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Lessons from the “Aunt Jemima” and “Uncle Ben’s” Trademarks


June 19, 2020

The tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 led to a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, as evidenced by a groundswell of protests around the world.

Less than one month later, Quaker Oats’ parent company PepsiCo announced that its “Aunt Jemima” brand of over 130 years would be retired, recognizing that the brand’s origins are based on racial stereotypes.[1] Aunt Jemima pancake mixes and syrups have long been breakfast staples around North American kitchen tables. The brand was based on a song, “Old Aunt Jemima”, which was apparently popular in minstrel shows.[2] These shows were a form of American theatre based on purportedly comic racial stereotypes, featuring white performers in blackface portraying Black people in an often derogatory manner.[3]

The Aunt Jemima brand has been represented by both the word trademark AUNT JEMIMA, and various logo trademarks. An early logo depicted a Black woman wearing a kerchief, in the “mammy” style of slaves at Southern plantations.[4] The depiction has changed over time, with the kerchief being removed and the latest iteration showing a Black woman in a high-collared top and pearl earrings. Nonetheless, the logo remains anachronistic.

PepsiCo has stated that the changes to its product packaging will be seen in the last quarter of 2020. The removal of the image and the change in the name is said by PepsiCo to be “in line with PepsiCo’s journey toward racial equality, and the evolution will help carry the 130-year-old brand into the future”.[5]

Fast on the heels of PepsiCo’s announcement, Mars Inc. stated that it would be rebranding its UNCLE BEN’S rice products. These have featured an outdated image of a Black man wearing a suit with bow tie, apparently modeled after a waiter.[6] It is notable that Black men were often referred to as “uncle” during the time of segregationist Jim Crow laws in the United States, to avoid having to address them as “Mister”.[7]

Such changes are seen by many as being long overdue, and have precursors in earlier decisions by some professional sports teams to drop logos featuring caricatures of indigenous peoples.[8] Similarly, earlier this year, the dairy brand Land O Lakes removed the “sitting squaw” image from its products. Although no explicit statement was made regarding the company’s long-standing use of this portrayal of indigenous people, the re-branding is certainly having echoes in the post-George Floyd era.[9]

What can trademark owners learn from these events?

  • Constantly vet your trademark portfolio.
  • View your brands through the lens of current social mores. Look at them through the eyes of all your consumers.
  • Train your marketing people and others involved in choosing a brand to ensure cultural sensitivity.
  • Update your trademarks when required.
  • As always, before committing to a new brand, run clearance searches and ensure that any new brands are protected by trademark registrations.

In addition to being in tune with the times, brand owners also need to remember to exercise appropriate due diligence and to take proper steps to fully protect their trademarks.









[8] For example, the Cleveland Indians abandoned their controversial “Chief Wahoo” logo in 2019, in part due to a legal case by Canadian activist Douglas Cardinal initiated during that team’s playoff series against the Toronto Blue Jays in 2016.