Friday March 30, 2007
The bow-tied black figure smiling from Uncle Ben's rice packets has been given an ethnically sensitive makeover by the brand's American owner, Mars, to reinvent the character as a fictional corporate chairman dispensing worldly wisdom.
A marketing campaign launched in the US today primarily refers to the character as "Ben", and discreetly changes his electric blue jacket into a sober business suit.
An interactive website of "Ben's office" provides tips on cooking rice gleaned from the character's travels as far afield as India, Australia and Turkey. A sample poster ad provides a gilt-framed portrait of the figure and asks: "How about some respect for the meat-and-rice man?"
The image is a departure from Uncle Ben's origin in 1943 as a mythical African-American rice farmer. For years, Mars has given the character little prominence, conscious of the racial sensitivity it shares with brands such as Aunt Jemima's pancake mix and Rastus cream of rice.
In a statement, Mars' Masterfood arm said its decision to focus attention on Uncle Ben followed research showing consumers felt a "positive emotional connection" with the name and the portrait, associating them with "quality, family, timelessness and warmth".
Vincent Howell, president of Masterfoods' food business unit, said: "Because consumers from all walks of life echoed many times through the years that Uncle Ben stood for values similar to their own, we decided to reinforce and build on that existing positive connection through the new campaign."
The makeover received a mixed reception. Luke Visconti, a partner at New Jersey media firm Diversity Inc, told the New York Times that Mars was glossing over years of baggage: "This is an interesting idea, but for me it still has a very high cringe factor."
Sold in more than 100 countries, the Uncle Ben's brand extends to cooking sauces and couscous. In Britain, it claimed a 40% share of the rice market last year with sales of £89m. A London-based spokeswoman said she knew of no plans to extend the makeover to the UK market.
The origins of Uncle Ben's lie partly in the work of a British scientist, EG Huzenlaub, who developed a parboiling technique to seal the nutritional properties of rice grains while extending their shelf life. In the 1940s, Mr Huzenlaub went into partnership with a Houston businessman, Gordon Harwell, to market long-life rice.
The face of Uncle Ben is, in reality, a picture of Frank Brown, the maitre d' at a Chicago restaurant frequented by the rice company's top executives before the war.