The following piece is written by Wharton marketing professor Barbara E. Kahn, co-host of the Marketing Matters podcast.

Wharton Marketing Matter’s Barbara Kahn sat down with Angie Madigan, Vice President of Marketing of North America for Mars Food, the company that rebranded Uncle Ben’s Rice to Ben’s Original. Angie is a 22-year CPG veteran with sales and marketing experience. She has an undergraduate degree in agricultural economics and a food background. Andie Madigan worked for Proctor and Gamble and then came to Mars in the middle of this name change. She says in the interview, “I joined Mars foods kind of in the middle of this … if you can imagine it (the name change) was one of the things that actually drew me to the opportunity, because I saw it really as a once in a career, maybe even once in a lifetime opportunity to be not only a part of something like this, a rebrand but also help drive the purpose that was behind it.”

Below is the story Angie shared with us about the name change, the marketing campaign, and the decisions Mars made to support the brand and the purpose behind the brand. The entire interview can be heard here: Marketing Matters on Apple Podcasts or on Marketing Matters on Spotify.

Before and after the rebranding of Ben’s Original.

History of the Brand

The gentleman whose face graced the packages was a real person; he was a maître D in an exclusive Chicago restaurant, and his name was Frank Brown. The restaurant was one that the Ad agency frequented. However, the brand name, “Uncle Ben,” originated in the 1940s based on a possibly fictitious Black rice farmer from Texas who was supposedly renowned for his high-quality crop.

The company was aware for a while that some shoppers and employees had negative responses to the packaging and branding. For some, the photo of a man dressed in a tuxedo, (which was his uniform as a maître D), elicited ideas of servitude. Also, Uncle was considered a pejorative term for Black men in U.S. history because white Southerners used “uncle” and “aunt” to refer to older Black people instead of “Mr.” or “Miss.”  To cope with this negative pushback on what the brand meant, there had been talk for a while about changing the brand name. There even had been some campaigns designed to try and mitigate the negative feedback, but the brand name and image remained on the packaging.

Timing of the Decision and Market Research

The Black Lives Matter movement over the spring and summer of 2020 helped propel Mars to consider changing the name permanently. Mars understood it was important to get this right and to be sensitive to global implications since “Uncle Ben’s” was a global brand with very strong brand awareness. Further, it is the world’s large rice brand, and the brand had been around for over 80 years. Literally, generations of people had grown up on this rice.

Mars talked to their consumers, people in the Black community, and their associates. The rice is produced in Greenville, Mississippi, which is primarily a Black community. Mars spoke with their employees there as well. They made the final decision to change the name permanently based on these discussions. Once the decision was made, Mars was committed to the change and knew it was absolutely the right thing to do, but they had to decide exactly what the new name would be and how to implement the correct marketing actions to support the name change.

The Change

Given the strong brand awareness and loyalty to the old brand name, it was important to figure out a way to make sure consumers could still find the rice that they had grown up around and loved for generations when a new name was chosen. The name had to harken back to history but get rid of the negative associations.

To preserve the brand equity, the decision was made to keep the “Ben” portion of the brand name but to delete “Uncle” and change it to Ben’s Original. This new name speaks to the quality and heritage of the rice but brings in the inclusivity that Mars was trying to accomplish. The packaging colors were kept the same (orange and purple) and the typeface was also identical. The photo was deleted. Market research showed that shoppers could still find the new package on the shelf, even if they were shopping mindlessly or on “autopilot.”

New brand name and packaging.
Original brand name and packaging.

The Communication Strategy

Once the new name and packaging decisions were determined, Mars worked to communicate that they were changing the name, but that it was the same great rice. But Mars also wanted to communicate their new inclusivity campaign, “We’re all Original recipes.” So, on one hand, their goals were to preserve brand loyalty, positive brand equity, high brand awareness, and associations with a high-quality brand. But on the other hand, they wanted to make a statement and were proud of the statement they were making. Consequently, they had a multi-faceted, multi-channel launch plan.

The “We’re all original recipes” campaign brings to life six nuclear families with stories built around a simple idea or a simple question. If we gave all of these families one pouch of Ben’s Original, what would they do with it? This resulted in very quick 15-second commercials (and there are longer versions as well) of stories from these families. It is a diverse cast of real families. We have a Black nuclear family, three roommates, a pair of friends, a single-parent family, a family that primarily communicates via sign language, and a Pakistani multi-generational family. Each family brings together their original recipes and talks about what brings them together. (Here is a short video that provides a “behind-the-scenes” look at the “We are all original receipts” campaign for Ben’s Original.)

There is still history, a story to the brand, but now it is not just one story, but it is several. And they are diverse stories, promoting inclusivity. The brand is celebrating inclusivity but also individuality. Rice around the globe is really one of the core ingredients for so many meals in so many cultures. And Mars can highlight that through their marketing. As Angie noted, “We promote the idea of inclusivity and equality through the new brand purpose, where we show that everyone deserves a seat at the table.

Everyone Deserves a Seat at the Table

And Mars is prepared to put more muscle behind this idea that everyone deserves a seat at the table. They are making significant, multi-year investments to support access to nutritious food and to improve diversity and inclusion in the food service industry. For example, they are donating $3 million of food through partnerships with Feeding America and Care, agencies that have been long-term partners with Mars and Mars foods. Since Mars produces their product in Greenville, Mississippi, they wanted to build a healthy community there as well. They are donating $2.5 million over five years in partnership with Kroger in the Delta region and with Molina Healthcare to drive access to healthy, nutritious meals, and education. Last, but not least, they created a scholarship fund called “Seat at the Table.” Over the next five years, they will grant $2 million worth of scholarships to Black students who want a degree in the food service industry. This partnership is with the National Urban League and United Negro College Fund.

Many of these initiatives have been happening at Mars for years. It is a part of who the company is and has been. But there is new energy and a concerted effort specifically around Ben’s Original. This rebranding effort provides the opportunity to get a very clear idea communicated about the company’s purpose now and in the future.

As an Aside — More to Learn About Marketing

Before we got into the discussion of Uncle Ben’s rebranding, Angie defined how she thinks about the “customer” and the “shopper.” She also defined the difference between selling and marketing for a CPG firm.

Who Is the Customer?

For a CPG firm, the customer is the retailer, so for Mars, the customer is Walmart, Publix, and supermarkets. She defines “selling” as building a very important retailer relationship. “Marketing” focuses on consumer insights and how Mars gets them to choose Mars brands at the first moment of truth, which is generally at the retailers. Marketing builds the relationship with the end-user and builds the brand. For their customers (the retailers), Mars’ marketing helps them by playing the role of basket builder.