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Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford shares the real reason the brand ditched its ‘butter maiden’

May 20, 2020, 11:15 AM UTC

The 98-year-old dairy brand Land O’Lakes in February redesigned its packaging, replacing a logo featuring a Native American woman—the “butter maiden”—with the words “farmer-owned.” While the change was widely seen as a response to the pressure companies face to reevaluate outdated or insensitive symbols, CEO Beth Ford says the decision was more about what the farmer-owned co-op wanted to communicate rather than what it didn’t.

“We don’t want folks to misunderstand that someone was pressuring [us],” Ford told members of Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women community at a virtual gathering on Tuesday.

The revamp started with a months-long review of how consumers viewed the Land O’Lakes brand. “For folks my age—I’m a Baby Boomer—many people understand our brand,” Ford said. “But most consumers today are unfamiliar with the fact that we’re a farmer-owned co-operative.” For millennials and other shoppers taking a more ingredient-conscious approach to food purchasing, Ford and her team saw Land O’Lakes’ connection to local farmers as an advantage for a Fortune 500 food brand. “Consumers today are interested in understanding, where does my food comes from?” she said. “We saw that as a difference and we wanted to shout about that.”

Since February—a period of time that covers both Land O’Lakes’ rebrand and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic—the company has seen a 35% increase in new consumers “step[ping] into our franchise,” with purchases that feature images of real farmers on the packaging, Ford said. “We’re going to see whether that engagement stays with the brand,” she added.

Ford spoke with Fortune senior editor Beth Kowitt about leading through the coronavirus crisis, including the challenges in pivoting a hyper-efficient food supply chain with just-in-time delivery from supplying restaurants to feeding consumers—families aren’t likely to buy the same “640-lb. block of cheese” as a restaurant, Ford noted. Most challenges haven’t been in production, however, but in distribution. Focus Brands chief operating officer Kat Cole also weighed in on the issue: “Other than a few proteins, the issue for restaurants has not largely been supply,” Cole said. “The drivers and trucks all went to Amazon and grocery stores. They are not available to go from a distribution center to a restaurant that maybe now has lower drop sizes, inconsistent operating volumes, or lower average sales.”

During social isolation, Ford is doubling down on Land O’Lakes’ efforts to advocate for rural America. One in three rural Americans lack broadband access, even as that access becomes more important than ever as schools and work move online. “We have to push for major investment to meet the moment, like the 1930s investment in rural electricity,” she said.

Workers, like the drivers who are so in demand during this moment, should be the priority for businesses, Ford told her fellow corporate leaders. “If you are not putting the focus on your team right now,” she said, “you’ve lost the narrative if you’re not focusing on that as the primary issue.”