Aunt Jemima syrup bottles

As a retired marketing professional, I’ve been watching closely as major brands have jumped on the bandwagon of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Racially sensitive advertising campaigns in support of the movement are springing up like weeds. Most advertisers are adopting a mea culpa attitude, acknowledging their racist culpability.

Their efforts have been met with a mixture of acclaim and skepticism. Nike is one example. Four days after George Floyd’s death, Nike took a bold step, modifying its iconic “Just Do It” slogan to read, “For once, Don’t Do It” in an ad that urged, “Don’t turn your back on racism. … Don’t think you can’t be part of the change.” Some observers lauded Nike; others demurred, pointing out that the company has key relationships with black athletes and garners substantial business from the African American demographic yet has no blacks on its executive leadership team.

It is much easier for a brand to pay lip service than it is to effect fundamental change. When I see brand marketing that suddenly appropriates an international outcry for racial justice, I have to ask if the brand is merely attempting to capitalize on the moment — or does it truly represent the brand’s authentic position. It is not always an easy question to answer — but it is valid to dig beneath the surface and ask other questions, such as:

· Has the company behind the brand shown a dedication to racial equality in its corporate culture and its hiring practices?

· Has the company demonstrated a long-term commitment to promoting racial justice through its public actions and brand marketing?

· Has the company supported racial justice by making financial contributions and in-kind donations to relevant causes and non-profit organizations?

In that context, the news that Quaker Oats, a division of PepsiCo, is retiring the “Aunt Jemima” brand is a seminal moment in brand marketing history. Aunt Jemima is by far the leading brand of pancake syrup in the U.S., used by over 130 million Americans. The packaging will be changed by the end of the year to remove the image of Aunt Jemima (more about her in a moment). The brand name itself will be changed in 2021.

This is a stunning example of PepsiCo making the kind of fundamental change this moment calls for. The brand equity of Aunt Jemima, a category-leading brand that has been an American staple for over 125 years, is substantial. The financial and production implications associated with changing a brand of this stature are staggering. From a branding perspective, changing the name of “Aunt Jemima” is akin to changing the name “Pepsi” in the cola market.

When a brand marketer weighs the pros and cons of changing a universally recognized brand name, falling market share is often a primary consideration. In the case of Aunt Jemima, rising negative market perception had to be the reason for the decision. It is worth revisiting the story of the brand’s origins to see why.

In 1889, Chris Rutt, a white man who co-owned a flour mill, named a new self-rising flour “Aunt Jemima.” He was inspired by a character he saw in a minstrel show. The company was sold in 1890 but the new owner, the Davis Milling Company, kept the product name.

Davis decided to make Aunt Jemima real, hiring Nancy Green, a former slave, to play the character at the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition. In her portrayal, Green idealized the Southern Mammy, singing songs and making pancakes, and she was a big hit — so big that she toured the country. By 1914, the company, basking in the glory of the popular character, was re-named “The Aunt Jemima Mills Company.”

Quaker Oats purchased the company in 1926, hiring the rotund Anna Robinson to play Aunt Jemima after Green’s death. The brand was promoted heavily throughout the 1930s and Robinson became a celebrity in her own right. In the 1940s, there was even an “Aunt Jemima” radio show. Despite protests surrounding the brand name in the 1960s, the Aunt Jemima character has persevered; in fact, Aunt Jemima syrup was introduced in 1966. (Was that a subtle way of trying to sweeten the brand perception?) Today, the Aunt Jemima brand product line includes pancake mixes and syrup, as well as corn meal, grits and frozen waffles.

“Aunt Jemima” is a classic case in which the whitewashed fantasy of the fat and happy slave was nothing more than a cruel caricature representing a romanticized relationship with Southern slaves that never existed. Not only did the Aunt Jemima character sell pancakes, she reinforced the racist image of a subservient black serving up breakfast to a white society.

It should be pointed out that Quaker Oats has made attempts to update the graphic image of Aunt Jemima in the past. In 1989, for example, she was dressed in a lace collar with accompanying pearl earrings. But it took one hundred years to make her look less slave-like and more matronly. According to Quaker Oats, “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.”

It is not my intent to trivialize the “Black Lives Matter” movement by relating it to brands — it is a movement that is destined to have a far-reaching impact well beyond marketing. But for brands, this is an Aunt Jemima Moment…a moment when one major company recognizes that a flagship brand, despite its leading market share, must be eliminated because of its racist roots. That says something.

Barry Silverstein is a retired direct marketing/brand marketing professional and the author of numerous non-fiction marketing and small business books. His books include Boomer Brands: Iconic Brands that Shaped Our Childhood, and Boomer Brand Winners & Losers: 156 Best & Worst Brands of the 50s and 60s. Learn more about him at https://www.barrysilverstein.com.

Image: “Aunt Jemima” by JeepersMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Aunt Jemima is a trademark of The Quaker Oats Company

I’m an author, blogger and retired marketing professional. Visit my website to learn more: https://www.barrysilverstein.com

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