Today, you may know Land O’Lakes, Inc. as an innovative, data-driven cooperative with careers spanning ag tech, crop inputs, feed, dairy foods and sustainability, but let’s go back to our beginning: In 1921, when 320 Minnesotan dairy farmers came together to form the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association, one of the main reasons they banded together was to find ways to more effectively market their milk.
In today's agriculture industry, assuring that we position and market ourselves effectively is still at the heart of what we do -- from feed to ag tech and everything in between. And we’re making investments to make sure our messages continue to resonate with our increasingly diverse customers.
We’ve been investing in the broader community to make this happen. The marketing industry has seen it time and time again: an increasingly diverse audience base and a less-than-diverse community of marketers trying to appeal to audiences that aren’t necessarily like them. In 2009, John Olson, founder of the advertising agency Olson, brought together ad agency and business leaders, with the goal of bringing diverse, young students into the marketing world.
Leadership leaned in across the Twin Cities to form The BrandLab, a nonprofit that helps high school and college students realize their potential as marketers. And Land O’Lakes leaned in too, right from the start.
More voices = better ideas
The driving force behind our early and continued involvement with The BrandLab has been Barry Wolfish, SVP Fuel for Growth and Ventures, who was part of those early conversations back in 2009 and has been both Board Chair and Chair Emeritus.
“The marketing communications industry has room to grow when it comes to diversity. You can’t have targeted communications without the right people creating the strategies, making the ads and crafting the messages,” says Barry. “The BrandLab helps students understand their value, and it benefits our own business. We’ve been working hard to help build awareness of agriculture and this allows us to have meaningful conversations with students in ways we haven’t before.”
Barry has passed The BrandLab Land O’Lakes leadership torch to Raquel Melo, vice president of Innovation and New Business Development for the Dairy Foods business. And in a few short months, Raquel will serve as the board chair of The BrandLab.
“Having more voices in the room is always going to make for better decisions, more innovation and more creativity,” says Raquel. “We need our marketers to reflect who our audiences are, and our audiences are only becoming more diverse.”
The BrandLab started out in one classroom in 2009. Last year it was in 30 classrooms across the Twin Cities. The Land O’Lakes Foundation has contributed nearly $200,000 to The BrandLab since the start of our partnership, and we have hosted 15 interns in different positions across Land O’Lakes.
All about the students
The BrandLab operates with a “wrap-around” approach, offering coaching, mentorship and internship opportunities to high school and college students.
“When you’re in a classroom with these students, marketing isn’t even in their consideration as a career, a lot of the time,” says Barry. “And then only about half of the kids in the room will know of Land O’Lakes. We get to start these conversations and inspire them to think about new choices and new options.”
Steffanee Jagdeo was one of those students. As a senior in high school, she knew she wanted to go to college and possibly pursue a business degree. But she hadn’t known exactly what that meant. She was able to participate in a case competition at school through The BrandLab and fell in love with marketing.
Now, she’s a sophomore majoring in marketing at the Carlson School of Business Management at the University of Minnesota, with a second major minor in Spanish, to learn the language of her culture she grew up hearing in school and in her community. She’s completed one integrated marketing internship with Purina at Land O’Lakes and had never considered agriculture prior. For her Purina project, Steffanee developed plans for how dealers could best use social media to engage with new audiences. This summer, she’ll be returning as a WinField United marketing intern.
“One thing I loved about the culture was that you could tell that Land O'Lakes invests in their employees and they want you to stay there,” says Steffanee. “As a student of color, and being at these internships, just having diversity within a workplace is so important.”
Connecting the dots across the company
Beyond internships, The BrandLab is looking for ways to sustain connections with students. One of those ways is through mentorship programs that connect students with other businesses in the Twin Cities.
Theresa Schaefer, a marketing manager on the Innovation and New Business Development team in the Dairy Foods business at Land O’Lakes, has mentored BrandLab students for the past two summers.
“Only one of the students I mentored interned at Land O’Lakes. The majority of my mentees interned with agencies,” says Theresa. “We talk about the different experiences they might have working in marketing at a company like Land O’Lakes versus working at an agency. But mostly, I give them the stage and listen to their situations -- challenges and successes -- offering support where it might be needed.” Theresa usually mentors three or four students at a time and is excited to continue mentoring this summer.
“What these students bring to the table is amazing. They have such ambition and energy,” says Theresa. “It may sound clichéd, but I feel that being involved with The BrandLab has helped me develop personally and professionally as well.”
Like Land O’Lakes, The BrandLab is growing too. They’ve recently announced their plans to open a Kansas City office, and are eyeing other metro areas too.
Being part of these larger conversations about inclusion and working together toward a better industry (whether that’s a marketing industry or the agriculture industry), is just woven into the fabric of who we are. It’s where we got our start, all those years ago, when a few farmers came together to more effectively market their milk.
“One of the things I’m most proud of with The BrandLab is how we are growing together,” says Raquel. “We were there at the beginning, and now we get to see it through as The BrandLab expands to Kansas City. As a business, we need to be inclusive and relevant to our audiences, and The BrandLab is propelling the entire marketing industry forward, in the Twin Cities and now beyond.”