Building brands, as anyone knows, takes a lot of time. And effort. And money.
But what if a brand that’s been around for a very long time rose to prominence in a not-quite-Kosher way?
That’s the story of Aunt Jemima, PepsiCo, Quaker Oats and Pinnacle Foods, writes Claire Zillman on Fortune magazine.
So what’s going on?
In a class action lawsuit, D.W. Hunter and Larnell Evans claim that PepsiCo Inc., its subsidiary Quaker Oats Co. (which sells Aunt Jemima syrup), and Pinnacle Foods (which makes Aunt Jemima frozen pancakes) schemed to deny that their great grandmother, Anna Short Harrington, had worked for Quaker Oats while refusing to pay her royalties for 60 years, as products bearing her image brought in millions of dollars in sales.
The lawsuit alleges that Quaker Oats recruited Harrington as she cooked pancakes at the New York State Fair, after which the company used her recipes and trademarked her likeness as Aunt Jemima. A November 1935 ad in Woman’s Home Companion magazine that pictured Harrington’s likeness in a red bandana appeared with the title “Let ol Autie sing in yo’ kitchen”—a headline that the plaintiffs say capitalized on Harrington’s Southern accent and distinct dialect, which stems from the Gullah Geechee culture that was prevalent in South Carolina.
“Throughout the 1930s, the bulk of Aunt Jemima advertising continued to concentrate on the romantic world of ‘plantation flavor,’” the lawsuit says.
More damagingly, for the brand, Claire adds:
Indeed, the Aunt Jemima character has long come under fire for its racist past. In a 2007 interview with NPR, Maurice Manring, author of Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, said that the marketing of Aunt Jemima came of age in an era when middle-class housewives were not able to employ black maids as easily as they once did. The ads targeted the nostalgia for those earlier days. “You can’t have Aunt Jemima today but you can have her recipe and that’s the next best thing,” Manring said, explaining the ads. “And so what we’re talking really about is trying to ease the transition from having someone do something for you to doing it yourself, and that’s where the slavery nostalgia was particularly effective,” he said.
That’s pretty reprehensible…But will the companies settle?
Not sure about the $2B that the lawsuit wants, but maybe at a much lower point – something that just about offsets the cost of rebranding and any negative publicity resulting from a potentially embarrassing lawsuit. Maybe…we shall see in the not too distant future, I think.