For a long time, the only yogurt product Hawthorne Valley Farm carried was plain yogurt in a quart container. The farm sells the yogurt at their onsite farm store, at New York City's Union Square Greenmarket, and several natural food stores and supermarkets throughout the northeast, so their exposure is limited. But if you think the organic dairy market is peaceful and gentle, think again: competition is fierce, and the explosion in local and organic foods has made it incumbent on enterprises like Hawthorne Valley to present a more professional image on the shelf. Everything from wine to cheese to cereal and pasta sauce now come in the organic variety, so it's critical to build these brands to stand out not only against other organic brands, but amongst the regular—and usually more popular—food brands.
When the farm called Julia Reich, they were expanding their product line, adding a smaller 6-oz. cup and two new flavors as part of a fresh strategy. Hiring a professional graphic designer was the logical next step. The designer's direct report? The farm manager. The designer's greatest challenge? Flattening a steep learning curve when it came to logos, branding, and graphic design.
Says Reich, "Our charge was to develop cup designs for the two new flavors, while taking into account an expanding color palette that could be used for future yogurt flavors. We were instructed not to touch their logo—that cow was sacred."
Cows are NOT Funny
The client was comfortable with the cow graphic the way it was: a graceful, serene rendering, meant to show respect for an animal that they felt was too often depicted as cartoonish and silly, like the Borden Corporation's famous mascot, Elsie the Cow, or the lovely and almost timeless La Vache qui Rit, "The Laughing Cow."
With an untouchable cow, what remained in play were the logo's background, color, and type treatment. "We did need to smooth out the line work, which was inconsistently rendered and rough," says Reich. "We also decided to redesign the background landscape, since we decided it was a hard read as mountains and pastures."
The designers also took a wee bit of liberty: they tidied up Serene Sitting Cow's lines to flatter her and make her more legible. "We cleaned her up a little," notes Reich. "We did not change her." Working happily with the farm manager, before he passed it off to his wife, Reich's team got approval for a new label design with refreshed cow and landscape.
Then someone decided to show the new label design to a young woman who had just come to work at the farm. She told the boss that the proximity of the cow's rear to the official USDA Organic seal made the seal look like "poop coming out the cow's butt."
Suddenly the cow was not so sacred. The client instructed Reich to begin exploring new versions of the cow. She began looking for new ways to approach the old cow. "Our office is located in rural central New York, where there are, luckily, lots of dairy farms with cows available to be photographed in various poses," Reich says.
Reich turned the design and the cow around so it faced forward. Eventually, however, the client returned to the previously approved label with the cow facing backwards. The new label was approved and the cups were produced. The new packages hit the shelves in early 2009.
Rain and Mud
All of this raises the question: Was the client correct to keep the serene sitting cow exactly as before? Should the designer have been more forceful in advocating for the initial design and, later, for the forward-oriented cow label design? Every case is different. Reich explains:
"Sure, they drove me crazy, but I loved them. The kind people I was dealing with were not visually savvy and did not have experience with graphic design. We talked more about the rain and mud sometimes than anything else. But I look at the bigger picture. The mission of Hawthorne Valley Farm is wonderful. Their products are good for you. I appreciate what they do and I put this at the core of our relationship. I want to help them go to a new level—but things can move organically, slowly. There is no rush."
Every organization has its challenges: design by committee, mean-spiritedness, personal incompetence, and blame passing. Hawthorne Valley Farm might have their own issues, but nothing awful or dispiriting. There was a committee of but two—the farm manager and his wife—and the usual rain and mud were the only "dirty" aspects of the job.
Everything flowed with the natural order. Cows. Sunrise. Sunset. If Reich did not achieve all her goals, she has at least planted the seed. So wait and see: that cow will come around. Julia Reich is patient.