Goodbye to ‘Uncle Ben’: Rice brand to change its name to ‘Ben’s Original’
The Uncle Ben’s rice brand is getting a new name: Ben’s Original.
Parent firm Mars Inc. unveiled the change Wednesday for the 70-year-old brand, the latest company to drop a logo criticized as a racial stereotype. Packaging with the new name will hit stores next year.
“We listened to our associates and our customers and the time is right to make meaningful changes across society,” said Fiona Dawson, global president for Mars Food multi-sales and global customers. “When you are making these changes, you are not going to please everyone. But it’s about doing the right thing, not the easy thing.”
Several companies have retired racial imagery from their branding in recent months, a ripple effect from the Black Lives Matters protests over the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans in encounters with police.
Quaker Oats announced in June that it would drop its Aunt Jemima character from syrup and pancake packaging, responding to criticism that the character’s origins were based on the “mammy” stereotype, a Black woman content to serve her white masters. Quaker said packages without the Aunt Jemima image would start to appear in stores by the end of the year, although the company has not revealed the new logo.
The owner of Eskimo Pie has also said it would change its name and marketing of the nearly century-old chocolate-covered ice cream bar. Beyond food brands, the Washington NFL franchise dropped the “Redskins” name and Indian head logo amid pressure from sponsors including FedEx, Nike, Pepsi and Bank of America.
The indisputably racist brand, and its bewildering longevity, speaks to the power of marketing in reinforcing offensive stereotypes.
Geechie Boy Mill, a family-owned operation in South Carolina that makes locally grown and milled white grits, is also planning a name change. Geechie is a dialect spoken mainly by the descendants of Black slaves who settled on the Ogeechee river in Georgia, according to dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com.
“We are in the process of changing our name and have developed a whole new brand. We look forward to sharing it with the public,” said Greg Johnsman, owner of Geechie Boy Mill.
Mars had announced in the summer that the Uncle Ben’s brand would “evolve.”
Since the 1940s, the rice boxes have featured a white-haired Black man, sometimes in a bow tie, an image critics say evokes servitude. Mars has said the face was originally modeled after a Chicago maitre d’ named Frank Brown. In a short-lived 2007 marketing campaign, the company elevated Uncle Ben to chairman of a rice company.
The controversy over Trader Joe’s ethnic-sounding brands shows how today’s increasingly polarized society puts the whimsical grocery chain in a tough spot.
Dawson said months of conversations with employees, customer studies and other stakeholders led the company to settle on “Ben’s Original.” She said the company is still deciding on an image to accompany the new name.
Mars also announced several other initiatives, including a $2-million investment in culinary scholarships for aspiring Black chefs in partnership with the National Urban League. It also is planning a $2.5-million investment in nutritional and education programs for students in Greenville, Miss., the majority-Black city where the rice brand has been produced for more than 40 years.
Mars said it has set a goal of increasing the number of people of color in its U.S. management positions by 40%. The company did not give a time frame for hitting that target.