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Marketing Lessons from the Aunt Jemima Rebrand
Aunt Jemima has a new name.
Since 1926, Aunt Jemima was the face of Quaker Oats’ pancake and syrup products, and the image actually dates back to the 1880s. The brand has long been criticized for its racist and stereotypical portrayal of a minstrel show character.
Last week, Quaker parent company PepsiCo announced a new name for its pancake mix and syrup — Pearl Milling Company.
The ‘Aunt Jemima Doctrine’s’ Impact on Trademark Law
A century ago, the Aunt Jemima image played a significant role in changing trademark law. By 1914, Aunt Jemima was one of the most recognized brands in the country, and other companies started using the likeness to sell their own breakfast products.
Aunt Jemima took its imitators to court – and won.
Until then, most copyright cases centered on selling the same product under the same name. The “Aunt Jemima Doctrine” declared that even different products could not use a trademarked name if it would cause consumer confusion.
That doctrine significantly expanded the influence branding had in defining a company’s offerings.
Why the Aunt Jemima Rebrand Works
Today, that mass popularity is long gone, and many say the rebrand was overdue.
Yet the recent rebrand has a lot going for it.
For starters, it’s a total reimagining of the products’ identity and positioning, rather than an incremental update or change. At the same time, the packaging retains a recognizable color, style and layout.
What’s more, it plays off the brand’s history – the company was Pearl Milling Company before it was Aunt Jemima.
Lastly, the rebrand works outside of the controversy surrounding the old name. Pearl Milling Company feels artisanal and authentic – key attributes for today’s food brands.
When Rebranding, Show Your Work
In the release announcing the new name, PepsiCo notes it worked with “consumers, employees, external cultural and subject-matter experts, and diverse agency partners to gather broad perspectives and ensure the new brand was developed with inclusivity in mind.”
That due diligence matters from a research perspective, as well as a public perception standpoint.
Nevertheless, the update does have its critics. People are hardwired to resist change, and there’s no doubt Aunt Jemima and brands like it have become surrogates in a larger cultural conversation around racial stereotypes in branding and the need to update them.
Products will continue to be available under the Aunt Jemima name, but without the character image, until June, when the newly named products will hit shelves. That staged rollout gives the company more time to gauge public reaction and adjust its messaging accordingly.