Food giant Mars announced its Uncle Ben’s brand will change its name to Ben’s Original, which “[signals] the brand’s ambition to create a more inclusive future.”
The rebrand will also include removing the image of Uncle Ben from packaging to “create more equitable iconography.”
A spokesperson said the brand is “still in the process of developing additional iconography,” so it’s unclear what the new packaging will look like. The spokesperson, however, noted that Mars is “committed to ensuring it will be truly reflective of the inclusive future we are striving to create for Ben’s Original.”
Mars said production of the new brand identity will begin immediately, with Ben’s Original expected to reach store shelves in early 2021.
“We understand the inequities that were associated with the name and face of the previous brand, and, as we announced in June, we have committed to change,” said Fiona Dawson, global president of Mars Food multi-sales and global customers, in a statement.
The brand indeed announced its intent to “[evolve] the visual brand identity” in June just hours after PepsiCo announced its intent to change the name and packaging of its Aunt Jemima brand because it is based on a racial stereotype.
The rebrand, however, marks a sharp reversal from just five months ago when a Mars spokesperson called Uncle Ben’s “a beloved brand with a rich history.”
Nevertheless, this is not the first time Mars has attempted to update the brand. In 2007, the conglomerate reportedly spent $20 million to reimagine Uncle Ben as the chairman of the company. Consumers were able to tour a virtual office, which included chairman Ben’s emails, voicemails, datebook, executive memorandums and a portrait in a gold frame.
The name Uncle Ben dates back to 1946.
“Who is Uncle Ben? Actually, he was two people!” the brand previously said on its website. “The name comes from a Black Texan farmer—known as Uncle Ben—who grew rice so well, people compared Converted Brand Rice to his standard of excellence. The proud and dignified gentleman on our boxes, who has come to personify the brand, was a beloved Chicago chef and waiter named Frank Brown.”
In his paper Racial Etiquette: The Racial Customs and Rules of Racial Behaviour in Jim Crow America, Ronald L.F. Davis, a professor at California State University, Northridge, noted that Black men were called “boy,” “uncle” and “old man” to denote inferiority during the Jim Crow era. Beyond the name, The New York Times said the depiction of Uncle Ben with a bow tie was “evocative of servants and Pullman porters,” the Black men—many of them former slaves—who served white passengers on railroad sleeping cars from the 1860s to the 1960s.
Mars, however, says it is turning over a new leaf now with a revised brand purpose that seeks to “offer everyone a seat at the table.”
That includes community outreach programs to ensure underserved communities have access to healthy meals. One such program will launch in Greenville, Miss., which Mars noted is where the rice brand has been produced since circa 1980. It will include “enhancing educational opportunities” for more than 7,500 students and “furthering access to fresh foods.”
Mars has also partnered with the civil rights organization the National Urban League to support Black chefs through a scholarship fund, which it said will eventually expand to support “other underserved communities around the world.”
“Brands have an important role to play as we continue to navigate this moment of reconciliation regarding racial justice, diversity and inclusion,” said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, in a statement. “We’re proud to partner with Ben’s Original as they evolve and embark on a new path with a new purpose, providing Black communities here and abroad with more equitable opportunities in education and business.”
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