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Syrup brand Aunt Jemima to get new name as PepsiCo concedes 'racial stereotype'
[NEW YORK] The Aunt Jemima brand will be phased out - and Uncle Ben's and Mrs. Butterworth's could follow suit - as nationwide protests prompt a sudden corporate reckoning on institutionalised racism.
PepsiCo plans to change the name of its Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup, acknowledging that the 131-year-old brand is rooted in racially problematic tropes. The company's Quaker Oats unit will also remove the image of a Black woman from its packaging and marketing beginning in the fourth quarter, according to a statement.
"We recognise Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype," Kristin Kroepfl, chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, said in the statement. "While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realise those changes are not enough."
Some of America's oldest and best-known consumer brands are under scrutiny as the country reflects on the systemic racism in the business world and broader society. Many companies have donated money, pledged to boost hiring of Black workers and taken other steps to support the Black community following protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.
Mars, which owns the Uncle Ben's rice brand, said it's "evaluating all possibilities" regarding changes to its product line, which features an image of a smiling Black man.
"We recognise that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben's brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do," it said in a statement.
Conagra Brands, similarly, announced a "complete brand and packaging review" for its Mrs. Butterworth's syrup, which comes in a bottle shaped like a woman. The original design was reportedly based on the Black actress who portrayed "Prissy," a maid in Gone With the Wind. That film was temporarily removed from HBO Max's lineup recently due to its racist themes.
"We stand in solidarity with our Black and Brown communities and we can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values," Conagra said in a statement.
B&G Foods said it's initiating an immediate review of its Cream of Wheat packaging, responding to concerns expressed over the "chef" image of a Black man.
"We understand there are concerns regarding the Chef image, and we are committed to evaluating our packaging and will proactively take steps to ensure that we and our brands do not inadvertently contribute to systemic racism," the company said in a statement. "B&G Foods unequivocally stands against prejudice and injustice of any kind."
The Aunt Jemima change "is not only welcome in the world of retail brands, but long overdue," James O'Rourke, a management professor with the University of Notre Dame's business school, said via email. The brand's reputation "was built on a racial and cultural stereotype that is widely regarded as offensive."
Other brands associated with non-white characters could face a similar backlash, said O'Rourke.
This year butter maker Land O'Lakes decided to remove the image of a Native American woman from its products.
The Aunt Jemima name dates back to 1889 and was inspired by a song and character from a minstrel show, which featured White performers in blackface. The Aunt Jemima character's appearance changed over the years, removing a headscarf and adding pearl earrings. In 1994 Gladys Knight appeared in a commercial for the syrup.
The changing traits suggest brand managers recognised the character could be offensive, O'Rourke said. "But the effect, because of the name, is the same."
The brand had faced growing criticism recently, with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian tweeting "how is Aunt Jemima not cancelled?" and linking to a video critical of the character. The viral clip by the singer Kirby, titled "How To Make A Non Racist Breakfast," has millions of views online.
PepsiCo also said Tuesday that it would donate US$400 million over five years measures to promote racial equality. The Aunt Jemima brand specifically will donate US$5 million over that span.
"As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers' expectations," Kroepfl said. PepsiCo has owned Aunt Jemima since it bought Quaker Oats in 2001.
The name change will be announced at a later date, the company said.