As Uncle Ben’s Rice Gets Rebranded, History Gets Repackaged

First, Aunt Jemima. Now, Uncle Ben.

Aunt Jemima has been known for more than a century for its savory pancake mix and syrup; Uncle Ben, for more than half a century for its savory rice. In the name of political correctness and “racial sensitivity,” America’s favorite aunts and uncles are being shown the door.

In the wake of the George Floyd killing, companies have begun pledging to overhaul brands with logos and names out of step with the times. And activists and others are spurring this, complaining that the branding could perpetuate “racial stereotypes.”

Uncle Ben’s is the latest casualty of this hypersensitive political climate. Uncle Ben’s parent company, Mars Inc., has changed its name to “Ben’s Original,” which is anything but original. The company will also replace the logo image, as critics complain it evokes “servitude.” (Maybe it’s the bowtie?)

“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,” said Mars executive Fiona Dawson.

Following its debut in the 1940s, Uncle Ben’s was the best-selling packaged rice for decades. The logo depicts a kind, trustworthy bow-tied black man.

But here’s the kicker: he’s not the owner, and his name isn’t “Ben.”

The man on the logo is Frank Brown, the head waiter and chef at an upscale Chicago restaurant in the 1950s. Gordon Harwell, the founder of Uncle Ben’s, would frequent the restaurant for its delicious food. He was fond of Frank Brown, and the two soon developed a close friendship. Harwell wanted to increase his packaged rice sales, but one important thing was missing: a friendly, trustworthy face on the logo. So he asked Frank Brown if he’d be willing to be that face. Brown agreed.

At the time, titles such as Aunt and Uncle were commonly used to refer to black people, especially in the southern states. Harwell, though, didn’t just pick the name “Uncle Ben” out of thin air; instead, he named the company after a black Texas farmer in the 1940s known for his high-quality rice. And, like Frank Brown, Uncle Ben was a kind, older black gentleman.

She and other executives have no qualms starting anew, even when, arguably, their products’ historical significance overshadows any racial connotations.

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