The broad protest against racial inequality does not only have consequences for folkloric characters such as Zwarte Piet or historical figures such as the Belgian king Leopold II. Many companies, especially in the US, also question black characters in their brand logos. These are often figures linked to the time of slavery, or to a period in which wealthy white families were served by black domestic workers.
Quaker Foods, a daughter of the food giant PepsiCo, got the ball rolling with the news that it’s about to change its Aunt Jemima brand – known as pancake mix and syrup. The more than 130 years old logo shows an African-American woman named after a character from a 19th century variety act. She is typical of the submissive role of blacks in decades-old brand communication.
The movie that started the protest against ‘Aunt Jemima’
The brand has been the headline of Jut for anti-racism activists on social media in recent days. A video clip that collected almost 200,000 views on TikTok in one day shows a woman preparing a “non-racist breakfast” by sprinkling the pancake mix in the sink. Marketing director Kristin Kroepfl promised to end the controversial logo at the end of this year.
Other companies also rushed to review their logos. The best known in our region is Uncle Ben’s, a brand of rice and sauces owned by the multinational Mars. Uncle Ben, the black man in the logo, is named after a Texan rice farmer, according to company legend. Conagra Brands and B&G Foods also announced an update to their respective brands Mrs Butterworth’s (syrup) and Cream of Wheat (wheat porridge), which contain references to black domestic workers.
The breakfast cereal brand Kellogg’s got into a media storm in the UK after a tweet from socialist MP Fiona Onasanya. She wondered why three white boys are depicted on the packaging of the “white” Rice Krispies, while the “dark” product Coco Pops shows an image of a monkey.
For Toon Diependaele, the manager of the advertising agency Wunderman Thompson, the criticism comes as no surprise. “We have seen for several years that more and more consumers, especially young people, expect brands to support certain values, such as tolerance and inclusivity.”
Some brands have adapted to that changing zeitgeist in time. French Banania, for example, an instant chocolate drink brand, gradually stripped the African figure of racial stereotypes in its logo. Also the cleaning agent Mr. Proper, from the American consumer giant Procter & Gamble, changed his mascot over the years from a black house clerk to the well-known white muscle bundle.
But those who did not prepare are now in danger of being presented with the bill. A new brand identity requires large investments in studies, packaging, advertising and communication, and entails risks. Some customers will not like the change, others will complain that it is late or not serious.
Experts advise brands to conduct critical self-examination. “Those who score poorly on social involvement can certainly turn that around with concrete actions. The Nespresso coffee brand, for example, was able to reverse the negative trend by focusing more on recycling its coffee pods, “says Diependaele.
“The challenge is to find out how you as a brand can be relevant on a theme such as racial discrimination. It’s about values that should be an integral part of everything you do as a company. ”