Ben’s overdue promotion

It's been a monumental week for rice purveyor Uncle Ben. The iconic character, who first appeared in ads in 1943, has -- after 18 months...

It's been a monumental week for rice purveyor Uncle Ben. The iconic character, who first appeared in ads in 1943, has -- after 18 months of closed-door strategy -- been transformed from bow tie-wearing, good-natured rice farmer to bow tie-wearing, good-natured chairman of fictional Uncle Ben's, Inc.

The new, improved for 2007 "Ben" is a successful business executive with "an opulent office, a busy schedule, [and] an extensive travel itinerary," says Stuart Elliott, in a New York Times' exclusive. But the updated Ben's real passion is his proclivity for sharing what parent company Masterfoods calls his "common sense grains of wisdom about life and rice."

So does this repositioning give new meaning to the "converted" in Uncle Ben's "converted rice," or is it little more than the Benson-ification of an icon, assigning a familiar mascot characteristics more appropriate to the current marketplace?

There's no question that this renovation was the result of an enormous amount of work: by Masterfoods, advertising agency TBWA\\Chiat\\Day, its online arm Tequila, and PR firms Current Lifestyle Marketing and Axis Communications. But for what?

In a statement, Masterfoods explained that the decision to boost Ben to chairman followed "extensive research" showing consumers felt a "positive emotional connection" with Uncle Ben's name and image, associating the mascot with "quality, family, timelessness, and warmth." That, perhaps, is the reason the company chose to -- at least for the time being -- makeover his surroundings instead of his character, allowing Ben to keep his starched bow ties and bright-blue, maitre d'-style sports jackets, rather than updating his wardrobe as well as his position (akin to Trading Places). And the longer one spends poking around Chairman Ben's virtual office suite -- through his e-mail, Dayrunner, and outgoing mail -- the more one is drawn in via his "Benisms" -- those "grains of wisdom" the company touts.

Sure, there are issues with this strategy. In his desktop notebook -- pages labeled, "From the desk of Uncle Ben, Chairman" -- Ben makes references to distinctly non-executive-level activities (the "chafing factor" of "tree-sledding in Japan"?) and prints more like a heartbroken teenager than the leader of a multimillion-dollar corporation. And the claims he makes about the popularity of his Ready Rice pilafs in various parts of Asia? Is that really what folks are eating in most remote Turkey these days? (But that's neither here nor there.)

What does matter is that Uncle Ben -- the mascot and the brand -- has held a special place in American kitchens for decades; as Chairman Ben says, in one of his "Benisms," rice -- like water, shelter, and clothing -- is a staple of life. So to Masterfoods: We're intrigued. We'll be watching Uncle Ben's, Inc., and might even indulge in a steamy bowl of "boil in bag" white right now. And to Chairman Ben, the former farmhand: Congratulations on your promotion.

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