Last night I went into a cornershop to buy a pint of milk. They didn’t have any normal milk, but they did have something called ‘Modern Milk’. I picked up a carton of the milk chocolate version, looked at the packaging and entered a parallel world of milky surrealism.

Naturally, I was first drawn to the image of the coat-wearing cow taking two dogs for a walk. I say walk, for some reason they’re dressed for walkies but are standing still, as if at an imaginary bus stop. I spent a few seconds trying to understand what’s going on with the little canine (skin disease?) but finally realised that he’s wearing a waistcoat with a cow design. This seemed less odd than the long bobble hat on the head of the bigger brown dog. I then noticed that the cow’s coat pocket contained a magazine called ‘City Guide’. So a cow and two dogs dressed for a country walk are waiting at an invisible bus stop so they can go sightseeing in the city? It seems they are.

My conservative need for brand packaging to make sense was causing me disquiet, so it was with some relief that I noticed there was a strap line (for we all know that many a wandering concept has been tethered to meaning by a great strap). The words were reproduced upside down, but through subtle use of my human hands I managed to read it. It said ‘thinks differently™’. This felt a tad familiar.

I turned to the copy on the side for help.

‘We know you love milk on cereals or to put the froth on a latte and now here’s a modern and great tasting way to introduce more milk into your daily routine.’ Blimey, they do think differently, I thought. They’re not afraid to start with a longish sentence that’s not easy to understand in one gulp. I rather liked them for that. And for not even trying to sound like Innocent. Having re-read the opener, I moved to the second sentence. ‘Quite simply, Modern Milk is the new deliciously sophisticated milk for today’s busy people and it comes in a range of grown up, subtle flavours.’

By this stage I was close to becoming addicted to grazing the peculiar conceptual meadows of Modern Milk. I wondered, who were the purveyors of this contemporary ambrosia? I went to the company’s website to find out more:

‘Created by Lakeland Dairies, an Irish dairy co-operative with over 100 years of tradition in the production of premium milk, cream and butter, Modern Milk is the Emerald Isle’s newest dairy offering, one that is uniquely healthy and deliciously different. With farms spread across Northern and Southern Ireland, dairy farming is a way of life for our prized farmers as they share their expertise from generation to generation. Passionate about maintaining high standards, their cows are free to graze the lush, green pastures that Ireland is so well known for, reaping the benefits of a grass diet to produce the freshest and best milk.’

Explore the site and you’ll see that their other products include Lush Banana and Honey (featuring a cow in a running vest); Ripe Strawberry and Raspberry (a beret-wearing art student cow using a laptop); and Smooth Coffee with a hint of Vanilla (a cow wearing a tweed jacket reading The City Moos).

OK, back to reality. There are things I like about the way this brand communicates and things that seem more odd than ‘different’. I admire its attempts to be friendly and its risk appetite for striking imagery. The odd images of cows in ‘modern’ scenarios could become something of a cult hit (think Compare the meerkat). I’m pleased the brand doesn’t go down the trampled country road of ‘isn’t Ireland a grand land full of green grass and gently humorous characters and a simple way of life and won’t you come in and have a drink by the fire you will I’m sure’. Also, the handy carton fits in a bag or coat pocket. Clearly, some people are working hard to turn a commodity into an added value brand, and I know that’s important for many dairies and dairy farmers.

On the other hand, the communications seem confusing to me, often saying one thing and showing another. The illustrations on the packs aren’t sophisticated or modern, and they may need to be stretched into the territory of knowing irony to work. The most serious reservations I have relate to words, however. The writing tries to make too many points in one sentence. The ‘thinks differently’ visual tone isn’t matched by the verbal tone, which quickly lapses into generic marketing-speak (‘uniquely healthy’, ‘introduce more milk into your daily routine’). And there are some plain old solecisms. For example, Modern Milk’s cows are apparently ‘passionate about maintaining high standards’. Best practice-minded ungulates – now that would be truly modern.

Perhaps it’s because I’m descended from a line of Irish dairy farmers, but I feel a certain warmth towards Modern Milk and sense there’s potential for it to become a characterful and coherent brand. The brand’s owner clearly wants to make it stand out. But to achieve that in the right way – and over the long term – the company might have to thinks differently about its brand language.


PS The chocolate milk is delicious.

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