Oh, there is such a thing as bad publicity
Just a few months after Barack Obama announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for president, Mars, Inc. launched a campaign to remake the image of its iconic Uncle Ben, the face of the Uncle Ben's brand. The rebranding, which elevated the character from smiling servant to a worldly business executive, was clearly intended to blunt criticism the company has faced over the years that the 1940s character portrays a derogatory stereotype.
The reinvention was meant to modernize and personalize the brand in a way that was respectful of his African American heritage and provided a unifying umbrella for new and well-established products. Unfortunately for Uncle Ben's and its parent Mars, some multicultural-marketing observers saw it differently. They viewed it as patronizing treatment of a symbol associated with repression and slavery.
The estimated $20 million Web and print campaign recast Uncle Ben as the wealthy head of a fictional rice company. The site's landing page, by TEQUILA, a division of tbwaChiatDay, became Uncle Ben's wood-paneled executive office, where users could read his newspaper, look at his e-mail and peruse his journal. Left intact was his trademark bow tie - and the moniker "Uncle," a frequent target of critics.
The new Ben, unveiled in April 2007, aimed to realign some long-held perceptions about the character. It didn't quite go over that way - at least not without a few hitches.
The March 30 announcement of Ben's "promotion" on the Web site caught the attention of the mainstream and spread throughout the blogosphere. That day, The New York Times ran an article about the launch, headlined "Uncle Ben, Board Chairman," and National Public Radio reported on mixed reviews from multicultural marketing specialists. On Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert quipped, "Now that you are a big shot, Uncle Ben, you're going to need your own private chef. I recommend the Cream of Wheat guy."
Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder of firm New Demographic - tagline: "Better than diversity training" - wrote on her blog, racialicious.com: "This rebranding campaign is really the epitome of putting lipstick on a pig. Uncle Ben is still grinning and wearing a bow tie. There's nothing Chairman of the Board-esque about that image. Uncle Ben still has no last name. When's the last time you heard a powerful man referred to by his first name? No matter what fantasies you weave about him being the Chairman of the Board, his very name still comes from the culture of slavery."
A few weeks later, David Segal, a Washington Post Style section writer, posted in Slate, "What's amazing about this Uncle Ben is that he still has a job at all. Uncle Ben is a rare survivor in the once-crowded world of racist spokescharacters. Most of his contemporaries were fired a long time ago." Just after that, interactive agency Organic's Daniel Turman wrote on the company's blog, threeminds.com, "This strategy might have worked better if there was some substance behind the smoke and mirrors. He still is called 'Uncle' in spite of the fact that this title was a Jim Crow-ism used to avoid the use of the honorarium Mister? Really!? By refusing to own up to the divisiveness of the character, the [campaign] falls flat."
The initial response from the company was sort of underwhelming. According to Mars, the Ben icon comes from American folklore - stories of a legendary farmer known for his quality rice. When farmers went to market, they would claim their rice was "as good as Uncle Ben's." The portrait of Uncle Ben was introduced in 1947, and it's said that it's the likeness of Chicago chef and maitre d' Frank Brown, who died in 1953.
But still, some say this explanation comes off as laughably tone-deaf. How could a group of sophisticated marketers have been blind to the backlash, which seems somehow inevitable? Howard Buford, founder and CEO of multicultural ad agency Prime Access, says, "Over time, the Uncle Ben character had gone from a concrete person to an abstract logo, which had lessened its racial baggage." Mars' move to personalize Ben partially backfired and just reminded people of the logo's history, just as media coverage began to focus on the possibility of electing the United States' first black president. "This was not the time to call attention to that problem," Buford says.
Proof Is in the (Rice) Pudding
The controversy seemed to increase consumer interest in the brand: Traffic to the site soared during the summer of 2007 as criticism and online discussion peaked. Unique visits ballooned 1,800 percent, from 191,000 in the third quarter of 2006 to 3.6 million in the same period of 2007, per comScore. Mars uses BuzzMetrics to track brand references on blogs, communities and news sites. Tracking showed that in the month after the launch, the Uncle Ben's brand got more online attention than it has ever experienced, and ended up with three times as much "buzz" as its biggest competitors, says Bryan Crowley, vice president of marketing and sales for Mars Food U.S.
The concept of a virtual office gave consumers a way to interact with the character's world, says Austin Hurwitz, TEQUILA management supervisor. "The office setting allowed us to talk about products, offer nutrition facts about rice, showcase recipes and describe the company's philanthropic efforts to end hunger - all in one unified setting," he says. Ads by tbwaChiatDay in celebrity, women's, food and African American magazines focused on Ben as chairman of the board and drove traffic to the site.
But Web traffic does not equal brand loyalty or sales (or votes - just ask Ron Paul). So, did the move score for Mars? Crowley says yes. Since the campaign broke, growth in sales and market share has accelerated, he says. And according to Information Resources Inc., sales have indeed swelled in some sectors: The brand's biggest product category, dry rice, showed sales growth of 6 percent in 2007 compared to 2006, per IRI. The year before, sales growth was 4 percent.
Sales of ready-to-eat rice mixes, which are about one-seventh the dollar volume of dry rice, rose 8 percent in 2007 compared to 2006, per IRI. But that's less impressive than the year before. Ready-to-eat rice sales in 2006 showed a 21 percent rise compared to the previous year.
"We respect the views of the critics and we want to keep open the lines of communication with them," Crowley says. "We also understand that for many people in our target market, the Uncle Ben character stands for trust and quality. Both of those viewpoints are important, and we are working with advisors to figure out how to strike a balance."
Mars started conducting research about the Uncle Ben's brand at least 18 months before the campaign's launch, around January 2006. The mission was to "find a big idea that could tie the content of the site together and bring the brand experience to life," says TEQUILA's Hurwitz.
Research identified the target as 35- to 54-year-old mothers who are devoted to their home environment, have attended college, are avid readers and are interested in health, Crowley says. About 80 percent are white and most of the remaining 20 percent are African American, plus a small percentage of Hispanics and Asians.
"Focus groups, one-to-one meetings and other qualitative research uncovered that consumers had a tremendous amount of respect for the Uncle Ben icon and that he represented quality, trust and family," Crowley says. "To leverage the respect and values of the brand, we decided to present Ben as chairman of the company and use him as the center of the marketing."
The campaign itself was in development for about seven months, starting in the fall of 2006, before the launch hit and the brouhaha began.
By October 2007, the Web site's traffic dropped almost to normal levels, but not quite. While the site saw 3.6 million unique visits from July to September 2007, it attracted only 114,000 uniques from October to December, according to comScore - but that was still almost double the visits during the same period the year before.
In the last several months, the company scrapped some of the plans for the site that were touted at the launch. Gone are plans to further personalize Ben with voicemail messages from him and a full-length picture of him in a business suit. (Only his portrait is currently used on the site and in the ads.) Since tracking shows most visitors use the site to find recipes, the company is expanding that content and tweaking the landing page to give direct links to recipes, Crowley says. Hurwitz says the recipe section continues to get about 20,000 visitors a month and average three minutes per visit.
Crowley declines to say if any of the changes are related to the criticism.
There are no easy answers here. Possibly the best solution is to dissolve the brand, eliminating the inflammatory iconography. Of course, this is a catch-22, so the task became a salvage job. Industry experts find the eventual campaign's costs and benefits complicated.
"The admirable part of this effort is that they generated Web traffic and attention to the brand, and the company looks like it is trying to be positive and proactive," says Larry Vincent, group director of strategy, Siegel+Gale. But he questions the wisdom of using such a strategy to shake the dust off an antiquated image. To change the backstory of Uncle Ben "is a risky branding move even without the race issue. It is difficult to reinvent history in a way that is different than what consumers perceive. When a brand pulls an about-face, people subconsciously get the feeling [that] it is trying to pull the wool over their eyes," he says.
Some multicultural marketing experts were hoping for more of a response from the rice company. "I'm flabbergasted that they didn't change the existing site after the press criticism," says Luke Visconti, partner and co-founder, DiversityInc Media. That shows the failure of the company "to have respect for American history. Since launch, Obama has hit the scene, uniting the political and racial discourse," says Visconti. "For Mars to be so recalcitrant at this point seems blockheaded; it does not reflect the audience's mood," he says.
Ron Campbell, president and chief strategist, Campbell-Communications, which specializes in multicultural marketing strategies, is more blunt: "It is a marketing faux pas that is paternalistic and condescending. It's like something out of Mad magazine." But so far the backlash seems to be mainly from "gatekeepers," says Campbell. Whether the decision to focus on Ben turns out to be "a big branding mistake and a big revenue mistake depends how much the noise from the gatekeepers reaches consumers who buy the rice because they need a quick meal for their families," he says.
If Mars' objective was to get exposure, it was a good move to be bold, rather than changing the icon subtly over time, as the Quaker Oats Company has done with its Aunt Jemima brand, says branding expert Vincent. But with "online social media and the rumor mills, criticism of a brand can take on a life of its own," he warns. In exchange for an incremental lift in sales, Mars could be harming the brand's reputation and
permanently relegating its rice to a commodity product, he says, echoing other experts.
Crowley won't admit to a downside. The company is "thrilled with the results of the campaign and considers it to be working well," he says.
Perhaps a more telling question is whether Uncle Ben - the icon and the chairman - will keep his bow tie. "Yes," says Crowley. "The bow tie stays."