The 'Uncle Ben' Brand Was Based On Two People Who Never Worked For The Company

Emily Becker
Photo credit: EVA HAMBACH - Getty Images
Photo credit: EVA HAMBACH - Getty Images

From Women's Health

  • Mars has announced it is time for the Uncle Ben brand to "evolve."

  • The brand is reportedly named for a Houston rice farmer, who never had any involvement with the company.

  • The image of Uncle Ben itself is based on that of a hotel employee.

In response to criticism that its logo and name perpetuate racial stereotypes, Uncle Ben's will "evolve" its visual brand identity, Mars, the owner of the brand of rice products, said this week. The announcement comes hours after Quaker Oats stated it was retiring its Aunt Jenima brand, and after weeks of protests have brought renewed awareness of pervasive racial stereotypes and systemic injustice in the U.S.

"As a global brand, we know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices," the company said in a statement. "As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our Associates worldwide, we recognize that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand."

When the brand first launched, Uncle Ben was a prominent figure in the company's advertising. But, what exactly is the history behind Uncle Ben, and was the controversial character based on a real person? Here’s everything you need to know:

There was likely once a renowned rice farmer named Ben—but he has nothing to do with the company.

The story is a little vague, but according to the New York Times, there was once a farmer in Houston named Ben (whose last name has since been forgotten) whose rice was known to be of especially high-quality. Accounts vary, but it seems that Ben's reputation was recalled by Texas food broker Gordon L. Harwell when he was was looking for a way to mass market his own type of rice after supplying the armed forces during World War II.

The image of Uncle Ben is actually from a portrait of a maitre d’hotel.

The Times reports that during a meeting with a business partner in Chicago (or maybe Houston), Harwell saw a portrait of the restaurant's maitre d’hotel, Frank Brown, and decided that image could be used to sell his brand as "Uncle Ben's Converted Rice." Harwell launched his company in 1943 with Brown's face and the Houston rice farmer's name.

Uncle Ben was once advertised as the chairman of the company.

In 2007, Uncle Ben was made over as the head of the company as part of an advertising campaign that included changing his blue jacket to a business suit and a website where customers could explore his "office," the Guardian reports.

Luke Visconti, partner at Diversity Inc. Media in Newark, told the Times of the launch of the campaign, "This is an interesting idea, but for me it still has a very high cringe factor."

As for how the brand will continue to "evolve," the company has not yet released details of the exact changes or a timeline for the relaunch, but it is "evaluating all possibilities."

"Racism has no place in society," the statement continues. "We stand in solidarity with the Black community, our Associates and our partners in the fight for social justice. We know to make the systemic change needed, it’s going to take a collective effort from all of us— individuals, communities and organizations of all sizes around the world."

You Might Also Like

More From