When Dick Williams took over as vice-president at the Gardenia Cheese Co. in South Gate, Calif., two years ago, he had a number of urgent projects to undertake. Near the top of his list was the task of improving the company's image in the marketplace. The image was, at best, confused.

Gardenia, founded in 1946, makes mozzarella, ricotta, and string cheese that it distributes mainly to delicatessens and restaurants. As the company prospered and grew into larger production and distribution facilities, package designs and the company logotype, or symbol, periodically changed. At one point, when the company moved from the southern California community of Gardena, even the company name underwent a slight variation, from Gardena to Gardenia. To back up the new name, the two owners adopted the gardenia flower as a corporate symbol. "From that point on," says Glen: Lohstreter, president, "the original design grew like Topsy," as the owners experimented on the design with different typefaces and shades of color.

By the time Williams joined the company in 1980, there were, he estimates, at least 15 different designs still in use for name cards, sales materials, and even product packages. All this made the company image confusing while competition was growing keener.

Too many companies pay scant attention to how their corporate symbol is perceived in the marketplace, and they worry even less about such things as graphic design, that is, the layout and color scheme of letterheads, brochures, and product packaging. Instead, they lump corporate design in the same category as interior decorating -- an unnecessary expense until profits are so substantial that there is money to spend on making a good appearance. Few executives seriously connect graphic design with effective marketing.

Gardenia's problem was most acute because the company was then expanding its consumer market by stocking its products in the refrigerated cheese sections of supermarkets. Williams suspected, and confirmed with the help of Tauber & Tauber, a Palos Verdes, Calif., market research firm, that Gardenia's products were not clearly recognized by shoppers.

Williams went after professional help to deal with the problem and got bids from three design firms before choosing Harte Yamashita & Forest, a Los Angeles firm with expertise in packaged goods. He requested a completely new look for all company graphics, including logo, packaging, shipping labels, order forms, name cards, and even the decals for delivery trucks.

Gardenia, like its competitors, had always used the colors red and green. Most of the companies were started by Italian cheesemakers, who had proudly adopted the colors of their native country -- and whose graphics all ended up looking alike. The professional designers changed the name on the package from Gardenia Cheese Co. Inc. to simply Gardenia -- in large, easy-to-read type -- and chose the color orange to give a feeling of freshness.

Williams, who recently left Gardenia to run his own company, warns that a company can have a slight and temporary drop in sales while customers become acquainted with the "new" product. Still, Gardenia is confident that the new design for the packages and all the supporting graphics will pay off.

In 1978, Gardenia became a subsidiary of Unigate PLC of London, but, says Lohstreter, the change in ownership had no impact on the company's marketing or corporate identity program. Lohstreter estimates that 1982 sales will total about $25 million.

The national mania for physical fitness and recreation has been a boon for some sporting goods manufacturers. It has also made competition tougher than ever.

As a manufacturer of sporting goods General Sportcraft Co., of Bergenfield N.J., with annual sales of about $20 million, decided to review the way its products looked and were presented to customers. "The corporate design dated back about 15 years," says Kenneth J. Edelson president of the privately held company. "What looked great back then needed a facelift. We were looking for something clear and crisp that would stand apart from competitors on retail shelves."

General Sportcraft called in Selame Design of Newton Lower Falls, Mass., after Edelson had seen work the firm had done for a manufacturer of jams and jellies in Roseland, N.J. A roster of previous clients also impressed Edelson: Stop & Shop, Eastman Kodak, Siemens, and Amoco Oil.

Selame first evaluated the way Sportcraft looked to the public and to its retailers. Research confirmed that the line lacked identity and unity. For example, the company's name is written as one word -- Sportcraft -- but on packaging, Sport was positioned above Craft. Packaging colors also varied widely because no one had ever established precisely which shades and hues to use. Carton designs were cluttered and dated.

Selame designed a clean white package with red and blue stripes, "colors that connote sports and patriotism," says Edelson. The name of the product is in large, black, bold type, for quick and strong identification on store shelves. In some instances, an open window in the carton permits a piece of the item, such as a dart board, badminton racquet, bocce ball, or horseshoes, to protrude. The customer can touch the product without opening a sealed package.

Edelson reports that the striking packaging has helped Sportcraft land several major new accounts. "With more and more sports equipment being sold in chain stores and by mass merchandisers, there is much less personal selling and greater impulse buying," he says. "The package has become much more important in our business. It's the outer box that says 'buy me."

Rana Systems, launched in October 1981, in Carson, Calif., had more than its share of start-up problems. Just the same, the design of its corporate logotype, its trademark, and the package in which its first item -- a floppy disk drive for Apple's home and small business computers-would be sold became issues of primary importance.

"From Day One we wanted to be seen in the marketplace as a professional company with the look of an IBM or Radio Shack," says Fran Mulvania, advertising director. "The marketplace has changed. Not too long ago, the customer was ar engineer or a computer hobbyist. He didn't care if the product came in a brown paper bag. He could decide for himself how good the item was. Now we're marketing to businesspeople, teachers, and others with less technical expertise. We need to attract them by having a package that reassures them that what they're buying is a quality product."

In selecting a corporate design firm, Mulvania took a close look at the graphics of other companies. She was especially impressed with a Los Angeles firm, Huerta Design Associates, whose clients include General Mills, Carnation, Rain Bird Sprinkler Manufacturing, Tyco Industries, Knott's Berry Farm, Bushnell Optical, Continental Air Lines, and AMF Voit. Mulvania asked several Huerta Design customers how well Huerta had followed through on projects, met deadlines, and stayed within budgets.

Satisfied with the responses, Mulvania and Michael Mock, Rana's executive vice-president, met twice with representatives from Huerta before signing a contract. "You should be sure that when you express an idea or feeling about what you want, the designers understand you," says Mulvania, who was particularly impressed by how thoroughly Huerta's people understood Rana's marketplace and competition. "Also be sure to have your budget set before you meet with the firm, and ask for estimates on any project they might undertake."

Mock and Mulvania established the criteria: "We wanted whatever design we adopted to work from the start and to last," says Mock. "We didn't want to change as new products were introduced." Huerta prepared 20 different logo designs and three variations of color schemes before Rana's final approval. The chosen color scheme and design elements were incorporated into all company materials -- price lists, brochures, trade and consumer advertisements, letterheads, cards, press releases, and, of course, the shipping containers and the products themselves.

In spring issues of consumer computer magazines, Rana's ads pulled 10,000 replies and outdrew competitors three to one, claims Mulvania. She credits the results largely to the impact of the company's design and layouts. So far Rana has spent about $40,000 for its graphics program, including the design of a portable trade show display booth. Rana expects to ring up sales of $3 million in 1982 and then hit $10 million in 1983.

While a change in identity can dramatically improve a company's appearance in the marketplace, it is no panacea, especially if not carefully researched and executed. Several corporate designers offer these suggestions if you decide to embark on a corporate identity program. * Before selecting a design firm, get bids from several. Meet personally with the designers to review your objectives. Check with several references to find out how successful their programs have been and whether the relationship with the design firm was satisfactory.

* Don't decide overnight that you want a whole new look. You may be able to keep certain traditional elements of your image -- recognized by loyal customers-while making subtle changes that give the company's image a fresher, more contemporary appearance.

* Know your objectives when you sit down with designers. For example, you may want to differentiate products while maintaining a strong family resemblance within a line. Provide as much information as possible about your marketplace and future strategies.

* Set your budget before talking to designers. Get estimates from them for all future projects. Make sure you and the designer are working toward the same deadlines. Good design cannot be done in a week.

* Choose a firm that is willing to spend time talking with you and analyzing your marketplace. Good design firms will study the packaging and design of competitors and will require more than superficial information about your company's history and plans regarding, say, new product introductions.

* Make sure key executives understand and support the corporate facelifting. Top management, not a secretary, should work closely with the designer.

* Check with professional design associations for the names of reputable firms. Well-respected organizations include the American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1059 Third Ave., New York, NY10021; Industrial Designers Society of America, 6802 Poplar Place, Suite 303, McLean, VA 22101; and Package Designers Council, P.O. Box 3753, Grand Central Station New York, NY 10017.