Racial Tensions Accelerate “Evolution” of Famous Brands

What Took the Marketers of Uncle Ben’s, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Cream of Wheat So Long?  

6/20/2020 – – Shamed by America’s heightened examination of racism — spawned by outrage over a number of police killings of black citizens — marketers of venerable consumer brands have apparently seen the light. In just the last few days, Mars, B&G Foods, Conagra Brands and the Quaker Foods division of PepsiCo have pledged brand updates for their Uncle Ben’s, Cream of Wheat, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Aunt Jemima products.

Criticism of these popular packaged goods centers on racial stereotyping: the images of black chefs on packages of Uncle Ben’s rice and Cream of Wheat cereal, the “mammy” shape of the Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup bottle, and the persona of Aunt Jemima used since the 1890s to sell America’s most popular pancake mix.  

These companies are not challenging negative perceptions. Conagra Brands confirmed that “we can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values.” PepsiCo admitted: “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based in racial stereotype.” And the marketers are in agreement that, as B&G Foods stated, “now is the right time to evolve” their brands. The makers of Mrs. Butterworth’s assured consumers that “we have begun a complete brand and packaging review.”

All good decisions. Pushing back in defense of long-outdated branding — especially in such a raw, explosive environment — would ensure boycotts and reputational erosion.

But here’s my question: What took so long?

These sophisticated companies did not just wake up to the offensive nature of their marketing. My guess is that complaints have been coming in and dismissed for decades. Refusing to “evolve” their brands sooner, before public pressure forced their hand, has taken away the opportunity to do the right thing voluntarily, driven by values rather than shame.

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Crisis – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Where Crises Come From”) we discuss nine of the most common sources of crisis situations: people, products, priorities, policies, performance, politics, procrastination, privacy and past. I encourage my clients to regularly examine these areas of concern to get out ahead of problems. An honest review of the racial stereotyping driving the marketing of these products would have uncovered serious issues in the areas of products, procrastination and past.

As I warn about procrastination in my book, “the vast majority of crises simmer before they boil. Allowing a known problem to fester, a small issue to grow larger, or an important need to go unaddressed is often the prelude to crisis.”

Waiting for a triggering event — like the racial tension we’re experiencing now — to force action on a known problem leaves a company operating under intense scrutiny and skepticism. It’s going to be a lot harder now for Mars, B&G, Conagra and PepsiCo to preserve the success of their brands. Will taking the image of Aunt Jemima off packages of pancake mix be enough to quiet the criticism, or does the product require an entirely new name? There would have been far more options to consider in a less heated environment. Now the clock is ticking and the whole world is watching.

I understand that it was never going to be easy to update these trusted brands, which have for decades been found on kitchen shelves throughout America. It’s always hard and risky to mess with success. But in this case procrastination has placed the reputations of great companies at risk and made it much tougher to achieve positive outcomes. The lesson is clear: If you see a need to “evolve” your products, evolve them on your own timeframe. The easiest crises to navigate are those that never happen in the first place.



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