Uncle Ben’s Branding Retired
Uncle Ben’s is no more.
Instead, the rice brand will go by the name Ben’s Original. The new product labeling is set to debut on food retail shelves in 2021.
Gone, too, will be the well-known image of an older Black man in a bowtie that appears on packages of those rice products — an image based on Chicago waiter Frank Brown, and a character that has long attracted criticism as being a racist stereotype.
Mars Inc., which owns the rice brand, said Wednesday that the change to Ben’s Original — foreshadowed earlier this year as protests against police brutality and racism swept the country — reflects the “ambition to create a more inclusive future while maintaining its commitment to producing the world’s best rice.”
The rice that became Uncle Ben’s debuted during World War II, with the food sent to Allied forces. In fact, much of early appeal of the product was that it could be easily supplied to troops in the field, wasn’t as badly infested with weevils as were other rations based on grain, and could be cooked relatively easily under less-than-ideal circumstances, according to Mars and other historical sources of supply efforts during the war.
The Uncle Ben’s character was introduced in the 1940s after the war, according to Mars, and was meant to represent a Texas rice grower known for his high-quality product. While Uncle Ben’s had long faced pressure from consumers, civil rights activists and others over the branding, the protests sparked by the death earlier this year of George Floyd in Minnesota gave new urgency to the issue.
Other Product Controversies
The forced retirement, so to speak, of the Uncle Ben’s name and image comes as other brands and retailers face similar pressure.
Earlier this year, for instance, PepsiCo subsidiary Quaker Oats said it would discontinue the Aunt Jemima syrup and breakfast product branding. The branding for the Aunt Jemima product line— syrup and pancake mix — originates with the “Old Aunt Jemima” minstrel song. Minstrel songs and shows represent a form of racist “blackface” entertainment with long roots in U.S history.
Trader Joe’s has also faced pressure over product labeling such as Trader Ming's," "Arabian Joe" and "Trader José” which some consumers find racist. The food retailer, though, said it would keep those labels and brands, arguing that they are not ethnic stereotypes, that those products connect positively with consumers, and the such labeling reflect the chain’s fun vibe and appreciate for other cultures.
As for Uncle Ben’s, Mars decided that customer feedback demanded the change.
“Over the last several weeks, we have listened to thousands of consumers, our own associates and other stakeholders from around the world,” said Fiona Dawson, global president Mars Food, multisales and global customers. “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.”
New Community Outreach Push
The company said it has launched Ben’s Original community outreach programs that are designed to ensure underserved communities have access to nutritious meals — itself a larger trend in the larger food retail world, as recent events in California demonstrate.
As well, the new outreach program will help “culinary entrepreneurs of all colors get educational opportunities so their ideas and voices can be appreciated by all.” Those efforts work will begin in the U.S., where the brand has forged a partnership with National Urban League to support aspiring Black chefs through a scholarship fund, before expanding to support other underserved communities around the world, Mars said.
More specifically, in Greenville, Mississippi – where the product now called Ben’s Original has been produced in the U.S. for more than 40 years – Mars Food will invest in the local community to address issues that have plagued this region of the U.S. for generations. This programming will focus on enhancing educational opportunities for more than 7,500 area students, as well as furthering access to fresh foods.
“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, National Urban League. “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.”