A year and a half into her new role as CEO of Land O’Lakes, Beth Ford decided it was time do a company-wide strategic review. One of her biggest takeaways as she pored over every facet of the business: Many consumers did not realize that Land O’Lakes is a farmer-owned cooperative.
“It’s not that we hid it,” Ford says. “We just thought that people knew.”
Now as the company approaches its 100th birthday, Land O’Lakes plans to double down on emphasizing its farmer roots—a move meant to appeal to shoppers who increasingly want a deeper connection to what they eat. “We are at a time when consumers want more information about where food originates,” Ford says.
The Minneapolis-based company, which generates $15 billion in sales, has already started to feature its farmers in some of its marketing videos and is in the middle of rolling out new packaging that stresses its farmer ownership.
The new approach is in some ways a throwback to the 1980s and 1990s when the company regularly highlighted its farmers, says Heather Anfang, senior vice president of U.S. dairy foods for Land O’Lakes. In its more recent past, the company switched to talking about the features and benefits of its products rather than the people behind them.
But today’s consumers are more interested in buying goods that are a reflection of their own values, Anfang says. “As we talk to them about supporting a family-owned cooperative and supporting American farmers,” she says, “that’s very relevant to them.” Ford says that the company’s research has consistently shown that farmers are a trusted resource.
Land O’Lakes’ branding move comes amid an industrywide struggle in the dairy sector, especially as milk consumption has declined. Dean Foods, the largest milk producer in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy protection in November. Dairy producer Borden followed in January with its own filing for bankruptcy protection, citing a changing consumer and higher costs.
Land O’Lakes—which sells products made with milk, but not the beverage itself—has been immune to some of these pressures. Instead, the company has doubled down on value-added products like cultured butter, cheese, and refrigerated desserts. “There’s still a lot of growth in dairy,” says Ford.
Ford has been very vocal about the struggles of rural America and its farmers, attempting to call attention to what she calls the country’s “shared destiny” with the heartland. “Our opportunity,” she says, “is to reduce the distances between the consumer and the farmer.”