I’ve always been intrigued by branding. I’m not talking about the industry of trademarks and identity design, I’m talking about the practice of burning symbols onto the skin of cattle or humans as a sign of ownership, slavery, oppression or even a rite of passage. That sounds kind of brutal, but that was the way things were done a long time ago. Before I go further let me just say that I obviously don’t endorse any kind of slavery or oppression or even animal cruelty. The history of branding is an important study however, and the process of marking is at the root of the practice, the art and the business.
At first you might say that livestock branding was invented for the purpose of trading. Trading means business and business means money. Cattle ranchers had thousands of cows that needed feeding, but feeding them on the same land used up all their grass. Smart humans that we are, we started roaming the cattle out in herds so they could eat the grass somewhere else and not deplete the resources of one area too quickly. But then everyone started doing this, and it became hard for one rancher to do all the work just to drive 20 cows out for feeding. So we started to combine ranches and herd all the cattle together, but each rancher wanted to make sure that the same cows that went out came back as theirs. The key word in that last sentence is “theirs.” Ownership. Now, truthfully, the main purpose of owning those cows was to sell them, to make money and use that money for a more comfortable life. Before being given the chance of selling something however, you must first own it.
So the owners took a hot iron to the side of their cattle and permanently marked them with a symbol that represented their family. When the cattle went out to roam with the cowboys they got all mixed up, but when they got back they were separated by their brands. A rancher would “call” out the names of the brands as they funneled in, and everyone got their cows just as they left them, only full of grass from the prairie. “Cattle Calling” was a real thing, and there was a certain way to speak the brands aloud, governed by the position of the symbols. There were simple calls for simple symbols like “R K” for a symbol that was simply an R and a K in succession. But if the R was upside-down the rancher would call it “Crazy R,” and if a G had a roof-like half-diamond above the letter it would be known as “Rafter G.”
For the most part I can imagine these permutations of symbols developed because there were just so many ranches that started with the letter R, and one needed to distinguish itself from the others (a topic that’s important in the branding industry even today). There was “R,” there was “Flying R,” there was “Lazy R,” there was “Circle R,” there was “Half Circle R,” and so on. But one can imagine that if you’re the Robertson Ranch, and the Reilly Ranch and the Ralston Ranch already have R brands, that you’re going to want to distinguish yourself. Your family is more than just a ranch that begins with R. You have quality, and you can install that quality into a visual form. Now, brands were made of iron and it wasn’t easy to construct complex forms with iron. Plus, not everyone could read, and not everyone could distinguish a high level of detail when the symbol was a burned scar on the backside of a cow. Simplicity was important.
Let’s say the Robertson family had four extremely athletic boys and owned some fast horses. So, they went with “Flying R” as their brand, and there you have it. An R with lines off of the upper portion of the letterform that appear like wings. Now, their brand is more than a family that begins with the letter R. It represents a characteristic for them, and it becomes a means to place ownership on their property. That ownership and the value of their property later become more than a family, it becomes a business for the Robertsons. This is where I’ll stop, because while my life and every American’s life is at the behest of commerce, my mission is to rediscover the meaning behind branding, and although I might first say branding’s foremost purpose is communication in its broadest sense, the true root of a brand is in ownership, and ownership is an abstract concept of extending one’s qualities upon something. I’m talking less about how you “own” that PEZ dispenser because you just bought it at a cash register. I’m talking more about a projection of one’s qualities upon something so as to combine them in understanding. Even though, in order to purchase that PEZ dispenser, you had to use money, and money is a facility of one’s worth. One’s worth is the definition of value, and value means character.
Character and value are the nutrition of branding. They fuel the distinction of mark making, of visual recognition, and can exemplify the beauty or blandness of a business, or a family, or a nation or a religion, or any entity. Design with the intent to sell presumes ownership of a product or service, but either way those products or services must be owned, and anything owned has a grade and a distinction of quality. Finding and manifesting that quality then is the primary goal of branding.
There’s a lot to learn from our past and how communication and visualization developed. The branding of cattle are a simple example of how we can apply a better understanding of the craft to an industry that can sometimes crank logos out like cookies while missing the entire purpose of their meaning. To misunderstand, or to know nothing of a family’s qualities you can bring no business, and certainly no prosperity to that family.