Rebranding During Social Change


Table Of Contents


More Than A Name

Last month we discussed the rebranding of organizations like the CIA and what it meant for other brands. An equally important rebranding moment to touch on would be the recent change of branding from the brand previously known as Aunt Jemima. 

In response to heat the brand faced last year, the announced the name would be changing. This year the new branding launched as is now available in stores as Pearl Milling Company. In this blog post, Hollywood Branded examines the brand Aunt Jemima's rebranding choice in response to backlash and attempt to embrace socially responsible branding.

Aunt Jemima Pearl Milling Blog Post

Enter Pearl Milling Company

When you go to, the first thing you'll see at the top of the page is the following message:

We are committed to progress. This includes removing the image of Aunt Jemima and changing our name.Our new name is coming to shelves in 2021 with the same great recipe you know and love.

Right next to this message is a clear demonstration of the brand's new logo, introducing consumers to what to expect in grocery stores moving forward. The page then has a link to a longer statement of the brand announcing that the brand name Aunt Jemima is not consistent with Pepsi and Quaker Oats' core values, hence the change. The new branding for their classic product will now be known as Pearl Milling Company, in reference to the brand's location of origin.

pearl milling company

As the Black Lives Matter movement became a touchstone in the 2020 dialogue, especially in the United States, many brands faced backlash for a history of racist or racially insensitive branding, but this brand in particular went viral. The music artist Kirby had a TikTok post go viral in which she broke down some of the deeply problematic origins of the brand. Citing that the brand's name was deliberately chosen out of slave stereotypes, and that the product was served in marketing that glorified food of "the old south."

As 2020 became a year of deep reflection for the ways racism has remained pervasive in so many aspects of American culture, it became clear that many such brands have made choices that no longer reflect these companies' core values. The uncomfortable truth is that many brands have equally problematic histories. Given that Aunt Jemima was created twenty years after slavery was abolished in the United States, we'd like to believe that the world had changed for better in this time frame but real change has proven to be slower moving.

It's easy to be critical of old branding choices from a modern lens, and frankly we should be. The only way we can build a healthier culture in media is by challenging decisions of the past to build a more inclusive path forward. But this also means that we have to be realistic about the climate of the world a brand was created in versus the one it exists in now. Certainly no one would approve of building a brand on the racism of a mammy figure today but this brand was created in the 1800s. Ultimately the biggest loss here was not adapting a new direction sooner. In an article by the New York Times, a former member of the marketing team shared that the brand had been working on how to rebrand since 2016 but they wanted to make the change during a less rocky political climate. 

An Uncle No Longer 

Rebranding does pose challenges for brands to modernize in a way that feels natural and not like its just placating an angry mob - a move that will naturally feel less sincere. You don't want your rebranding to feel just like a forced apology, but rather a genuine reflection on your brand's core values.

uncle bens

Uncle Ben's also faced similar backlash at the same time Aunt Jemima met its criticism. After polling many consumers, it was recognized that many felt the term "Uncle" felt like a pejorative and that the imagery associated with the branding was a nod to servitude. While perhaps not quite as egregious as the issue with Aunt Jemima's branding, the brand immediately responded with the following statement:

Over the last several weeks, we have listened to thousands of consumers, our own Associates and other stakeholders from around the world. We understand the inequities that were associated with the name and face of the Uncle Ben’s brand and as we announced in June, we have committed to change.

We will change our name to Ben’s Original™ as well as remove the image on our packaging to create more equitable iconography. This change signals our ambition to create a more inclusive future while maintaining our commitment to producing the world’s best rice.

We are not just changing our name and the image on the package, but also taking action to enhance inclusion and equity—and that comes with a new brand purpose to create opportunities that offer everyone a seat at the table.

The statement also includes a promise to provide more access to fresh food for underserved communities, partnering with the National Urban League to support aspiring Black chefs through scholarships, and enhancing educational opportunities for more than 7,500 students in Greenville, Mississippi - the home of the brand.

This is the best way to handle a rebranding prompted by a problematic past. As racism has deep roots in so many facets of American culture, it's hard to genuinely move forward without community work. Changing your brand's name should only be the first step in a process of working to mend the difficult issues your brand had profited from in the past. Rebranding to address the fact that its original branding is not acceptable is important but your brand won't fully shed the negative PR of its past without a deeper commitment to change. This can actually be a major win for your brand if you do embrace the work - on the flip side, you will win amazing press and recognition if it becomes a fully realized part of your brand's core values and culture. 

The focus of your rebranding must begin with recognizing the reasons why it was necessary but after this admittedly awkward stage, there is full potential to regain brand trust with consumers. We're all learning as times change and the bigger picture should be to focus on the ways in which your brand can become synonymous with an important moment in history. Rebranding can be more than a game changer; it can be the beginning of a new chapter.

Set Your Brand Up For Success

There are of course a number of other reasons why it may be time for your brand to change it up with a rebrand. Be sure to check out the blogs below on brands who have recently rebranded themselves! 

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