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After months of research, an effort to rebrand Northfield – dubbed the land of cows, colleges and contentment over a century ago – is sticking to the familiar, keeping most of the well-known slogan while allowing for a slight update.

The city will now use the slogan "Cows, Colleges and Community" while encouraging officials, residents and businesses to fill in the third blank with words that begin with "c" when the situation calls for it. Think words like "culture", "courage", "choirs" and even "coffee".

"When it ain't broken and it really works in the case of this tagline, keep it," said Jeff Johnson, founder of Replace, a Minneapolis design firm that works on civic branding projects. "Don't burn it all down."

It's a "modular and interchangeable" solution for a creative community, Johnson said, adding that few cities start with such a beloved and recognizable slogan.

The city also is debuting a new logo: the letter "N" in shades of royal blue and grass green with an arrow pointing upward, signifying both north and progress, Johnson said.

A second version, reading "city of Northfield, Minnesota" is meant to look somewhat handwritten, he said, and includes quirky touches like the letter "o" at a slant. It replaces a previous logo featuring the city's name with a blue and green swoosh beneath it.

The Northfield City Council approved most changes in January but will vote on a few final elements, such as color schemes, next week.

The city of Northfield's new logo.
The city of Northfield's new logo.

A nod to history

The rebranding project began 18 months ago, said Mayor Rhonda Pownell, with the creation of a branding advisory committee made up of city officials and residents. That committee did much of the research for free, saving money.

Previously, "Northfield didn't have a unified brand and messaging," Pownell said. "We knew that there were a multitude ... of different logos, different messages and themes."

The committee conducted an online survey and held a series of community events. Eventually, the city hired Johnson's firm, which cost about $45,000, she said.

Bob Thacker, a former marketing executive for Target and branding committee member, helped in those early stages. At a public workshop, several key words emerged to describe Northfield: vibrant, charming and creative, he said.

And they realized many people loved the existing tagline, Thacker said. "It was really unique for something that was over a hundred years old."

The survey showed 34% of respondents believed "Cows, Colleges and Contentment" was very relevant, while 42% said it was somewhat relevant.

Northfield's Convention and Visitors Bureau website explains the tagline was first coined by the Northfield Commercial Club in 1914 because local farmers had taken the lead in raising Holstein cows. By 1916, Northfield had 5,532 Holsteins and 261 breeders, earning the city the title of "Holstein Capital of America."

The word "cows" suggests both the town's history and the local importance of agribusiness, Johnson said, while "colleges" nods to academic rigor, reason and the presence of Carleton College and St. Olaf College, both top liberal arts colleges. The third word, however, could signal complacency, which has a less-than-positive connotation, Johnson said.

People already had been adapting the tagline to specific situations, he said, noting that one college changed it to "Cows, Colleges and Consent" to fit a discussion on the importance of consent in romantic relationships. He's seen the phrase "Cows, Colleges and Christmas" used around the holidays.

Johnson said he's never come up with a fluid tagline for a city before, though he's worked on branding campaigns for cities like Willmar, Delano and Columbia Heights. But he did something similar when he worked on a project with the Minnesota State Fair in 2013, encouraging fair officials to change up the word "fun" in its slogan, "Twelve Days of Fun Ending Labor Day."

Not all municipalities realize they're competing with other cities as a place to live or start a business, Johnson said, but Northfield officials were aware.

Ben Martig, Northfield city administrator, said the rebranding effort fits with the city's goal "to establish our niche in the region — and even around the country a little — around economic vitality." The new phrase has been received favorably so far, though there's a small group of residents who have questioned the value of branding.

Chloe Kiener, owner of Goodbye Blue Monday coffee shop in downtown Northfield, said she didn't know about the change. But she said she likes the new tagline and thinks it's creative.

Kiener was curious whether the main sign welcoming people to Northfield, which features the longtime tagline, will be changed.

"That's a big part of when you come into town," she said.

Martig said the sign probably will be updated with "Cows, colleges and community".

Downtown Bicycles in Northfield uses a cow silhouette on a striped background in its advertising. A St. Olaf College student created the logo about 10 years ago, said Ben Playter, the store's service manager.

"My personal standpoint is, I would have left [the tagline] the same," Playter said, adding that if it had to be changed, he appreciated the nod to the past.

Pownell – who liked the original slogan and the word "contentment" – said the legacy tagline with "contentment" can still be used occasionally.

"The fact that the people can make it their own with the tagline really has a Northfield feel to me," she said.