All the best cowboys have simple brands

August 23, 2010

I don’t think that there’s anyone (my age) who hasn’t at some point in their career dragged out the conversation starter about how the modern branding industry grew out of the Old West practice of branding cattle with a hot iron bearing a distinctive mark. Everyone kind of got it, and everyone felt better about this honest, traditional American work we were all keeping alive.

Of course, it turns out I was telling the story wrong when I said “That was then, this is now.” Those folksy brands had evolved into today’s modern corporate logos or died out. Surely digital printing, laser-cut vinyl and computer graphics had replaced the smell of burning cow flesh.

Very not true. A story on National Public Radio the other morning, reported that cattle branding with a hot iron is still the best and most popular way for ranchers to distinguish their livestock from their neighbors. If you look on the internet, as I did, you can even find helpful hints for throwing a branding party. (Don’t forget to ask for RSVPs; ranchers can be pretty Maverick-y.)

What really got my attention, though, was how closely contemporary livestock branding mirrors corporate branding. Almost every state has laws and regulations regarding livestock branding. The brands have to be officially recorded and registered to avoid duplication and confusion, and it costs money to keep your registration up to date. The best brands have value in and of themselves as intellectual property, apart from the cattle they appeared on.

As more and more long-time ranchers retire or make deals with land developers, they are putting their brands up for sale. While some brands can be had for $500, brands sold at auction have gone as high as $44,000. An important lesson for us city branders: the simple one or two letter brands, which are impossible to get these days, are the most valuable because they are easy to understand and communicate quickly. Thomas Dyekman of Loveland, CO is selling his rare, two-character ZL brand, first recorded in 1885, for $12,000.

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