April 30, 2013
To the untrained eye, cattle brands, those unique markings seared into animals’ hides with a hot iron, might just seem like idiosyncratic logos or trademarks designed to clearly and simply indicate ownership. However, unlike the graphic logos and trademarked images of popular commercial brands, they must comply with a rigorous set of standards and are developed using a specific language ruled by its own unique syntax and morphology.Livestock branding dates back to 2700 BC, evidenced by Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Ancient Romans are said to have used hot iron brands as an element of magic. But brands are most famously associated with the cowboys and cattle drives of the Old West, when brands were used to identify a cow’s owner, protect cattle from rustlers (cattle thieves), and to separate them when it came time to drive to market (or rail yards or stock yards).
At its most basic, a cattle brand is composed of a few simple letters and numbers, possibly in combination with a basic shape or symbols like a line, circle, heart, arc, or diamond. But these characters can also be embellished with serif-like flourishes to create myriad “pyroglyphics.” For example, such serifs might include extraneous “wings” or “feet” added to a letter or number. Each character can also be rotated or reversed. Every addition and variation results in a unique character that is named accordingly. The letters with “wings” for example, are described as “flying” while those with “feet” are, you guessed it, “walking.” An upside-down characters is “crazy” while a 90-degree rotation makes a character “lazy.” These colorful designations aren’t just cute nicknames used to identify the characters, but are actually a part of the name, a spoken part of the brand language, which like most western languages is read from left to right, top to bottom and, perhaps unique to brands, outside to inside.
The vast array of combinations made possible by these characters and variations ensures that unique and identifiable brands can be created –hopefully without repetition– using only limited formal language. And sometimes they could even be used to make a joke:
Serifs and rotations are just two of the primary ways brand letters can be modified. Multiple symbols may be joined together forming a type of ligature – a term used in typography to describe a single character representing two or more letters, such as æ. Some of these ligature brands are read as “connected” while others are given unique identifiers:
When it comes to getting your brand approved by the authorities, location is as important as design. The reason? The same brand can be registered in the same country as long as its located on a different part of the animal. The following two brands, for example, are considered distinct markings:
Brands are registered like trademarks or copyrights and are monitored, taxed and regulated. So if an owner failed to pay the brand tax, the brand could no longer be offered as “valid prima facie evidence of ownership.” Brands were, and continue to be, a critical element of the cattle industry unless –bonus fun fact!– you happen to have been 19th century Texas politician and rancher Samuel A. Maverick, who refused to brand his cattle and consequently saw his own surname immortalized as a brand for those independent few who refuse to follow the precepts of social order.
Today, the most successful trademarks and brand identities are the simplest and easiest to identify. Think of Nike’s swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches. The same is true for cattle brands. Not only is it easier to read a simple brand, but its less painful for the livestock. However, it can’t be too simple because the brand itself also serves as a means to combat theft and fraud, in much the same way that the swoosh is also an indicator of authenticity. Cattle rustlers would sometimes use a hot iron to alter brands into a similar graphic, then claim the cow as their own – its like a failing middle school student changing an “F” on his grade card to a “B” with a few pen marks so his parents don’t get upset. Although the phrase “cattle rustler” conjures romantic images of the Old West, it is still a very real problem for today’s ranchers. In fact, the U.S. is currently experience something of a rustling renaissance. Consequently, there’s also something of a branding revival. Despite the invention of GPS tagging, DNA testing (yes, for cattle), and other preventative measures, branding is still the top preventative measure to combat cattle theft. Carl Bennett, director of the Louisiana Livestock Brand Commission recently told USA Today that ”We have yet to find a system that can replace a hot brand on a cow. There’s nothing in modern society that’s more sure.”
March 13, 2013
In the 1994 Robert Zemeckis film, Forrest Gump stumbles into the history books as he runs across the country.
At one point, he meets a poor T-shirt salesman who, Gump recalls, “wanted to put my face on a T-shirt but he couldn’t draw that well and he didn’t have a camera.” As luck would have it, a truck drives by and splashes Gump’s face with mud. He wipes his face on a yellow T-shirt and hands it back to the down-on-his-luck entrepreneur, telling him to “have a nice day.” The imprint of Gump’s face left a perfect, abstract smiling face on the bright yellow t-shirt. And thus, an icon was born.
As you probably expect, that was not how the iconic smiley face was created. There was no cross-country runner or struggling t-shirt salesman, there was no truck or mud puddle. There was, however, a graphic designer, some devious salesmen, and an ambitious newspaper man – all add up to a surprisingly complex history for such a simple graphic.
It’s largely accepted that the original version of the familiar smiley face was first created 50 years ago in Worcester, Massachusetts by the late Harvey Ross Ball, an American graphic artist and ad man. Ball came up with the image in 1963 when he was commissioned to create a graphic to raise morale among the employees of an insurance company after a series of difficult mergers and acquisitions. Ball finished the design in less than 10 minutes and was paid $45 for his work. The State Mutual Life Assurance Company (now Allmerica Financial Corporation) made posters, buttons, and signs adorned with the jaundiced grin in the attempt to get their employees to smile more. It’s uncertain whether or not the new logo boosted morale, but the smiling face was an immediate hit and the company produced thousands of buttons. The image proliferated and was of course endlessly imitated but according to Bill Wallace, Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum, the authentic Harvey Ball-designed smiley face could always be identified by its distinguishing features: the eyes are narrow ovals, one larger than the other, and the mouth is not a perfect arc but “almost like a Mona Lisa Mouth.”
Neither Ball nor State Mutual tried to trademark or copyright the design. Although it seems clear that Ball has the strongest claim to the second most iconic smile in history, there’s much more to the story.
In the early 1970s, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, owners of two Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia, came across the image in a button shop, noticed that it was incredibly popular, and simply appropriated it. They knew that Harvey Ball came up with the design in the 1960s but after adding the the slogan “Have a Happy Day” to the smile, the Brothers Spain were able to copyright the revised mark in 1971, and immediately began producing their own novelty items. By the end of the year they had sold more than 50 million buttons and countless other products, turning a profit while attempting to help return a nation’s optimism during the Vietnam War (or provide soldiers with ironic ornament for their helmets). Despite their acknowledgment of Harvey’s design, the brothers publicly took credit for icon in 1971 when they appeared on the television show “What’s My Line.”
In Europe, there is another claimant to the smiley. In 1972 French journalist Franklin Loufrani became the first person to register the mark for commercial use when he started using it to highlight the rare instances of good news in the newspaper France Soir. Subsequently, he trademarked the smile, dubbed simply “Smiley,” in over 100 countries and launched the Smiley Company by selling smiley T-shirt transfers.
In 1996, Loufrani’s son Nicolas took over the family business and transformed it into an empire. He formalized the mark with a style guide and further distributed it through global licensing agreements including, perhaps most notably, some of the earliest graphic emoticons. Today, the Smiley Company makes more than $130 million a year and is one of the top 100 licensing companies of the world. The company has taken a simple graphic gesture and transformed it into an enormous business as well as a corporate ideology that places a premium on “positivity.” As for the American origin of the smiley, Nicolas Loufrani is skeptical of Harvey’s claim on the design even though, as evident in the above image, his father’s original newspaper icon is almost identical to Ball’s mark, idiosyncrasies and all. Loufrani argues that the design of the smiley is so basic it can’t be credited to anyone. On his company’s website, they prove this idea by showing what they claim to be the world’s first smiley face, a stone carving found in a French cave that dates to 2500 BC, as well as a smiley face graphic used for promotion by a New York radio station in 1960.
Copyright and trademark issues are complicated, and despite their views toward Ball’s design, when the Smiley Company attempted to trademark the image in the United States in 1997, they became embroiled in a legal battle with Walmart, which started using the smiley face as a corporate logo in 1996 and tried to claim ownership of it (because of course they did.) The law suit lasted 10 years and cost both companies millions of dollars. It was settled out of court in 2007 but its terms remain undisclosed.
In 2001, Charlie Ball tried to reclaim the optimistic legacy of his father’s creation from unbridled commercialization by starting the World Smile Foundation, which donates money to grass-roots charitable efforts that otherwise receive little attention or funding.
The simple yellow smiley face created in 1963 (probably) has led to tens of thousands of variations and has appeared on everything from pillows and posters to perfume and pop art. Its meaning has changed with social and cultural values: from the optimistic message of a 1960s insurance company, to commercialized logo, to an ironic fashion statement, to a symbol of rave culture imprinted on ecstasy pills, to a wordless expression of emotions in text messages. In the groundbreaking comic Watchmen, a blood-stained smiley face motif serves as something of a critique of American politics in a dystopian world featuring depressed and traumatized superheroes. Perhaps Watchman artist Dave Gibbons best explains the mystique of the smiley: “It’s just a yellow field with three marks on it. It couldn’t be more simple. And so to that degree, it’s empty. It’s ready for meaning. If you put it in a nursery setting…It fits in well. If you take it and put it on a riot policeman’s gas mask, then it becomes something completely different.”
“Smiley’s People,” BBC Radio, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01bh91h; Smiley Company, http://www.smileycompany.com/shop/; Thomas Crampton, “Smiley Face is Serious to Company,” The New York Times (July 5, 2006); “Harvey Ball,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_Ball
November 20, 2012
“Go get me a blue ribbon.” I must’ve heard my grandpa utter those words hundreds of times as we sat together fishing off our small dock. Even before I could read I knew which beer to grab for him – the one with the first prize ribbon on the can. I didn’t realize it as a child of course, but that ease of recognition was a testament to the power of branding.
Pabst Blue Ribbon beer –PBR to its friends– may today be best known as the preferred beer of old Midwestern fisherman and mustachioed hipsters, but that instantly recognizable ribbon is more than just a symbol or marketing ploy. Pabst did, in fact, win a first place award at one of the most celebrated events in American history. The year was 1893 (a time when everyone looked like a mustachioed hipster) and in Chicago, Illinois, America’s greatest architects and planners had created a fairground unlike any the world had ever seen, a utopian White City.
The World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, was convened to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America. It was a key moment for design and invention in America. Products such as Juicy Fruit, Crackerjack and Shredded Wheat were introduced to the public for the first time. The Ferris Wheel made its grand debut, outshining the Eiffel Tower and proving that there was no limit to American engineering and imagination. Westinghouse electrified the fairgrounds with alternating current electricity, setting the standard for a nation. Nikola Tesla stunned visitors by shooting lighting from his hands, Thomas Edison thrilled them with the Kinetoscope’s moving pictures, and former steamship captain Frederick Pabst got them drunk on the best damn beer they’d ever tasted.
Pabst’s Best Select –PBS to its friends, presumably– won the top beer award at the 1893 Exposition. Previously, the beer had won many other awards at many other fairs – so many, in fact, that Captain Pabst had already started tying silk ribbons around every bottle. It was a time when beer bottles were more likely to be embossed than labeled and the ribbons were likely added at great cost to Pabst. But Pabst’s display of pride was also a display of marketing savvy, as Patrons started asking their bartenders for the blue ribbon beer. The Exposition honor, however, carried extra import. The blue ribbon of 1893 was the Blue Ribbon.
Soon after the fair, the shorthand was formalized and Pabst’s Best Select was officially changed to “Pabst Blue Ribbon.” As production increased, so too did the need for blue silk ribbon. By the turn of the century, Pabst was going through more than one million feet of ribbon per year, pausing only when World War I caused a silk shortage. The iconic blue ribbon wouldn’t become a permanent part of the label until the end of prohibition in the 1930s, when it appeared on Pabst’s new high-tech distribution method, the “can” – but only after extensive testing proved that the beer can would catch on. While Pabst was willing to take a chance selling their “Export Beer” in cans, they didn’t want to risk selling their flagship brew, with its precious blue ribbon on the label, until it was a proven winner. Of course, the cans and printed graphic ribbons were an enormous success, and by the 1950s, blue ribbon labels fully replaced the silk ribbons. Yet Pabst’s blue ribbon remained critical to their brand, and would go on to become the focus of their advertising campaign and a defining element of an easy-to-identify label, ensuring generations of children everywhere would know which beer to grab for their grandfathers.
November 2, 2012
Last fall, I went on a reporting road trip through the American South. Eating was not the main purpose of the trip, but the need to find food along the road between North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Louisiana provided a great secondary mission. As a guide, we relied on Garden & Gun magazine’s list of the 50 Best Southern Foods. I referenced it time and again during the trip, and the image that accompanied each page became like a visual symbol of the journey.
A few months later, that familiar picture reappeared while I was scanning some design blogs, and only then did it occur to me that the image was a hand-painted sign (or hand-chalked, in this case). The artist, Dana Tanamachi, had posted a 2-minute time-lapse video on the making of the piece. Despite having put little thought into the graphic back when I was looking at the content, I realized then that the authentic, folksy (you could say “Southern”) feel of the food guide resulted largely from the presence of the handmade sign. The magazine could have used computer graphics, could even have rendered something digitally to appear hand-drawn, but instead they chose the real thing, and it made the whole production that much more engaging and memorable.
Sign painting as an occupation and industry took a major hit with the advent of illustration software, giant printers, and vinyl cutting, but it’s making a comeback thanks to our cultural reinvestment in the value of manual work. Books like Shop Class as Soulcraft and Handmade Nation shone spotlights on the growing movement of makers taking handiwork back from hobby to livelihood. Now the author of Handmade Nation, Faythe Levine, has a new book (and documentary) that zeroes in on the world of professional sign painters. In collaboration with Sam Macon, Levine visited two dozen people who have made their mark on food trucks, shop windows, billboards, and multi-story buildings across the country. Sign Painters, published by Princeton Architectural Press, features the painters in their own words and incredibly bold images, describing how they came to this profession and how things have changed.
A common thread among the subjects of the book is that while what they are producing is art, most don’t call themselves artists. “The kind of sign painting that I embrace, that I make a living doing,” says Cincinnati-based Justin Green, “is a service. It’s an industry, and I want to keep it that way…when the unions held sway, ‘artist’ was a pejorative term. In all the old sign-painting books the sign painter was referred to as the ‘mechanic.’” Phil Vandervaart (painter of the Dusty’s Bar sign, below) echoes the sentiment: “It’s a sign, not fine art,” he says,”It’s meant to convey information and be attractive.” For Vandervaart, sign painting is a way of “adding to the urban cacophony” and impacting the cityscape. it’s a description that could almost as easily refer to graffiti, and indeed some of the painters came from a street art background, but the role of sign painting as marketing device is not lost on the people who aim to earn a living through this work. Keith Knecht, who was featured in the book at age 71 and passed away before its release, points to sign painters as the original brand identity developers for companies. “In 1840 there weren’t big advertising agencies on Madison Avenue designing logos and creating campaigns,” he says, “Sign painters designed those logos.”
Surprisingly, not all of the painters eschew computers, though they don’t choose to produce their work exclusively on the screen (and some do lament that computers have caused the deterioration of basic artistic skills, and a fervent need for speed and replication). Gary Martin, an Austin, Texas-based sign painter who has been making signs since the ’70s, enjoys the visibility the Internet enables, and finds fresh motivation through the younger generation of sign painters who are connecting and showing their work online. “I feel like I’ve been living on a desert island by myself for years and then all of a sudden a bunch of other young people show up to join me,” he says, “Now I can post my stuff online and get reactions from other sign painters.” One of those younger painters is San Francisco-based Jeff Canham (whose letters are featured at the top of the post). Canham has had a hybrid career, straddling the physical and digital, advertising and fine art. “I don’t know where you draw the line between one and the other,” he remarks, “Just about everything I do has some kind of combination of hand painted and digitally rendered…I wasn’t necessarily hell-bent on doing everything by hand. I was bored with the computer.”
Canham is among a handful of painters featured in the book who have passed at one time or another through the workshop of New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco. Frequent mentions of the place, as well as sign schools in Los Angeles, Denver, and elsewhere, make clear that sign painting is a trade that values mentorship, apprenticeship and lineage. Like all designers, sign painters look to their predecessors to guide them on technique and tradition, while picking and choosing from the modern tools available now. Sign Painters is a great source of inspiration about this often-overlooked industry, and a good reminder to pay a little extra attention while out in the city, on the highway, or wherever. Beautiful hand-painted signs are everywhere.
August 30, 2012
Amsterdam has long been a required stop on any European Grand Tour. But in the early 21st century, the city of Amsterdam noticed its position on various international rankings—top tourist destinations, top convention cities, etc.—had fallen due to increased competition from other destinations in Europe, particularly to cities in Spain and Eastern Europe. To maintain the city’s position as a top spot for tourism and business, a private-public partnership was formed to rebrand Amsterdam with a new city marketing campaign. In September 2004, I amsterdam was born. I Amsterdam is a motto and a brand all in one for both the people of Amsterdam and the city itself.
We’re all familiar with commercial brands, but what does it mean to brand a city? According to Saffron Brand Consultants, creators of the Saffron European City Brand Barometer (pdf), the “brand” of a place is “the average or common perceptions and associations people have with that place.” It is, of course, a subjective perception based on personal taste and experience but, generally speaking, there is a definite cultural awareness of cities—the idea of a city—that is shaped by media and marketing.
It was the hope of Amsterdam Partners, the public-private partnership formed to market the capital of the Netherlands, to expand and slightly alter that cultural awareness by focusing on what they identified as the core values of their city: creativity (creativiteit), innovation (innovatie), and its spirit of commerce (handelsgeest). Those three defining values were determined after creating a profile of the city based on 16 different facets of Amsterdam, represented in the following diagram as a graphic web that defines the existing perception of the city (in red) and the shift in perception they hoped to engender with the new marketing campaign (in black).
Amsterdam is not just about sex, drugs and canals. It’s also a great place to live and work. The minds behind I amsterdam believe that their brand can not only serve to spread awareness about the virtues of their city, but also act as a catalyst for real urban change, noting in their promotional materials that “the building blocks of city marketing will likewise be building blocks for important parts of city policy.”
To that end, they wanted a diverse branding concept that would appeal not just to tourists, but to those living in the areas around Amsterdam, as well as to the businesses and individuals in the city proper. Previous city slogans such as “Amsterdam Has It” and “Capital of Sports” and “Small City, Big Business” were either too vague or too focused on one aspect of the city to the detriment of others. “I amsterdam,” however, as has the specific, instantly recognizable quality of Milton Glaser’s famous “I <3 NY logo”, from which it most certainly drew some inspiration. But instead of hearting its city, I amsterdam invites you to become a part of it: I amsterdam and you can be too.
“I amsterdam is the slogan for both people and area. I amsterdam allows the people to voice their pride and confidence while expressing support and love for their city. I amsterdam can be used in many ways, but must always come from the people; this is the slogan’s true power. The people who live here, the people who work here, the people who study here, the people who visit here and the people who come to Amsterdam seeking a better future are, in the end, the best evidence for why Amsterdam is a city of choice. I amsterdam should embody the spirit of Amsterdam, and therefore its use will create a city brand recognized the world over.”
The logo’s colors are drawn from the Amsterdam flag and coat of arms, which depicts three white St. Andrew’s Crosses on a black stripe over a field of red, a symbol dating back to the early sixteenth century when the city was a fisherman’s town.
It shares with Glaser’s logo a certain a timeless quality and product-friendly design, perfect for extending the well-regulated brand, which Amsterdam Partners hoped would be embraced by local organizations and businesses as part of their own marketing campaigns. However, anyone hoping to use the registered trademark must first must be approved by Amsterdam Partners, a process to ensure that the logo is consistent in its representation and that the companies who use it are in accord with the new vision of Amsterdam. Of course, there will always be those entrepreneurs unencumbered with any sense of business ethics who are looking to make an illicit buck with bootleg merchandise. But isn’t that just another sign of the brand’s success?
The new identity comes equipped with all the extensions and accessories of every contemporary marketing campaign: an incredibly accessible website, a Twitter account, Facebook page, and even an app. And then there are the two-meter tall red and white letters that spell out the slogan/brand. One set of the letters is kept permanently outside the city’s famed Rijksmuseum, where it became an instantly popular photo opp. Amsterdam Partners estimates that on any given day, the letters are photographed 8,000 times. A second set of letters welcomes visitors at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, while a third set of I amsterdam letters travels around the city, appearing at major cultural events. I amsterdam has become a part of the city and a part of every tourists’ experience. As a result of their popularity, the I amsterdam brand continues to spread across the web on blogs, magazines, photo sharing sites, and Google image search.
Has I amsterdam worked? It would appear so. Tourism numbers are up, business is good, and Amsterdam has once again cemented its position in the top five European cities based on brand strength and cultural “assets.” In fact, according to Saffron, Amsterdam’s brand is actually better than their assets predict. Perhaps most telling, at least for me personally, is the fact that when I told friends that I was going to be writing about city branding and city marketing, everyone almost immediately recommended I amsterdam. To those who visited the city, the letters made an indelible impression and nearly every single one of them has a photo with the city’s red and white logo. In eight years, I amsterdam has become not only a part of the cultural identity, but a landmark.