FMCG giant Mars has revealed the new name of its rice product line Uncle Ben’s, which it pledged to rebrand in June in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement following long-standing criticism that the brand name and imagery perpetuate racial stereotypes.
The product will now be known as Ben’s Original, and the image of an older black man will be dropped from the revamped packaging, set to hit stores in 2021. The brand is said still to be deliberating a new image to go with the logo, but it looks set to retain the orange packaging with blue font.
Parent company Mars pledged to rebrand the product in June amid intensifying scrutiny over racially insensitive products as the Black Lives Matter movement found its voice, sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police.
Uncle Ben is a fictional character created by the company in 1946, which Mars claims was inspired by a Texan rice farmer of the same name. The image of the man in the logo is that of Frank Brown, the maitre d’ at a Chicago restaurant who agreed to pose for the portrait, according to the company.
The brand has long been criticised for failing to address the racial stereotypes present in the branding and logo. To many, the image evokes memories of a time when African-Americans were often depicted – when depicted at all – as contented servants. And the use of the term “uncle” harkens back to the often demeaning way many white people would refer to black people.
In an attempt to address these concerns, in 2007 Mars promoted fictional Uncle Ben from servant to corporate chairman, giving him an office and changing his blue jacket into a business suit. On some products he is now shown wearing an open-neck collar.
These moves drew criticism for attempting to paint over deeper issues. Mars said yesterday (23 September) it understood the “inequities” associated with the 70-year-old logo and imagery.
“Over several weeks, we have listened to thousands of consumers, our own associates and other stakeholders from around the world,” Fiona Dawson, a Mars executive said in a statement. “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.”
At the same time as revealing the new brand name, Mars unveiled a $2m investment in culinary scholarships for aspiring black chefs, in partnership with the New York-based civil rights organisation the National Urban League.
It also said it will invest in a programme to boost education and access to fresh food for more than 7,500 students in Greenville, Mississippi, where the rice product line has been produced for more than 40 years.
Uncle Ben’s was one of several brands thrown back into the spotlight this year with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In June, PepsiCo said it would overhaul the branding of its Aunt Jemima line of syrups and foods, acknowledging the 130-year-old brand was based on a racial stereotype.