• Richard Forbes

Rebranding for Social Justice

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

The past months has been marked by harrowing, life-changing events: the Coronavirus pandemic, political altercations, and social justice protests are only a few. With businesses facing scrutiny for their policies and protections of minorities, specifically the Black community, consumers have taken to analyzing the history and meaning behind the symbols and names of our recognizable goods. Under pressure to rectify this, companies are altering logos, trademarks and names to no longer reflect historically offensive people and sayings.

Rebranding is a big ordeal, especially for long-established businesses whose products are ubiquitous in American homes. Rebranding means creating a new, less-recognizable persona that may discourage consumers from buying. When brainstorming a rebranding, businesses have to recall the consumer’s brand image and account for personal brand connections and the historical and social implications of the new and old brands. Let’s review several iconic brands that are rooted in controversial backgrounds and have promised to review the meanings of such controversial materials.

Mrs. Butterworth

This breakfast, specifically syrup and pancake mix, manufacturer adopted the name Mrs. Butterworth in 1961. The iconic character of its bottle, a female chef, is often alluded to as “the mammy” - a cartoon black woman who serves white families.

The parent company of Mrs. Butterworth's syrup and pancake mixes, Conagra Brands, has also started a review of the brand and its packaging.

"The Mrs. Butterworth's brand, including its syrup packaging, is intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother. We stand in solidarity with our Black and Brown communities and we can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values," says a June 2020 press release.

Aunt Jemima

The famous syrup brand (and a subsidiary of PepsiCo and Quaker Oats) of Aunt Jemima has said they recognize the origins in which the company is founded. In the late 1800s, a Missouri newspaper editor decided to name his brand of self-rising flour after "Aunt Jemima," a song performed by minstrel actors. A former slave, Nancy Green, was later hired to portray Aunt Jemima as a "mammy" - a caricature that depicts female slaves as smiling subservients for white families.

"We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype," Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, said in a press release. "As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers' expectations."

Cream of Wheat

On Wednesday, B&G Foods, the parent company of Cream of Wheat, issued a statement announcing its plans to conduct an immediate review of the brand's packaging. Through advertisements from the early 20th century, Rastus is depicted as childlike and uneducated. The smiling chef became an overarching term for black men. Cream of Wheat replaced Rastus in 1925 with a portrait of Frank L. White, a Chicago chef who remains on the box today.

"We understand there are concerns regarding the Chef image, and we are committed to evaluating our packaging and will proactively take steps to ensure that we and our brands do not inadvertently contribute to systemic racism. B&G Foods unequivocally stands against prejudice and injustice of any kind," B&G in a press release.

Lady Antebellum

Their music has taken them to the top of the charts over 10 times and awarded them 5 Grammys. However, the band, now known as Lady A, released a statement on Twitter to acknowledge the Southern history related to “Antebellum”. Antebellum often means “before a war,” in particular the American Civil War. The band says the name derives from their first pictures which were taken at an antebellum-style Southern home.

The group, which is made up of musicians Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley, added that they, "are deeply sorry for the hurt this has caused and for anyone who has felt unsafe, unseen or unvalued," in a Twitter post.

Uncle Ben’s

This rice and grain company adopted its brand in 1946. According to its website, "Uncle Ben" is a Black Texan rice farmer and the image is of a Black Chicago chef and waiter named Frank Brown.

According to Stuart Elliott, a New York Times author, wrote in a 2007 New York Times piece, "White Southerners once used 'uncle' and 'aunt' as honorifics for older blacks because they refused to say 'Mr.' and 'Mrs.'"

“We don’t yet know what the exact changes or timing will be, but we are evaluating all possibilities,” Mars says in a statement. “As a global brand, we know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices. As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our Associates worldwide, we recognize that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do.”

Splash Mountain

This ride may be a fan favorite of the Disneyland and Magic Kingdom parks, but Splash Mountain is one of the few promoted features of Song of the South, an old controversially racist Disney animation. The 1946 film has since been disowned by Disney as an archaic reflection of the times and not within Disney’s modern brand, despite still being advertised internationally. Disney fans have petitioned to rebrand the ride as a newer film, such as The Princess and the Frog. Disney has not yet commented on the petition.

Regardless of the reasoning, rebranding is an extensive undertaking that will likely impact a company far past recognition. A brand's values are built upon its identity, including names and symbols. Though it is good these brands are acknowledging and rectifying these mistakes, this is surely not the end of a period of American reform.

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