it to see what consumer response is? What is the intention of releasing it this way? It seems like you’re not making a definitive decision.”
Consumers seem to support the change. Earlier this year, an Ad Age-The Harris Poll survey found 47 percent of Black men and 52 percent of Black women supported rebranding of Uncle Ben’s, compared to 37 percent and 24 percent, respectively, of white men and women. Fifty-one percent of Black men and 64 percent of Black women believed Aunt Jemima should be rebranded, compared with 47 percent and 32 percent of white men and women, respectively.
Reed says he appreciates the company’s establishment of a relationship with the National Urban League and other efforts to support Black and other minority chefs. Tying the brand to a philanthropic effort linked to culinary expertise makes sense and stays true to the brand, says Reed. “The fact that they stayed within the domain of food, I think was a smart thing to do,” he says.
There’s one thing Reed’s less thrilled with, however: the name. “They could start over and create a new brand,” says Reed, though that would eliminate the familiarity cue he thinks the brand is counting on. “The word Ben is powerful, and people recognize Ben.”