For the past seventy years, the rice brand known as “Uncle Ben’s Rice” has sported a picture of an African American man as its symbol. However, in recent times this image has drawn criticism for its stereotypical portrayal of black men, most claims liken the picture to the ‘uncle tom’ stereotype. As a result of public disapproval, the company has taken steps to change its brand.
The rice company will now go by the name “Ben’s Original” and will omit including a black man as its company’s symbol. The parent company, Mars Inc. has commented that their decision to change the branding will help to contribute to easing racial tensions and make their products more socially conscious.
In a statement from the brand, a spokeswoman made clear what the intentions of the company are. “We listened to our associates and our customers and the time is right to make meaningful changes across society, 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.” The statement was made by Fiona Dawson, global president for Mars Inc.
Mar Inc’s decision to rebrand is not unique to itself. In fact, as of late many other companies have also made steps to alter their branding. Most recognizably is Quaker’s decision to remove the image of Aunt Jemima from its pancake and syrup lines. This decision stems from concerns that the product line reinforces the “mammy” stereotype for black women.
Companies deciding to overturn their longtime branding and marketing is reflective of the recent cultural shift in America. In the wake of the deaths of black individuals such as George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and so many others, there has been a call to make sure corporations are not promoting racist stereotypes.
Riché Richardson, an associate professor of African American literature at Cornell University, made the comment that “it’s a chain reaction of sorts and it’s really good and interesting to see so much introspection being done in these companies to change the trademarks that they’ve invested in. There is a challenge for some people in letting go of these images because they wrongly link them with a sense of Black identity and empowerment when in reality these images have never empowered Black people.” By this logic, some have suggested that the imagery of black people should not be eliminated and should instead be replaced with strong black figures such as Oprah, Rosa Parks, or Obama.
The abandonment of these images is a step in the right direction, but it in no way does it reconcile the misdeeds simultaneously being committed. At the same time, however, is important to consider whether making these changes to brands will actually have a positive impact. Many would argue that simply changing the label on a product does little to actually make a change in society.
Additionally, this decision must be evaluated from a business standpoint. Is it a profitable decision to change their branding? It could cost millions of dollars. Has the company been losing business as a result of their current branding? If yes, do the costs of shifting the branding result in a net benefit?
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