Brand as story

The unbranded brand

11 May, 2016

Most people know how the word “branding” originated from cattle-branding. And how farmers used a hot branding iron to burn a distinctive symbol on their cattle to differentiate them from other farmers’ cattle.

Then a colleague told me about the story of Samuel Maverick. He was a 19th Century Texas lawyer, politician, land baron and rancher. And he refused to brand his cattle because he didn’t want to inflict pain on them (or so he said). Other ranchers suspected his true motivation was that it allowed him to collect any unbranded cattle, and claim them as his own.

No matter. The point is that the word “maverick” entered the English lexicon, meaning literally an un-branded calf. Colloquially the word “maverick” became slang term for someone who is independently minded, who exhibits a streak of stubborn independence, and who likes to wander alone.

To me that raises an interesting thought. What about the unbranded brand? The brand that’s so independent and so self-assured that it doesn’t need to actually brand itself. It just needs to be. And it will become famous for being, without the hype, the sell, or the investment of big dollars. Is there such a brand? Can it be possible?

Well there is a denim brand called The Unbranded Brand. They follow a motto of “No branding, no ad campaigns and no celebrities”. By eliminating all the unnecessary (branding stuff) they are able to sell a better product at a better price, and I think that’s kind of cool and quite brave. But even calling yourself “The Unbranded Brand” is branding. After all, Samuel Maverick didn’t have a single mark on his cattle.

Then there’s a site called Their website declares, “Unbranded products means you get products that work as well as the big brands without paying extra for the name”. A very similar pitch as The Unbranded Brand – stop wasting your money on branding and just get what you want i.e. a good product at a better price. These propositions are built on pure utility and function.

This brand-less movement has deep roots. In Naomi Klein‘s 1999 book, No Logo, she looked at various anti-corporate movements that sprung up during the 1990s, from the publication Adbusters to sweatshop labour protests (translation: Nike). Ultimately it generated activism, consumer backlash, and public discourse that has become a much more broad-based sentiment today. Not that people today are looking specifically for unbranded brands. People are looking for authentic brands.

The bottom line is that if you’re going to be a brand – or a brand-less company – you need to walk your talk. You can’t promise the world (to the world), and behave like you don’t give a shit. A brand promise is a promise made and kept.

And you need to stand for something beyond making the next sale. Something that makes a positive contribution – to the people who work for you, to the people who buy from you, to the people you do business with, to the communities where you operate as a business, and to the planet.

Whether it’s unbranded or branded, my conclusion is the same. Utility and function are not enough. People want more than “it does the job”. People want a story. People want to believe in something. People want to know that the product or service they are buying is somehow making a difference. And that’s the power of a great brand.

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