The decision by dairy brand Land O’Lakes to eliminate the kneeling Native American woman offering up sticks of butter on its logo marks the end of a problematic mascot with a nearly 100-year history.
As of April 30, she—who, by some accounts, was named Mia—is still featured on products on the website. Land O’Lakes said it expects the rollout of its revised logo to be complete by the end of the year.
But, like an executive who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar and decided to take an early retirement, the brand has virtually nothing to say about Mia or her disappearance after 92 years.
“As it approaches its 100th anniversary in 2021, the co-op has reflected on its treasured history and made the decision to showcase its greatest strength: its farmers,” according to a statement announcing the logo change.
In an email to Adweek, communications director Natalie Long reiterated the brand’s focus on farmers. She did not respond to questions about the prior logo or criticism from Native American advocacy groups that have called it a disrespectful, antiquated symbol.
This is not a new phenomenon.
Suzan Shown Harjo, executive director of the indigenous rights organization Morning Star Institute, has campaigned against the use of American Indian names and imagery for promotional purposes since the 1960s.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the retirement of American Indian mascots based on “a growing body of social science literature that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals.”
And a recent U.C. Berkeley study found that more than half of the 1,000 Native Americans it surveyed are offended by native mascots. That includes 57% who strongly identify with being Native American and 67% of those who frequently engage in tribal cultural practices who said they are deeply insulted by caricatures of Native American culture.
Moving forward with better representation
And so while advocacy groups are pleased by the change, they acknowledge that more work remains to be done.
“We take this development as a positive sign that Land O’Lakes takes seriously its corporate responsibility to treat all peoples and cultures with respect, and we encourage all companies that peddle products displaying stereotypical Native-‘themed’ imagery to follow suit,” said Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, in a statement. “Americans need to learn the truth about the beauty and diversity of tribal nations, peoples and cultures today, and discarding antiquated symbols like this is a step in the right direction.”
Leah Salgado, deputy director of IllumiNative, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the visibility of Native American nations and peoples, called the change a “great thing” because in part of representation. In fact, Crystal Echo Hawk, founder of IlluniNative and president of Echo Hawk Consulting, and a group of Native artists, thought leaders and allies, published a study in 2018 that found 72% of Americans rarely encounter information about Native people and 78% know little to nothing about them.
“A lot of folks don’t even believe we exist,” Salgado said. “There’s a gap in knowledge filled with a variety of different stereotypes and myths driven by representations in popular culture. One of those is the Land O’Lakes butter Indian princess. And, really, research has shown us, time and time again—these types of representations about Native people dehumanize us. It’s 2020, we deserve to be seen in a contemporary light. Getting rid [of the Land O’Lakes mascot] is one way we can move forward with better representation.”
Larry Chiagouris, professor of marketing at Pace University, said Land O’Lakes was founded on the principles of purity and wholesomeness nearly 100 years ago, and there’s “no doubt that someone such as an Indian might have represented, at the time of their launch, those qualities. [Native Americans] as people were respected for their knowledge of and respect of nature … and it probably was a very good fit in the early years of the brand.”
But times change. And Land O’Lakes is just one of several big CPG brands with a mascot still trading heavily in stereotypes in 2020.
Employing the ‘just-noticeable difference’
While Americus Reed, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said he does not understand the conceptual connection between Land O’Lakes deciding to drop an offensive image and promote farmers instead, he pointed to a psychology concept called the just-noticeable difference as a potential explanation for removing what he described as “a Pocahontas stereotype.”
“The idea is that there are times when you want to stay a little under the radar and make changes that don’t stand out too much and draw attention to yourself—it’s a 52 fake out, a distraction: ‘The farmers! Look over here!’” Reed said.
As a result, by not talking about Mia or its decision to remove her, the brand doesn’t risk upsetting consumers on either side of the political spectrum.
“This might be a way to do the right thing, but under the radar,” Reed explained. ‘”Let’s stay under the just-noticeable difference to keep everybody happy.'”
But, Reed added, this is a mistake, in part because younger consumers are increasingly demanding to know what brands stand for—and research has shown purpose-driven companies that take stands are more respected, even by consumers on the other side of the spectrum.
“They may say, ‘Yeah, I don’t agree with you, but I appreciate the fact that you’re getting rid [of this mascot] because it’s offensive to a large enough group of people,’ as opposed to dancing around and talking about farmers,” Reed said.
Look no further than a brand like Nike and its partnership with NFL star-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick. While some consumers responded by burning shoes on Twitter, Reed said, “Nike is saying, ‘Here’s who we are, this is our why, and we’re not trying to attract everybody—we want to attract people who align with our brand.’”
Then again, Reed conceded, “Butter is butter,” so there may be a commodity argument here because dairy products don’t signal consumer identity like apparel does.
“[So they may be saying] we’re just butter and we don’t want to piss off a bunch of people who say, ‘Enough with the offensiveness of the stereotype,’ or consumers who say, ‘Enough with political correctness,'” added Reed. “They’re just better walking a fine line.”
Missing an opportunity
But, Salgado said, it’s a missed opportunity to talk about why this kind of change is important.
“They probably knew this was wrong, and they decided to sidestep it,” Salgado said, adding that it’s an “interesting” move to take itself out of the conversation even as “contemporary Native women talking about how this image has impacted them are being attacked [on Twitter]. Land O’Lakes could have started a great conversation about why this kind of change is important.”
Furthermore, Salgado said Land O’Lakes “missed a big opportunity to … be an example for other companies and sports teams.”
While he, too, praised Land O’Lakes’ decision, Dan Gasby, partner of lifestyle guru B. Smith who has campaigned for PepsiCo to drop Aunt Jemima, guessed Land O’Lakes isn’t talking because “it’s the third rail [of marketing].”
“It’s the last vestige of colonialism and slavery and white privilege,” he added.
Still, Salgado said she’s excited to move forward: “We deserve better than this Land O’Lakes mascot, and hopefully we’ll get it.”