Uncle Ben’s becomes Ben’s Original in ‘brand evolution’

Dive Brief:

  • Mars Food is renaming its Uncle Ben’s rice brand Ben’s Original, the company announced. Three months ago, as other major food manufacturers were saying they would take another look at branding that some consumers found racially insensitive, Mars announced Uncle Ben’s would be undergoing a “brand evolution.”
  • The face that appeared on Uncle Ben’s rice products — which belonged to Black Chicago waiter and chef Frank Brown and not the Texas rice farmer for whom the brand was named — will not appear on the new packaging.
  • This is the first big change a brand has made in the wake of protests of systemic racial inequality that began during the summer. After PepsiCo announced it would discontinue its Aunt Jemima pancake and syrup branding, owners of Uncle Ben’s, Mrs. Butterworth, Cream of Wheat and Eskimo Pie all said they would evaluate their branding and packaging to not be considered racially insensitive.

Dive Insight:

The first food branding change following the racial protests in 2020 shows it may not take dramatic measures to make a big difference.

According to the announcements Mars has put out so far, the new branding isn’t all that different from what the company had previously. The brand name is similar: Ben’s Original instead of Uncle Ben’s. The colors are the same: An orange background with bold navy blue type. The brand doesn’t lose its name or shelf recognition among consumers, who can still find the orange and blue packages of side dishes.

However, beyond this the differences are huge. Taking the face off of the package and changing the name from Uncle Ben — White Southerners once addressed Black adults as “aunt” and “uncle” instead of “Mr.” and “Mrs.” — to Ben’s Original moves the brand’s position to be more neutral in terms of race. It also makes the brand name, which Mars had said was a tribute to a successful Black rice farmer, more respectful. However, since the “brand evolution” was announced in June, references to the rice farmer have been removed from the timeline on the brand’s website

Earlier this year, butter company Land O’Lakes made a similar change, removing an image of a Native American woman from its packaging as it was updated ahead of the company’s 100th anniversary. The packages still look largely the same, featuring the same background of a lake and forest, with the addition of the words “Farmer-Owned” and “Since 1921” around the brand’s logo.

Land O’Lakes had not been pressured to remove the woman. However, the move garnered a lot of attention as many have called for brand mascots that highlight race to be retired. Since Land O’Lakes is a private company, it’s not clear how the change impacted sales, but the new branding and packaging is similar enough that products retained their shelf recognition among consumers. 

The change to Ben’s Original also goes back to Mars’s culture. With the new branding comes a renewed commitment to minorities and those who have not had access to good food and nutrition. When Mars announced the new branding, it committed to working with minority communities and increasing diversity in its leadership and marketing, advertising, suppliers and sourcing communities.

The company’s announcement said the Ben’s Original brand will be “taking action to enhance inclusion and equity and setting out its new brand purpose to create opportunities that offer everyone a seat at the table.” 

A partnership with the National Urban League that will create a scholarship program for aspiring Black chefs is a good start, not to mention a valuable way for Mars to start finding diverse talent for its company early. Through this initiative, Mars also will be investing in education and fresh food access in Greenville, Mississippi, where the company says Ben’s Original Rice has been made for 40 years. 

According to a statement Global Data consumer analyst Carmen Bryan emailed to Food Dive, the new branding is likely to resonate with consumers — especially millennials. In the U.S., she wrote, 41% are influenced by how socially responsible brands are.

“Rebranding is risky, however, and can make or break a product,” Bryan said in the statement. “By largely maintaining the same essence — that is the blue font on an orange background, as well as the memorable ‘Ben’s’ name — Mars’ iconic rice brand is able to maintain its familiarity and original customer base while still adapting to a modern audience.”

The Ben’s Original rebrand appears to be an example of how smaller changes can make a world of difference. Some of the other companies who are re-evaluating their branding can follow this strategy by making modifications that are unlikely to harm their equity and consumer recognition, but at the same time contribute toward social change. For brands like Aunt Jemima, with a name and long brand history built on what many have criticized as an inaccurate and offensive retelling of Black culture, the arc of change will be much steeper.

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