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OPINION

A Lesson in Corporate Wokeness: The Disaster After Making Aunt Jemima a Pariah

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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AP Photo/Donald King

Though it is finally cooling, lingering effects are still seen with the cultural furor surrounding the beer brand Bud Light. There were a number of missteps regarding the poor decision to involve transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, and one of the aspects that have come to light is how those in charge of the brand have been engaging in corporate woke culture.

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Many have seen the video of Alissa Heinerscheid, the VP of Bud Light, laying out her intentions for the beer brand to use a lexicon of woke culture and insult her out-of-touch customer base. But she is not alone. Also involved in things was Anheuser-Busch's vice president of communications, Jennifer Morris. In a prior interview, she laid out some of the goals for the company as she envisioned things:

Anheuser-Busch is in a unique position to bring attention to DE&I issues in a way that brings consumers along on the journey to drive positive change and create a more equitable world…we can leverage our scale and resources to further conversations around DE&I and help consumers understand the difference they can make as individuals.

It will take a period of time to assess just how impactful this beer backlash will become. It might take a few quarters before the revealing figures are seen, and we can be sure that if they are in the negative, there will be little in the way of reporting. The media, understand, are in compliance with, and harbor support for, these virtue-signaling politics. This is revealed with the details surrounding a prior corporate woke decision.

The Time They Canceled Syrup

In 2020, amid the Black Lives Matter upheaval seen across the country, companies were bending the knee on a regular basis. Many brands and corporations came out with statements and pledges about altering their practices and evolving their corporate structures, with "diversity" being thrown about in their mea culpa. Of course, lost in these self-congratulatory announcements was the unspoken admission they did not realize they were making: If you are promising to no longer be "racist," that means you are stating you had previously been a racist company.

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In the flurry of these Wall Street struggle sessions was a number of brands eradicating their corporate mascots that could be interpreted as racially insensitive. Uncle Ben has disappeared from boxes of rice. Land O'Lakes removed the famed Native American woman from its boxes, leaving the land and lakes on its packaging. (The butter now serves as a testament to our tortured history; the Indians have been removed and the empty land remains.)

Joining these dispatched designs was the classic breakfast staple brand Aunt Jemima. When it was announced that the company was deciding to do away with the logo and mascot, some in the activist community declared it to be racist, it was huge news. Reports circulated in gleeful abundance on how – finally – grocery aisles would be purged of this hateful iconography. This was done in the name of tolerance, inclusivity, sensitivity, and any other attributed social rectitude.

And then, in the ensuing years – we have heard very little in the way of follow-up reports. 

This was the first indicator that things had not gone well after this magnanimous gesture. The Aunt Jemima brand was one of the longest-running corporate logos in existence. Sure, some of the original branding would be seen as racist by today's, and possibly even yesterday's, standards. When Pearl Milling Company started in the late 1880s, it produced a ready-mix pancake flour, and they used a "Mammy"-style POC woman as the logo, taken from posters for a vaudeville revue seen in their Missouri area. 

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Pearl Milling Co. struggled and soon sold out to a larger miller in the area, which modified the flour formula and became more successful, renaming the company after the Aunt Jemima brand. The operation was purchased by the Quaker Oats Company in 1926, and over the generations, the famed face of the brand was altered to soften racist subtexts. 

Quaker Oats was acquired by PepsiCo in 2001, and it was the soda giant that then buckled under social pressure in the summer of 2020 and announced the company would be removing the logo: "As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers' expectations," read the press release. "We acknowledge the brand has not progressed enough to appropriately reflect the confidence, warmth and dignity that we would like it to stand for today."

The company worked on rebranding, considering at least 300 new names, steering away from any that carried associations with female characters or family designations. The decision was that it would be a phased alteration rather than pulling the current product line and replacing it outright. This would be approximately a six-month endeavor, with notification and media announcements used to graduate the marketplace to the rebrand. The pancake mix and syrups would be rechristened Pearl Milling Company, with many of the same colorations used and a slight adjustment made to the font on the packages.

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Ad Age conducted a poll at this time and found that the name change would do little to move the needle. While two-thirds of the buying public was aware of the name change, the impact looked negligible. Only 23% said the overhaul would make them more likely to buy from the brand. More consumers, 28%, said the update would make them less likely to buy products from the brand. Yet, there is a more revealing detail deeper in the survey.

One particular metric displays something witnessed over the years that companies should consider when bowing to this kind of social pressure; the activist/social change/boycott mob is not a market player. The people who usually rage and protest for companies to change or face reprisals rarely support the demanded efforts. Here we see this nugget that PepsiCo should have seen: "Only 35% of those supporting the name changes said they would respect the brand more."

The Collapsing Stack of Flapjacks

Finding out the impacts on sales of this branding switch is not easy. Common sense would dictate that considering all of the advanced hype of the decision, some follow-up details would be at the ready. There is little in the way of media interest in the results. Also, the company is not very forthcoming with the numbers. It has taken a bit of digging to come up with ballpark estimates.

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We need to understand the timeline of the rebranding was stretched out. First, the Aunt Jemima image was removed in December 2020, but the name remained in place. The Pearl Milling Company name for the line of items was not applied until the summer of 2021, and there would be a lag time as the products were graduated off store shelves. So to get a read on the sales results means looking through the financials from then through 2022 – when the full change had taken place and sales were reflected in the reports.

And even this is an opaque presentation. In PepsiCo's quarterly reports, the company only details the performance of the subsidiaries in percentile changes in the various sectors without providing hard sales figures. So more sleuthing was needed. In one interview with Fortune Magazine, I found Kristin Kroepfl, chief marketing officer for Quaker Foods North America, stating that in the year 2020, the Aunt Jemima brand had $350 million in sales. Okay, this gives us something of a baseline.

Throughout 2021, the Quaker Foods division saw the pancake mix and syrup sales plunge. The period following the introduction of the name switch that summer reported "a double-digit decline in pancake syrup and mix." This was matched in the final quarter of that year – when the name change had gone into full effect – with "double-digit declines in pancake syrups and mixes." 

This downward trend continued through last year. Quarter 1 delivered another "double-digit decline." In Q-2, Quaker saw unit volume grow 2% across all of its products but was weighed down by another "double-digit decline in pancake syrups and mixes," something also seen in the Q-3 reports. The only glimmer of positivity is that the former Aunt Jemima brand saw its bleeding slowing in Q-4, as that line only saw "a high-single-digit decline in pancake syrups and mixes."

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Considering the vagueness of these reports (since "double-digit" can range anywhere from 10 to 99%), even applying the rosiest measurement, by only counting a ten percent decline in each of those six quarters, the former Aunt Jemima brand declined by at least -50% since the name change. It is very likely much worse.

This should serve as yet another object lesson for companies looking to enter the woke, DEI-ESG social awareness waters. As seen with Disney last year, and as Bud Light is experiencing now, appeasing and appealing to the woke mobs does not deliver market results. These are not reliable customer bases you are trying to curry favor with, and you are more likely to injure your brand than benefit from your virtue-signaling moves. 

Look at how PepsiCo killed off a 130-year-old brand and, in the process, lost a huge amount of market share. Thinking about making good with activists? That is simply not good business.

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