Where have all the [brand] cowboys gone? In recent years, a change in origin (source) and ownership of brand identity has thrust company brands onto a wild new frontier and suggests a whole new set of questions that marketers and brand stewards must ask.
I visit his office regularly, as I have done over the many years we have worked together as colleagues and collaborators to build good businesses. Each time I visit, I notice it: a long slender iron rod with a whimsical filigree of letters at the end. With careful examination I can just make out the text “M & O”.
Almost immediately, my imagination transports me to the dusty, ever-expanding frontier of the North American west in the 1800’s. Horses’ hooves tear at the prairie grass as they dart to and fro among a swirling, heaving throng. Cattle bellow and rugged cowboys – chiselled jaws set, reins in hand – shout to direct the thundering herd. Determination tangles with fear, and the roundup is under way.
Hats fly, ropes twirl, and frightened, disoriented calves are brought close to glowing embers. The fiery coals heat the metal symbols of ownership—“LC” for Lonesome Creek, a misshapen fletch for the Broken Arrow Ranch, or a crooked “C” for Leonard Carter. With a momentary sizzle and a hint of smoke, the glowing end of that slender iron rod – grasped tightly in the weathered hand of a sweat-soaked cowboy – makes an indelible mark on a fresh hide.
This used to be the way branding worked not just on the western frontier but also among the galloping throng of business. Branding declared ownership and proprietorship. A brand suggested a future dictated by the owner, and it was evidence of control. The assumption was that a brand could simply be fashioned and applied (by a blacksmith and cowboy, or a marketing and advertising agency) and the resulting image would be understood and respected.
It worked that way for companies like Kodak, whose brand position, led by George Eastman’s desire to make photography accessible, was constructed around the concept “you push the button, we do the rest” which led to the highly successful and recognizable “easy-capture” brand identity. Kodak claimed this position as its external identity and built an empire around it. But later, consumers also took ownership of that identity and came to define its limits and direction.
It is not news to point out that a revolution has swept across the plains. A brand is no longer a claimed identity created from within and delivered to those outside in the form of image, promise and assertion. A brand is now a bestowed identity shaped and granted by those outside a company as much as those inside it.
This movement towards a socially licensed brand has reset the mechanics of branding. Brands must now originate from real identity, like us. People cannot form an identity in isolation. We discover our identity through appreciating our intrinsic uniqueness in the context of the relationships we have. In a personal world, where brands and individuals engage in one-to-one dialog, the same must now be true of brands.
Brand has become something that a company discovers (continually) as it relates to others, reconciling knowledge of its own identity with what other people believe about and desire from it. Today, a brand originates in relationship to others, and therefore brand identity is bestowed.
And yet, in much of the language of marketing, the old frontier attitudes of possession and control continue to inform our notions of brand. Brand messaging is outbound, seeks reach, scores impressions, creates demand, builds awareness, and reaches toward a target audience. Obviously, we still seem to operate based on the assumption that a brand can be fashioned and then broadcast to a neatly targeted constituency. We continue to believe that the owner’s mark, cleverly bullhorned over the din of digital media to the far corners of communication, is what lays claim to an identity. This is no longer true. The sooner we accept that, the more likely we are to survive on the new frontier.
Returning to our weathered cowboys on the dust-swept prairie, unbeknownst to those trying brand the cattle, a throng of people have gathered round the flickering heap of embers. The townspeople elbow themselves to within reach of the flames, and the grizzled brand-handlers begin to give way.
No one paid these townspeople much mind before. They were mostly irrelevant and uninvolved except at the moment when they would, currency in hand, call upon the butcher for beef. But now they filter into the once exclusive camp, keen to make their own marks upon the hides of the calves under heel. They’re armed with spray cans, marker pens and scissors, with which they reshape the hides to reflect designs and images they prefer, and show them to friends who mimic their creativity. Soon, the hallowed marks of branded ownership are unrecognizable, and the real meaning of the symbols of brand become known only to the communities they represent.
This is the new exercise of branding. As if today’s hyper-branded world was not complex enough, influence over brand has been democratized.