Aunt Jemima now - © Quaker Foods

Black Stereotypes Matter: Iconic Products Rebranded

I was a little sad when I heard that Aunt Jemima Pancake Syrup was to be rebranded to remove the taint of its name and the image of a black woman that has literally been its face for 130 years. Chalk that up to nostalgia. But it’s a key example of an issue that couldn’t go unaddressed in the current BLM revolution…

Aunt Jemima Evolution - © Pepsico BrandsThe evolution of the Aunt Jemima Image: Sheet music for the Vaudeville song that
inspired brand co-creator Chris Rutt (left); an intermediate ‘update’;
the latest (and last) image of the iconic Syrup ambassador…

It’s true that Aunt Jemima, the character, came from a minstrel show song that one of the brand’s founders heard during a Vaudeville show in 1889. Christopher Rutt and his partner Charles Underwood decided that the racially stereotyped image of a portly, apron-clad, bandanna-wearing ‘mammy’ would be just dandy for a product like Pancake Mix.

Even though the image was updated 6 times over the next 130 years, it never quite escaped its racist roots. In recent decades, black rights activists have challenged the Brand to disconnect itself entirely from its no-longer-supportable past. But until the recent Black Lives Matter revolution, a succession of brand owners resisted calls for change.

To be clear, the Aunt Jemima’s brand is now owned by Quaker Foods, which is in turn owned by Pepsico.

‘Affirmative action’

“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, Quaker Foods North America’s Chief Marketing Officer, said in a statement earlier this week. “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.”

While Quaker offered no further information on how the brand name and image would change, the statement did promise that new packaging would appear on store shelves by the third quarter of this year. The delay in implementation of the changes is a clear indicator that neither Quaker nor Pepsico had any actual plans in their back pockets to make such updates, in spite of growing demands in recent years. They were quick enough to make their statements, but obviously are starting from scratch on the process of following through on their promise.

Other brands following suit

Shortly after Quaker Foods made its Aunt Jemima’s statement, Conagra – owner of the Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup brand – rushed to release it’s own announcement that it, too, would review its product’s logo imagery and packaging, admitting that it, “can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values.” Mrs. Butterworth’s has long positioned itself as a direct competitor with Aunt Jemima’s, using a logo and brand image that could almost be a clone of the latter’s.

Mrs Butterworth & Uncle Ben - © Conagra & Quaker FoodsMrs. Butterworth (left) and Uncle Ben (right) in their latest incarnations…

And the folks behind the Uncle Ben’s Rice family of products, candy giant MARS, wasted no time getting on the bandwagon with a statement of its own, that, “now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do. We don’t yet know what the exact changes and timing will be, but we are evaluating all possibilities.”

My take

Some observers have noted that voices have been raised in previous times racial unrest, but companies such as Quaker, Mars and Conagra resisted demands for change then and successfully weathered those storms. The fact that these major corporations have responded with promises of action on change this time underline, for me, the unprecedented power of the current movement.

I wonder how much Quaker and Pepsico will suffer, in consumer loyalty, from their failure to make brand image and name changes for their Aunt Jemima products immediately. The delay exposes their lack of preparation and, by association, a lack of awareness of the changes happening in the market. It also seems to point up an abiding lack of concern about the underlying issues. Conagra’s and Mars’ statements were even less specific about how they intend to respond to the rebranding challenge. Neither offered any indication of a timeline for implementation of name, logo or packaging changes.

There are many other products, businesses and brand identities out there that rely on racist stereotypes. Will they make the effort to get out front of the wave of change, or will they lay low and hope that the ‘trouble’ will once again blow over? They’re dancing with the Devil if they do.

~ Maggie J.