Following Quaker Foods’ decision to rebrand Aunt Jemima products, attention has turned to Uncle Ben’s.
Like Aunt Jemima, Mars, who owns the brand, tried to update Uncle Ben’s in 2007 by “promoting” him to chairman of the board but, the brand is still being criticized for the name.
Mars told Newsweek:
“As a global brand, we know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices.
As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our Associates worldwide, we recognize that one way we can do this is by evolving the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity.
“We don’t yet know what the exact changes or timing will be, but we are evaluating all possibilities.”
But after some digging, I found out the guy on the packaging isn’t actually Uncle Ben at all. He is Frank Brown, who worked at a Chicago restaurant in the mid 50s. The restaurant Frank worked in was frequented by a guy called Gordon L. Harwell who owned a company that supplied pre-cooked rice called simply, Converted Rice. Catchy, huh?
Harwell was looking to expand his business and sell his rice to the general public but he needed a better name and a trustworthy face to put on the box.
Enter Frank Brown. Harwell and his business partner offered Frank a small sum (some say as little as $50, which adjusted for today, is more like $1000, so it might have seemed like a good deal then.) Brown agreed and a portrait was commissioned and the rest is packaging history.
As for where the name “Uncle Ben” comes from, he was actually a real person. Uncle Ben was a famous black rice farmer from Texas famed throughout the states for the quality of his rice crop.
It seems the real reason he was referred to as “Uncle Ben” is because white people then didn’t want to refer to black people as “Mr” or “Mrs” and also still not wanting to disrespect an elderly person. The crappy compromise was that elderly black people were often referred to as Uncle or Aunt.
So, Ben, who like Frank Brown, was also a kindly older black gentleman, became known as “Uncle Ben”.
Harwell renamed his company, Uncle Ben’s Converted Brand Rice to capitalize on the goodwill surrounding the name and put Frank’s face on the box. And got rich on the name and image of two older black men.
It’s all explained rather colorfully in this video below.
The times they ARE a changin’!