Branding Isn’t Just for Cattle

If you’ve been branded, say "Mooooooo!"

At least that’s what cows do when they are marked to show who possesses them.

I was born in a large city, but spent a great deal of my life living on the Canadian prairies. There, on the flat open plains, great herds of cattle roam around looking for things to eat. While this provides great opportunity for the animals to get to know each other and mingle, it also means they become mixed together, and it’s very likely that they are not owned by the same rancher. That presents an issue because it’s very difficult to tell one cow from another.

Many years ago a solution was devised to solve this problem that, to a city kid like me, seemed very nasty. A piece of metal, bent into a unique shape to identify each rancher, is heated until it is red hot and then placed on the rear hindquarters of the animal for a few seconds, leaving a scar that will identify its owner for the rest of its life—which is usually destined to be short. (By the way, many ranchers have now embraced more modern methods to make this process more humane.)

Ironically, this activity is referred to as "branding," a term that is just as relevant in marketing, and really amounts to the same outcome.

While the thought of placing a piece of hot metal on our children is repulsive, it is interesting how this idea of permanently "branding" our offspring is just as prevalent in our urban lifestyles. Like those young cattle that will bear the mark of their owner until they become a burger, marketing gurus know that young children have highly impressionable minds. Like a blank piece of paper, they will likely bond to ideas that are introduced to them for the rest of their life.

A recent study at Stanford University illustrates how permanent these brands are even for very young children, after researchers presented food (a hamburger, French fries, and chicken nuggets) that was pulled from a plain brown bag and a McDonald’s bag. The individual items were also packed in generic and McDonald’s containers. All of the food items came from the same source.

Tasting the French fries, a whopper (oops… wrong brand…) of a majority of the children came to the conclusion that fries from the golden arched land of fast food tasted better than those coming from a plain brown bag (77% to be exact). When it came to chicken, only 18% thought the deep fried meet from the unmarked bags tasted superior from those coming from the McDonald’s box. And speaking of cattle, 48% felt their taste buds were happier munching on ground beef from the branded box, as opposed to 37% who thought the unmarked food tasted better. (All three experiments had a margin of kids who were the real connoisseurs—they couldn’t detect a difference between the two disguised sources.)

Obviously the real news here is how quickly a young child can be trained to favor a particular brand. The Stanford researchers say by the age of two, children can already form biases toward particular corporate identities. Living in an advertising saturated world, there is plenty of opportunity for businesses to gain these young recruits, when even a walk down a quiet street can yield a half-dozen branding opportunities. (Let’s count: Outdoor advertising on a bus bench, a passing bus has two more advertisements, a newspaper vending box, a passing t-shirt, and the jeans covering the posterior of the person in front of you.)

Even less surprising, the researchers also noted those kids with trinkets from McDonalds in their toy collection were more likely to be lovin’ the branded foods, as were those with easier access to television.

Dr. Thomas Robinson, the lead author of the study, reminds us (as have many other researchers) that, "Children under the age of seven or eight really do not have the ability to understand the persuasive intent of advertising and marketing." (Quoted from, Aug. 6, 2007, Hooked on McDonald’s at Age 3 by Alice Park.) He continues to explain that corporations are not justified in marketing to very young audiences because children simply "can’t understand that advertising is biased."

While the researchers do acknowledge some fast food chains, including McDonald’s, are promoting healthier food choices on their menus, Dr. Robinson contends that the advertising for the milk and vegetables still promotes the entire brand, including the food that’s not healthy.

As a parent, the greatest lesson I’ve learned from this new research is how important it is for me to help my children become critical media consumers at the very earliest age possible. While they are continually encountering "Buy! Buy! Buy!" messages, we parents need to teach kids to ask "Why? Why? Why?" and encourage our young ones to question what they see and hear in media. Unfortunately, these skills are difficult for a four-year-old to grasp, so we must also help shield very young children from the onslaught of never ending sales pitches.

Finally, I have plans to run a similar taste-test within my own family, and encourage you to do likewise. Pickup some "bulk" nuggets at the grocery store, and refill that old McDonald’s box (or any other brand) and see if your picky eaters have the delicate taste buds required to detect the difference. I’m willing to bet that, at the very least, you will have the start to an interesting discussion about who in your family has been "branded."

Perhaps anyone who loses the game has to give a loud "Mooooo!"

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…