Dirty Words: Brand

By Jonathan David Lewis

There are certain words that get so overused or misused that they lose all meaning.

“Brand” is one of those dirty words.

Many know the origin of the term through cattle ownership, one of the oldest human occupations.

The earliest evidence of livestock branding are Egyptian hieroglyphics used to mark cattle dating back 5,000 years.

The practice is ancient, brutal, and effective.

To combat theft and communicate ownership at scale, livestock owners heat up a metal rod fashioned with a unique symbol that represents their identity.

Like Cain of old, livestock are permanently marked through fire and scarring. Anyone who sees the mark and harms the livestock is under threat of just penalty.

In this tradition from time immemorial, we see five core components:

  1. The concept of ownership
  2. The threat of theft
  3. The limits of individual physical proximity
  4. The symbolic representation of people
  5. The application through rods of fire

Ownership, a fundamental human right and institution, is always under threat from those with ill intentions.

But owners are limited the moment they must represent ownership beyond their physical proximity.

To overcome this challenge, the ancients developed a system of icons to represent individuals and communities.

As Executive Creative Director Dave Ortega explains, these symbols must be relevant to those who see them. If the symbol doesn’t contain meaning for those who observe it, it isn’t a brand.

The symbols must also be shareable, thus requiring a medium. In this case, the livestock itself.

And the symbols have to represent a unique identity that is distinguished from all others.

In the end, the symbols are applied with rods of fire.

The rod is an ancient sign of authority. It is the king who wields the scepter. It is the shepherd who holds the staff.

The fire at the end of the rod represents transformation, just as the blacksmith refines and recombines by fire. In this way, one identity transfers under the authority of another via heat and pain.

Yikes. That’s a lot.

The word “brand” can just make you think of colors and slogans and inauthentic corporate grift.

Or it can conjure up concepts of human rights and institutions, the drawbacks of human nature, the limits of physical reality, the symbology of identity, and the transfer of authority through rods of fire.

So then, what is a brand?

A brand is a relevant, shareable identity that is applied with authority as a mark of ownership at scale.

  • If you don’t seek ownership, you don’t need a brand.
  • If you don’t respect the dark side of human nature, you don’t need a brand.
  • If you don’t operate at scale, you don’t need a brand.

But if you do, then you might want to clean up your understanding of that dirty old word.

Jonathan David Lewis

President and author, Jonathan specializes in the spirit of the matter. Call Jonathan when problems feel ambiguous and morale is low. He’ll know what to do.

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