It took PepsiCo nearly a year, but the company has finally settled on a new name for Aunt Jemima. It announced Feb. 9 that its brand for Aunt Jemima pancakes, syrup and other products will henceforth be “Pearl Milling Company.”
The change was, of course, inspired – which is to say, made necessary – by the racial tensions that convulsed the nation last year after several incidents of Black men dying at the hands of police. Aunt Jemima had long been a target of criticism as a racial stereotype; the events last year brought this to a head.
PepsiCo had announced its intention to change the name almost a year ago. It undoubtedly took so long to come up with a replacement because it’s always tricky to throw away decades of brand equity, no matter how badly you need to. The basic, enormous challenge is maintaining a viable identity. You have to pick a new name that preserves a degree of continuity with the old one, while jettisoning whatever was objectionable about it.
Mars finessed this, admirably I thought, by changing “Uncle Ben’s” to “Ben’s Original.” But that wasn’t an option for PepsiCo. The world is full of Bens, but how many Jemimas do you know? Any attempt to incorporate “Jemima” into the new name would almost certainly be seen as a lame whitewash, akin to how they got rid of Auntie’s bandanna in 1989.
So PepsiCo settled on Pearl Milling Company. That wasn’t picked out of the air; it was, in fact, the original name of the company, founded in 1888, that introduced self-rising pancake mix to America in the first place. (Quaker Oats bought the product in 1925, and was itself bought by PepsiCo in 2001.)
Did you know that? I didn’t, and probably most consumers don’t either. But if nothing else, the new name addresses, if only indirectly, one of the most annoying arguments in favor of racially insensitive symbols, icons, statuary, etc.: they’re “traditional.”
How many times have you heard that removing a Confederate flag or a statue of a Southern Civil War general would “erase history” and “violate tradition”? That Confederate symbols are all about “heritage, not hate”? Sometimes these arguments are made in good faith, often they aren’t, but they’re just wrong. No “heritage” can justify ongoing insults to an entire race.
Viewed in this light, the switch to Pearl Milling Company was a masterful bit of trolling – or perhaps anti-trolling. “You want heritage? Fine. Here’s the original name of the company that came up with this stuff. How’s that for heritage?”
Understand, I’m not attributing the above quote to anyone at PepsiCo. I don’t know if those considerations even came into play. But the Aunt Jemima name change is a fine example of how to preserve a product’s history as benignly as possible.
Heritage is a fine thing, but it doesn’t need to hold a Confederate flag, wave a sword or wear a bandanna.