The Racial Awakening of F&B Brands

With the social justice and anti-racism movements front and center throughout the U.S., food & beverage brands need to be culturally “woke” now more than ever before. Following the police killing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement prompted millions of Americans to take a hard look at our country’s systemic racism and racial biases. This scrutiny includes the brands we support, the products we buy and the foods we eat.

When this tidal wave of national reckoning approached, many brands took to advertising and social media to show their support of the BLM movement. Shortly after, consumers got smart – and inquisitive! – about how brands were actually treating their employees, what their corporate practices are and even where they donate their money. This trigger-happy approach led many marketers to find that a simple social post, that didn’t align with internal infrastructure or behaviors, could do more harm than good.

Now, more than ever before, brands are expected to take a stand and lead with their “human” side, not just focus on making a profit. Millennials and Gen Z hold higher standards for their brands, so it’s imperative for brands to lead with integrity that is true to their core beliefs in order to retain the trust of their consumers.

F&B Brands Take Action

The good news is many leading food and beverage brands are speaking out and sharing their promise to get race right and do more for diversity and inclusion – from Starbucks, Bolthouse Farms, PepsiCo, The Kraft Heinz Company, General Mills. While some are simply issuing statements of support, here are 5 F&B brands that are taking it a step further into committed action.

  1. Wendy’s – The fast food chain pledged $500,000 to “support social justice, the youth and education in the Black community.” The chain also promised to use its Twitter account to amplify Black voices.
  2. Coca-Cola – The global brand promised its alliance and support of the BLM movement in their statement titled, “Where We Stand on Social Justice.” Further, it committed $2.5 million in grants from The Coca Cola Foundation to the NAACP, Equal Justice Initiative and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Their efforts will focus on listening, leading, investing and advocating to make a difference in their communities and within the company.
  3. Walmart – To address systemic racism, the retail giant announced it will contribute $100 million over five years to create a new center for racial equity. In an email to employees, Walmart’s CEO shared that the center “will seek to advance economic opportunity and healthier living, including issues surrounding the social determinants of health, strengthening workforce development and related educational systems, and support criminal justice reform with an emphasis on examining barriers to opportunity faced by those exiting the system.”
  4. McDonald’s – The fast food giant is promising $1 million to racial justice organizations (the National Urban League and the NAACP). Flying in the face of past silence on issues that didn’t directly involve the chain, President Joe Erlinger decided it was a critical time to address these systemic issues facing us all. In his open letter, Erlinger reinforced the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, asking for suggestions on actions it could take to prove its commitment.
  5. Ben & Jerry’s – A longstanding supporter of Black Lives Matter, the ice cream brand has long encouraged Americans to be aware of social injustice and not be complicit with systemic and institutionalized racism. In June, the company posted a statement titled, “Silence Is Not An Option” that requested help from its customer base to dismantle white supremacy. The statement outlined four concrete steps calling on the President, elected officials, Congress, the Department of Justice and Americans to take responsibility and commit to creating a future that is fair and just for all.

Rebranding of Racist Iconography

For some brands, this support goes beyond community support and improved internal practices – rather, they’re transforming their brand entirely. And it’s about time. As awareness increases for the need of action around systematic prejudice and corporate accountability, brands are seeing increasing pressure to re-examine the racial stereotypes associated with their branding and their relationship to systemic racism.  

While activists have been encouraging rebranding for years, the nationwide protests over racial justice have prompted mass consumer attention to shine a light on stereotypical images of people of color portrayed in mainstream culture.  Renewing these food brands could help put an end to centuries-old stereotypes and, ultimately, our country’s racial biases. Here are 6 food brands that are taking the right steps forward:

  1. Land O’ Lakes – In April, before the mass civil unrest of the police killing of George Floyd, Land O’ Lakes shared it was removing the 100-year old indigenous woman that appeared on its packaging. The redesigned brand will focus on farmers and commemorate the 100th anniversary of the brand. Despite criticism of the inappropriate iconic branding for years, the company decided to make the change quietly with no mention of the removal, but instead choose to focus on highlighting the farmers reflecting its roots as an agricultural co-op.
  2. Aunt Jemima – After years of growing criticism, Quaker Oats, subsidiary of PepsiCo, will give the popular syrup and pancake mix brand a new look and image. By the end of 2020, they will remove the controversial 130-year old image of Aunt Jemima from all products, while the name change will happen at a later date in 2021. On top of the branding change, the Aunt Jemima brand will donate $5 million to create “meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community.”
  3. Mrs. Butterworth – Intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother, the Mrs. Butterworth brand’s “face” is actually based on actress Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen (fun fact: she played a character called Prissy in the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind). In their effort to not play a role in upholding racist tropes around Black women, ConAgra Brands has begun a complete brand and packaging review on Mrs. Butterworth. They reinforced that they “stand in solidarity with our Black and Brown communities and can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values.”
  4. Uncle Ben’s  – The popular rice brand touts a Black gentleman who historically was a Texan rice farmer, known as Uncle Ben. However, the gentleman on their boxes, who now personifies the brand, was actually a Chicago chef named Frank Brown. Recognizing the racial stereotypes in their origins, Mars Inc. shared, “As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our Associates worldwide, we recognize that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do.”
  5. Cream of Wheat – The “face” of Cream of Wheat dates back to a caricature of a Black man commonly known as “Rastus,” a derogatory term associated with African Americans in the U.S. Amidst the growing tensions, B&G Foods initiated an immediate review of the breakfast porridge brand. In their official statement, the parent company shared, “[We] unequivocally stand against prejudice and injustice of any kind.”
  6. Eskimo Pie – The century-old ice cream brand has long featured a child with dark hair, a fur-lined parka and big boots. Following suit of its fellow F&B brands, Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream pledged to roll out a new brand name and remove the Eskimo child from its packaging by the end of the year. Dreyer’s head of marketing shared, “We are committed to being a part of the solution on racial equality, and recognize the term is derogatory.”

While rebranding is no inexpensive feat, it is a smart investment for not only the future of these brands, but the future of our society. These brands have the opportunity to do the right thing and make meaningful change.

Interested in hearing about Padilla’s efforts around diversity and inclusion? Read more about it here. If your brand needs help in navigating these waters, we’re here to help!

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