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The Curious Case of the Disappearing Maiden—Land O’Lakes Rebrands, Skirts Controversy

In the quiet days before COVID-19, the major butter co-op announced plans for rebranding their packaging, electing not to mention they were replacing an iconic, yet controversial, image they had on their box since 1928.

The strange case of the disappearing maiden...not a whisper about the somewhat controversial Native American icon.
The strange case of the disappearing maiden...not a whisper about the somewhat controversial Native American icon.

Back on February 6, before COVID-19 stole all the headlines, Arden Hills, Minn.-based Land O’ Lakes announced that in preparation for its 100-year anniversary in 2021, the dairy co-op would unveil new packaging “featuring the farmers who are the foundation of the cooperative’s membership.”

The release went on to say, “The new packaging will show up in a variety of ways, including through a new front-of-package design that features the phrase ‘Farmer-Owned’ above the LAND O’LAKES brandmark, ‘Since 1921’ below it, and a vibrant illustration of land and lakes. Some products, including stick butter, will also include photos of real Land O’Lakes farmers and co-op members and copy that reads ‘Since 1921’ and ‘Proud to be Farmer-Owned': As a farmer-owned co-op, we stand together to bring you the very best in dairy."

What the news release did not say is that Land O’ Lakes was apparently dropping the famous “butter maiden” (named Mia) first appearing on their packaging back in 1928. No mention of dropping, replacing, voting the somewhat controversial Native American image off the package—nothing. Or even a brief remark of how the iconic image had faithfully done her duty but was now being retired out of respect.

Similar to the mascot controversy surrounding local and professional sports teams—the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins, for instance—native people have called the butter packaging imagery at best stereotypical, and at worst racist.  

Fast Company: More on America’s ethical struggle with Native American logos and brand imagery

North Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, who is a registered member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, told the Pioneer Press, “Yes, it’s a good thing for the company to remove the image. But we can’t stop there. We as a whole need to keep pushing forward to address the underlying issues that directly impact an entire population that survived genocide.”

Unilever Cornetto gets radical rebranding 

It is interesting to note that Beth Ford, Land O’ Lakes President and CEO, could have launched a major social media campaign taking credit for refreshing a logo that, while iconic, was designed in a different time and place. And for a very different consumer. Perhaps the executive team weighed these options and decided there could be a backlash of older folks loyal to the brand who would cry “political correctness.” 

The social media “tight rope” each brand must walk has to be a major consideration for any package redesign, particularly in this day and age. The dilemma: if I decide on pushing a message out on social media, particularly when talking about anything remotely controversial, can it come back to damage my brand’s reputation?

Ascensia Diabetes Care overcomes rebranding challenges 

I doubt that Arthur Hanson, illustrator for the St. Paul advertising firm Brown & Bigelow, who came up with the original design back in 1928, meant any disrespect when creating the original image. But that isn’t the point. Any company wishing to move forward with a rebrand, even for all the right reasons, could still be a target for powerful voices not satisfied “enough” with how long the decision took, how it was announced or featured in the news, was the issue handled sensitively, or was the situation exploited, etc.

Maybe letting Mia “go gentle into that good night” without any fanfare was the best decision of all. Pass the butter.

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