KANSAS CITY — The issues of racial equality, social justice, stereotypes and implicit bias have become top-of-mind following the death of George Floyd and the protests that swept the nation and continue to this day. The events have prompted many companies to review past and present business initiatives in support of protestors and the communities they represent. Several initiatives represent statements of solidarity, but enduring progress will only be achieved if these actions are followed by ongoing and substantive change.
Food and beverage companies attracted considerable attention by announcing the resets or the discontinuation of brands that perpetuate racial stereotypes. PepsiCo, Inc., for example, is ending its Aunt Jemima brand due to its origins in racist imagery. The 130-year-old brand and imagery originally were based on the minstrel show song “Old Aunt Jemima.” The brand was sold to Quaker Oats in 1926 and became part of the PepsiCo portfolio in 2001. A new brand name will be announced during the fourth quarter of this year.
“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,” Kristin Kroepfl, the company’s vice president and chief marketing officer, said to explain the move. “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype.”
Conagra Brands, Inc., Mars, Inc. and B&G Foods, Inc. also took steps to eliminate racially insensitive imagery from packaging for such brands as Mrs. Butterworth’s, Uncle Ben’s and Cream of Wheat.
Other companies have taken a different approach. The Coca-Cola Co., The Hershey Co., Starbucks Corp. and Unilever have paused advertisements on social media platforms that don’t do enough to prevent racist and violent content. The boycott comes in response to calls by civil rights organizations to end hate speech online.
All this activity was prompted by the groundswell of support for communities that have endured a history of racial inequality and social injustice. Those seeking to drive change should not substitute in-the-moment action for the consistent effort needed to make real progress.
During a June 25 conference call to discuss McCormick & Co.’s second-quarter results, an investment analyst asked Lawrence E. Kurzius, chairman, president and chief executive officer, about the role McCormick and the food system can play in addressing the issues of racial injustice. In his answer, Mr. Kurzius referred to the company’s foundational principal of respect for the individual, outlined its efforts to ensure diversity throughout the organization, discussed the public stands management has taken in support of groups like Black Lives Matter, and added that “beyond speaking, it’s important to have action.”
Mr. Kurzius’ last point echoes powerfully. Once the news cycle moves on, will the initiatives and investment be there to make real, continuous progress toward racial equality and social justice? Sadly, progress in the past most often has been limited in the wake of tragedy, whether it was George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice or others. A sign of progress will be when racial equality and social justice consistently are issues of concern without tragedy driving a news cycle.