And how the brand gave back to one of its most important communities.

In the Mississippi delta sits the town of Greenville. Dubbed “Queen of the Delta,” Greenville is known for its complex history, blues music and hot tamales. It’s also home to the Ben’s Original rice plant.

Since 1977, this division of Mars Food has turned out parboiled rice to be sent across the country and around the world. Today, it’s one of the largest employers in Washington County, of which Greenville is the county seat.

“Greenville is endearing,” said Kristen Campos, VP of corporate affairs for Mars North America. “I think that it’s just charming. The people are just so lovely, so kind.”

This town of just 28,000 makes up an important constituency for Mars (total employees: 130,000). And not just for those who work at the plant.

 

 

“In addition to the factory being the heart of our business, we know we also have a responsibility to drive a mutually beneficial relationship in that city and in that community,” Campos said during a recent conversation with PR Daily about the role of community relations in reshaping the Ben’s Original brand — and reshaping the future of Greenville.

Listening, listening, listening

In 2020, amid a renewed conversation around racial justice and equity, the name and mascot of Uncle Ben’s rice — a fictional elderly Black man who, for many, evoked tropes rooted in slavery and the oppression of Black Americans — came under criticism.

“We understand the inequities that were associated with the name and face of the Uncle Ben’s brand,” Mars said in a statement at the time. “We have committed to change.”

And associates in Greenville were an important part of that change and the evolution into Ben’s Original. Greenville is 83% Black, according to census data, and its history is deeply intertwined with slavery and the Civil War. Locals felt they had a personal stake in the brand, and were also committed to helping the brand move forward through its rebrand.

So Mars listened. A lot. In the course of our conversation, Campos used the word “listen” nine times.

They of course conducted large-scale listening and surveys and interviews; Mars is a multinational company and whatever evolution emerged would need to play well around the world.

But they took special time to listen in Greenville.

“In addition to listening to and conducting listening sessions with our associates there, we doubled down in listening to business leaders, stakeholders, not-for-profits, all in the Mississippi area but specifically in Washington County and in Greenville,” Campos said.

“That helped us to understand what we could be doing to bring that purpose to life in a community that’s at the heart of our business and so important to us.”

When the new Ben’s Original brand was unveiled, including a new commitment to ensuring everyone has “a seat at the table,” the reaction from that core community was overwhelmingly positive, Campos said.

“I think the other part of the reaction was the refreshing way we went about it, involving everybody in that change,” Campos recalled.

But that involvement went beyond just the rebrand. With that new commitment to a seat at the table for everyone came a renewed promise to the city of Greenville itself.

A seat at the table

For all its charm, Campos notes that Greenville is a city with challenges that date back to its pre-Civil War history and are deeply intertwined with racial division in the state. Nearly a third of citizens live below the poverty line, compared to 19% statewide. Nearly 20% never graduated high school. Access to food is also an issue: While the city has two grocery stores, they’re concentrated on one side of town. With no public transportation, residents on the opposite end can struggle to get access to fresh produce and meat.

So Mars decided to do something to help.

“We fall back on all decisions by looking through the lens of our five principles,” Campos explained.
“One of those principles is mutuality, which at its core basically means any decision we make, anything that we do from a business operation standpoint or otherwise, needs to look at what how do we drive a mutual decision that benefits not only Mars, but also all of those people and companies that touch Mars.”

In this case, mutuality meant working with Greenville and Washington County in two key areas: Food access and education. A scholarship in conjunction with the United Negro College Fund has pledged $2 million through 2026 to help Black students around the world who seek careers in the food industry.

Mars has also pledged $2.5 million to the area over the next five years but has also doubled that promise through partnerships with other area employers, including Molina Healthcare and Kroger. A partnership with Hearty Helpings Food Pantry and the Mississippi Food Network also helps get fresh produce and meat in the hands of hundreds of residents throughout the year.

Campos recalled a visit just a few weeks ago where members of the Mars team, in partnership with the Mississippi Food Network, took a semitruck of food to a neighborhood in Greenville, passing out fresh food to families.

“Unanimously, you got this response of, thank you so much, Ben’s Original and Mars Food has done so much for our community. I get a lot of blessings. So it makes you feel really, really good. Like you are making an impact.”

Beyond the personal impact, investing in the community makes good business sense, too.

“We want to make sure that everyone feels proud of where they work,” Campos said. “And that we continue to attract the top talent in the Mississippi Delta area and that there is an ambition to work for our factory.”

Allison Carter is editor-in-chief of PR Daily. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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