Don’t Steal My Cow

Or, how not to get burned with branding

Brand makeovers. Brand refreshes. Rebranding. Brand storytelling. Brand experiences. Extracting and distilling the brand essence. We kid you not: these are actual services that respectable marketing agencies actually sell. We know, because we recently sat in a meeting with other agencies and no one could agree on the distinctions, or on what branding even is.

So what are we talking about when we talk about “branding”? With so many jargony terms out there, how can a business owner or marketing manager make an informed decision about who to hire? Or for what? Or why?

We don’t claim to have all the answers. But we will stubbornly insist that we are indeed experts at branding, and can—and maybe should—help you with yours. Why? Because of cows.

Look, when you’re looking for help with branding, you’re usually looking for one of several different things: 
• a new or revised logo and/or visual identity 
• an integrated marketing campaign
• the easy work of associating a particular experience or emotion with a particular company, service, program, or product 
• the less-easy work of intentionally proliferating that association 
• the painstaking work of getting customers to make that association themselves

Say you want a new logo. You hire a full-service marketing agency to help you—after all, it says they do branding right there on their website. They come back to you with a proposal to overhaul your whole dang website and plans to unleash a viral word-of-mouth campaign with the help of their new social media maven, Jenny. And we have no doubt Jenny is an expert at what she does. We have a Jenny. I mean, everyone does. (Sorry, Jenny.) And the agency is asking for ten times what you budgeted for, and is telling you that your bottom line depends on crafting a whole new user experience to increase your brand equity. I mean, duh.

This agency—we’ll call them Straw Man, LLC—isn’t wrong. But neither are you, dear customer. The problem is likely in the premise of the conversation. 

The term “branding” itself has been used in relation to marketing for at least sixty years, but it’s much older than that, deriving from the Old English word for burn. More recently it’s associated with cattle ranching. Ranchers would fashion iron rods with unique designs that signified ownership. They’d heat the iron and sear their design into the hindquarters of their cattle, creating a permanent mark. This made theft more difficult, because it’s hard to steal from Murray when his stuff says “This is Murray’s” on it. But you probably knew that. 

Our newer meaning came about when Murray took his cattle to market. Year after year, Murray consistently sold only the best cows. He became known for it. Buyers at auction would see his brand and, without necessarily knowing anything more about the cow, would bid a hefty sum for it. After all Murray’s cows are dependably fantastic. 

There are whole textbooks written about branding nowadays. At least as it relates to marketing. Most of them will tell you that if your company, product, service, or program is not consistent, then it sort of doesn’t matter what your brand looks like. And it certainly won’t matter how much you jump up and down screaming on Twitter that, OMG, I just tried this new purple cow and IMHO IT’S THE BEST (sorry, Jenny). 

Crafting a brand identity that’s actually meaningful to its intended audience takes time and strategy. You can do it. And you should, because consistency sells. If you doubt me, consider the last time you saw a successful retail business that didn’t keep regular, posted hours.

But “branding” is a process. The thing to shop for is strategy: how an agency understands and aligns your identity, purpose, and goals to create new market positions. Branding is also an ill-defined term. So don’t be a brand flake. Ask an agency how they define branding, and share with them what you think it means. 

As for us? We’re good at branding because we’re good at strategy. We’ll brand all the cows you want, just so long as we can work with you to assess in advance whether the brand is meant as a theft deterrent or simply a bold new look.

For examples of branding work (or rebranding, or brand refreshing) that we’ve done and are proud of, check out our portfolio!