Princess Kay at 60: Six Dairy Good Decades

News-distribution service PR Newswire is celebrating its 60th anniversary this month, and they’ve asked several agencies around the country to ruminate on how the communications industry has changed over the past six decades. From our perspective, it’s been an, er, udderly wild ride.

One of our clients, the Midwest Dairy Association, celebrated a similar milestone last year as its iconic Princess Kay of the Milky Way program hit the big 6-0. And while communications technology and the way we consume media have made seismic leaps since 1954, media and public interest in the ingenious and decidedly Minnesotan Princess Kay program has remained constant and – dare we say it? – legen-dairy.

In the early 1950s, the nonprofit funded by dairy farmers launched a program to bolster understanding of Minnesota’s dairy industry and increase consumer awareness by crowning one farmer’s daughter “Princess Kay of the Milky Way.” The tradition quickly became one of the most iconic elements of the Minnesota State Fair, an important piece of the dairy industry’s marketing effort, and a part of the national culture.

So how has communication surrounding the Princess Kay program changed over the years? Much like Minnesota’s dairy industry, it has evolved, but many of the core elements remain the same:

It’s a national story. Eleanor Maley Thatcher was crowned the first Princess Kay in 1954, out of 2,700 competitors at the county, regional and state levels. One of her first duties was a trip to Paris to present 48 bottles of milk – one for each state – to the prime minister for his efforts to convince the French people to drink more milk and less wine. Along the way, she met with media’s crème de la crème, from Edward R. Murrow to The Today Show, and ended up in newspapers across the country and on Movietone News. The association estimated that the trip sparked nearly one million dollars’ worth of publicity.

Today, Princess Kay stays closer to home, but her story continues to resonate across Minnesota and across the country, thanks to coverage by national media outlets like The Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, Good Morning AmericaNewsweek and Buzzfeed, as well as intense coverage by nearly every media outlet in the state. Last summer’s media efforts generated nearly 600 stories.

It’s a tradition, yet innovative. The Princess Kay program hasn’t strayed from its main reason-for-being – to act as an ambassador for the state’s dairy industry – but it has introduced new and newsworthy elements over its history. In the early ‘60s, organizers debuted a dress made of 475 round-cornered squares cut from one-pound butter cartons representing the various creameries in Minnesota.

And in 1965, the program made a dramatic mooove with the arrival of the “butterhead.” Karen Bracken was the first Princess Kay to have her likeness carved out of a block of butter, which has gone on to become the iconic image of the Princess Kay program. Since then, the sculpting has turned into a spectator sport, with each year’s 12 finalists getting their likeness carved into 90-pound blocks of solid butter while they sit in a rotating, 40-degree, glass-encased booth in front of thousands of people at the Minnesota State Fair. Four years ago, the Midwest Dairy Association introduced a Facebook app, “Butter-Fy Yourself,” which let fans upload photos of themselves to see what they’d look like carved out of butter, and then post the images online. Through it all, though, what hasn’t changed is that the state’s dairy industry chooses a smart, passionate young woman to represent Minnesota’s dairy-farming families each year. That’s the major reason for the program’s success.

It’s all about person-to-person connection. In the early years of the program, Princess Kay did everything from co-hosting the International Dairy Show with Miss Universe, to delivering butter to Congress for June Dairy Month, to appearing at the Minnesota State Fair with “Jerry the Talking Dairy Train.”

Today, outreach continues to be a major part of Princess Kay’s duties. She travels to every corner of Minnesota, speaking at dozens of schools and events. Regardless of whether it’s via a classroom visit or a conversation on her Facebook page, Princess Kay connects with people on a one-to-one level. Seeing a young woman in a tiara crouch down to a kindergartener’s level and look him or her in the eyes while she actively listens and talks about Minnesota’s dairy industry is the very definition of engagement. She’s able to build relationships with everyone she meets, many of whom have never set foot on a farm before.

Through the years, Princess Kay has made an impact on the dairy industry as a high-profile, accessible representative of the people behind the products, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Thanks to PR Newswire for giving us the nudge to take a look back at Princess Kay’s history. Raise a glass of milk with us, won’t you? Here’s to another 60 years!

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