Why it’s so hard for Aunt Jemima to ditch her unsavory past

August 12, 2014, 5:37 PM UTC
Delivery Operations With PepsiCo.
Bottles of PepsiCo Inc. Aunt Jemima syrup are displayed for sale at a ShopRite Holdings Ltd. grocery store in Stratford, Connecticut, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011
Photograph by Paul Taggart — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Change doesn’t come easy. For popular brands even with controversial images, that seems to be especially true.

The most obvious example is the Washington Redskins football team, which has been embroiled in controversy recently for refusing to change its name despite claims that it is demeaning and prejudicial towards Native Americans.

A lawsuit filed in Chicago federal court last week pointed to another prominent instance of branded racism. The great grandsons of the woman who assumed the role of Aunt Jemima in 1935 accused several companies of benefiting from her likeness without paying for it.

In a class action lawsuit, D.W. Hunter and Larnell Evans claim that PepsiCo Inc. (PEP), 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.

Quaker Oats declined to discuss the details of the lawsuit but said in a statement that the company believes it has no merit. Pinnacle (PF) said that it has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation. (Hillshire Brands (HSH) is also named as a defendant. The complaint characterizes the firm as Pinnacle’s merger partner, but that deal never went through. The company declined to comment.)

Beyond the eye-popping sum that the plaintiffs are seeking—$2 billion, plus punitive damages to be determined at trial—the lawsuit is notable for its chronicling of the alleged exploitation of Harrington and her fictitious character’s unsavory past.

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. It also alleges that the defendant companies racially discriminated against Harrington and her family—treatment that reflects “an innate form of disrespect toward African American people in general.”

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.

Though Aunt Jemima has evolved over time—most recently in 1989, according to Quaker Oats—she still stands as a blatant reference to American slavery, so why is her likeness still on store shelves?

Quaker Oats told Fortune that the Aunt Jemima brand has been around for more than 125 years and “is neither based on, nor meant to depict any one person.” The company says that, based on its ongoing dialogue with consumers, it knows that Aunt Jemima “invokes a sense of caring, nurturing and comfort—qualities revered by families around the world. We stand by this heritage as well as the ways in which we do business.“

There’s little doubt that, to the critical consumer, Aunt Jemima tip-toes—if not fully crosses—the politically correct line. But there’s also no question that, from a business perspective, when it comes to trying to rectify this staple brand with today’s social standards, Quaker Oats and parent PepsiCo have a lot to lose.

It is quite possible that Quaker Oats’ claim is accurate: the everyday consumer doesn’t interpret Aunt Jemima as a symbol of the racism of postbellum America, but instead sees her image as a stamp of authenticity and heritage. And in that case, it’s easy to see why Quaker Oats is so hesitant to part with the brand: those two characteristics carry a lot of weight in the crowded food category, where players are fighting to distinguish their brand from the next, says Allen Adamson, chairman of the North America region of branding firm Landor Associates.

It is hard to beat a brand with a genuine history, especially with today’s consumer, who is too sophisticated to buy into a made-up story. Though having such a brand story becomes a “tricky challenge,” when that heritage is no longer socially acceptable, Adamson says.

It’s a challenge that a brand like the Redskins is actually better positioned to overcome. As one of the National Football League’s 32 teams, it’s already unique enough. “People would go to games if you called them the Redskins, Blue Skins, or No Skins,” Adamson says.

Such a change won’t be as easy for Aunt Jemima, though.

“The trouble is, once you drop her and her name, then you’re left with a generic syrup that’s no different from the store brand,” Adamson says. Sure, Quaker Oats may argue that its syrup tastes better, but taste is no good for a customer in a grocery store making a purchase based on looks alone. A brand’s image and the story it tells is “a shortcut for decision making,” Adamson says.

If Quaker Oats were to revamp its syrup brand, a name overhaul would cost between $100,000 and $200,000. That’s the easy part, Adamson says. Getting the name in front of enough eyeballs and into enough brains that it means something is far more difficult and expensive; in the $20 million to $50 million range.

“It’s hugely challenging,” he says. So much so that, in Aunt Jemima’s case, you may be better off starting a new business from scratch.

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