Branding a company is like branding a cow

Branding your product (or your company) is just like branding a cow, look and the same principles apply. A stretch? Maybe. But maybe not so much as you might think. Let’s heat up the old iron and take a look at the two meanings of this burning issue for business.

1) A brand (the mark on a cow)

A brand is a shockingly direct little instrument with one very specific purpose: to burn a permanent mark into living tissue — and the word can refer to either the tool or the mark it leaves (on the) behind.

Brands aren’t just for livestock either: they’ve been used throughout recorded history to imprint pets, wood, even slaves and prisoners. In seventeenth century Spain the brand of the Inquisition was applied as a permanent stigma upon those lucky heretics who weren’t killed. And in the extreme body-piercing set, the branding of humans has experienced something of a revival.

Not pretty, but pretty effective…

2) A brand (the mark on a business)

Not so easy to define. Take one of the original brands, Coca-Cola. This brand is a multibillion dollar entity with deep roots and deeper pockets, built up over more than a hundred years of advertising, careful management, and oh, yes, selling soda.

We all recognize this brand and its power. But what is it? It’s a drink. It’s a big and very valuable company. It’s an icon. If you believe the admen, Coke is also a lifestyle. Its presence in our heads is esoteric, subjective — perhaps 50 parts legend, 30 parts awe-struck mystery, and only 20 parts commodity.

The Branding business

Over the past few decades, the very idea of the brand and of “branding” as a business process have become very mystical things. How has this happened? Mostly through the intentional work of gurus, marketing executives, and agencies of various kinds, who have joined forces to create a fog of mystery around the brand. They have developed their own specialized branding vocabulary, perform their secret rites, and hold seminars that quickly take on the air of religious rallies.

I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, all of this effort has been done with the best of intentions, and it has certainly worked: the message is out there that a brand is an important thing that deserves special attention. This effort has elevated the status and highlighted the real dollar value of brands – all good things, especially for those of us in the branding business.

However, this mystification, almost deification of the brand, has its down sides. For one, it has led to the development of “superbrands” – trans-national entities that have slipped the surly bonds of earth to become almost all brand and no product. While that phenomenon isn’t the focus of this article, Naomi Klein documents the hubris, sweatshops, and environmental devastation that have accompanied the rise of the superbrands brilliantly in her 2000 book No Logo.

For our purposes, the most direct effect of the mystification of the brand on the average business has been that it has made effective, practical branding seem like a complicated, unattainable goal.

Back to cows

Which brings us back to cows. Remember the brand was invented to help people herd cows, and I would argue that whether you’re herding cows, boxes of soap, fibre-optic cables, or eyeballs on the Internet, the basic principles apply.

So how is applying a red hot iron instrument to the backside of a cow like applying a brand to a corporation or a product? In more ways than you might think actually. I give you 10 immutable principles of cattle branding – all of which are just as important for today’s new-economy cowboy as they were for the ranchers of yesterday. For each one, I’ll describe the principle in terms of cattle, then I’ll apply it to the modern concept of branding as we know it today.

So listen up cowpoke.

Nine principles of cattle (and business) branding

  1.  Branding seems easy… till you try it.
  2. A brand says who owns ’em, and who’s responsible for ’em.
  3. Brands are part of a system that helps people find things.
  4. The bigger the range, the greater the need. The brand’s gotta be unique.
  5. You gotta spot the brand from a distance, so keep it simple.
  6. Keep your branding iron in a safe place.
  7. Don’t let ’em squirm.
  8. The more it hurts, the longer it lasts.
  9. A brand lasts a lifetime.
  10. Branding season comes once a year.


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