A Cowboy’s Guide to Branding and Ethics

Michael L. Herman

When I was starting my career the conversation was all about “reputation management.”  Now it’s all about “Branding.”   Branding is being applied not only to products, but to organizations, perceptions and even individuals. Here’s a secret…branding is NOT new.

Growing up in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, branding was a hot topic of conversation at least once or twice a year, at least to those in the business of raising, buying and selling livestock, especially cattle and horses.

Branding had been around pretty much since that area of the United States was settled.

It referred to a means of marking property. With no fences to speak of, the livestock tended to go pretty much wherever the grass or food was.  In order to keep your property separate from those of your neighbors the custom became one of creating a “brand” or mark that distinguished yours from the others and burning that mark on pretty much everything you owned from livestock to fence posts.

As often happens, the meaning stretched and grew to include the actual land to which you had a claim and the people who lived there.  You rode for, were loyal to, would defend and even fight for the brand.  You in essence identified yourself with the “brand”.

By identifying yourself by that brand you, in effect, became responsible for and identified with the quality of the product it offered, the manner in which it was viewed in the community, how it treated those who created and communicated it. The “Brand” became a short-hand way of describing your reputation…your character…your ethics. It was based on a pretty simple philosophy, your word was your bond.  If you said you would do something, you did it.  Most contracts were built on a handshake, and they weren’t often broken; at least not with impunity. You stood for what was right, and there wasn’t but one definition of right.


As I grew up watching and participating in livestock round-ups and working with cowboys and farmers, it became clear to me that while each member of the herd and the team was important to the ultimate outcome…providing product, there were a few “leaders”…members who, through their independence, force of will or sheer size inspired the others to follow their lead.  They became the difference between success and failure.
For you to be one of those leaders in your particular crew, it is really necessary to take control of your future and build your own “individual brand” regardless of where you are in your career.  In doing so, you can inspire others to follow you. And in the current economic environment, one should always remember that the brand for which you are now riding may change, either because its makeup changes or because you choose to join a different brand.


This means that each of us must create our own foundation of beliefs, ethics and behavior by which to live.  While circumstances may change and take you many places throughout your life and career, one truth remains constant, wherever you go; you are still going to be you when you get there.
Most of us begin building the foundation of who we are and what we believe long before we begin our career. We learn these from family, friends, social and religious organizations. We model our behavior on these leaders.  Some of us learn early, some late, some too late, and some never.

Regardless of the when, we all establish our own personal, individual brand.  That brand is what controls our professional career, our personal success, and the reputation we carry with us and ultimately leave behind.

An individual brand is affected by many elements; here are some things to ponder as you attempt to create a positive brand for yourself and the organizations with which you affiliate.

  • Don’t accept a course just because the boss says it’s OK.  Neither the law nor the public will accept “I was just following orders.”
  • Be true to what your gut tells you. If it’s not right, you shouldn’t have to try to talk yourself into it!
  • Invoke the Mama Rule.  If you don’t think your Mama would approve of what you are doing…don’t do it.
  • Greed is the greatest enemy of ethics. There is not enough money in the world to buy back your reputation once it is gone.
  • Tell the truth… then you don’t have to remember what you said.

Your brand travels with you always. How do you want to be known and remembered?   Simple truths are the most evident. There is no such thing as “situational ethics”–there are just times when the lack of ethics gets you into “situations.”

Michael L. Herman, APR, SAGE, Fellow PRSA is chief executive officer of Communication Sciences (CSI) a business and communication consultancy based in Raleigh, NC.  He is an adjunct professor at Illinois State University.  A past contributor to this blog, this guest post appeared in PR News earlier this week and is republished with permission.    

2 thoughts on “A Cowboy’s Guide to Branding and Ethics

  1. I really like your guideline of “invoke the Mama rule.” I am a PR and advertising at the University of Oregon and when we have discussions on ethical dilemmas, sometimes I struggle when deciding what the best thing to do. This easy-to-remember rule will help me when I am faced with a difficult decision in the future. Thank you for your great insight.

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