Branding Lessons From The Ranch – Part 1

As is fitting for a branding expert, I live on a ranch.  Or at least it used to be a ranch.  Up until a half dozen years ago the ridge overlooking the Elbow River Valley was home to a herd of 250 Herefords.

Today the former rangeland is a thriving subdivision of jewel box bungalows and two storey walkouts surrounded by Kentucky Bluegrass lawns.

The cattle have left the land, but if you think back to the days of the ranch, there are some valuable branding lessons to ponder and profit from.

Branders in the marketplace can learn a lot from branders on the ranch.

A Brand Is A Declaration of Ownership

First and foremost, cattle branding is a declaration of ownership.  Singeing a distinctive mark into the backside of a calf permanently proclaims who it belongs to.

In the days of the old west, owners of branded cattle could confidently allow their herds to roam the open range knowing they would be able to identify their animals at round up time.

In the marketing world a brand is routinely used to identify the manufacturer.  A swoosh on the side of a tennis shoe announces the runner was made by Nike.  A three pointed star in a circle signifies the car is a Mercedes.

Own A Set Of Ideas

But the ownership lesson of branding goes much deeper than simply stamping your logo on the products you make.  Branding offers the sales-boosting possibility of owning a set of ideas.

Back when the first wave of Baby Boomers entered their cavity-prone years, Proctor & Gamble added fluoride to Crest toothpaste and transformed dental health forever.

Crest TV commercials featured an excited grade school child emerging from the dentist’s chair proclaiming “Look Mom, no cavities!”  P&G used the ads to brand Crest as the cavity prevention toothpaste.  By owning the concept of cavity prevention, Crest outsold every other toothpaste on the market.

What set of ideas does your company need to own to move to the top of the market?

A Brand Must Be Distinct

In the ranching world brands must be distinct.  A lack of distinctiveness breeds trouble.  If two adjacent ranches have similar brands a nasty feud is sure to follow.  The same holds true in marketing.

Trademark disputes are becoming ever more common.  Exxon and Kellogg’s have squared off in court over the use of tiger cartoon characters.  Exxon puts a tiger in your tank, while Kellogg’s uses Tony the Tiger to pitch Sugar Frosted Flakes.  Apple, the Beatles’ record label and Apple, the maker of the Mac computer and the iPod, have a long standing dispute over the use of the word Apple in music related services.

You’ll stay out of trouble if you select company and product names, logos and taglines that are hard to confuse with others.  However, there’s more at stake in brand distinctiveness than just reducing the risk of a legal battle.

If You Don’t Stand Out, You Compete On Price

If a product doesn’t stand out from its competitors, if it looks like other products and makes similar claims as other products, then the product is not a brand, it is a commodity that will always be relegated to competing on price.

Think About The iPod

Products that present a distinct message and personality, on the other hand, command higher prices and win a larger share of the market.  Think about the iPod.  Like all other MP3 players the iPod allows you to carry around hundreds of songs in your pocket.  But the iPod is different.  It has a one of a kind style and a hip personality that has captivated millions.  Devotees see the iPod, not as a music playback device, but as an extension of their own personalities.

The iPod dominates the market, especially in the hard drive category where it has commanded a market share of greater than 80%.  And the people buying iPods pay a hefty premium.  iPods typically cost 50-70% more than models with similar song capacity from other manufacturers.

How About Your Company?

How distinctive are the essential identifiers of your brand?  Take a look at the names you use to label your company, products and services.  Take a look at your logo, your tagline and marketing messages.  Then take a look at your competitors.  If the essential identifiers of your brand aren’t distinctly different, you have a problem.

Maybe you once led the market and your competitors have caught up or have copied you.  Cavity prevention was a key differentiating factor for Crest in the 50’s and 60’s.  Today cavity prevention is common to every toothpaste.

If your brand has lost its distinctiveness, it’s time to blaze a new trail.  Don’t tumble into the mire of commodity status.

Branding Is A Long Term Decision

On the ranch, branding has life long implications.  Once branded, the calf will bear the mark for the rest of its life.

The Memory Of An Elephant

In the marketing world, branding isn’t necessarily permanent, but it is long term.  Once you get known for a certain product, service or attribute, the reputation will stick for years, maybe even decades.  The marketplace has the memory of an elephant.

Make sure that you choose brand level messages wisely.  Cultivate a reputation with customers that will stand the test of time.  Make a clear distinction between enduring brand defining values and tactical responses to current market dynamics.

Back in the late 90’s I encountered a number of companies that were adamant the official name of their fledgling organizations had to end in .com.  Most of those companies vanished when the bubble burst.  They made the mistake of tying their identity to a passing fad.

Getting It Right For Decades

There is also a valuable upside to the long term nature of branding.  When you hit the mark with the right company name, product title or tagline, you can run with it for a long time.  The investments you make in professional branding services can keep paying off for decades.

P&G has been selling soap under the Ivory name for more than 125 years.  Nike is still using the Just Do It tagline, which was first launched in 1985.  One of the longest enduring taglines still in use is the familiar slogan for Maxwell House coffee.  Maxwell House has been telling coffee drinkers it is “Good to the Last Drop” since 1915.

Branding in the marketplace is a lot like branding on the ranch.  But be careful how many cattle lessons you take into the marketplace.  In part 2 of Branding Lessons From The Ranch, I’ll explore the ways that branding a business is not like branding a cow.