The Origins of Branding – Heraldry in contemporary Australia

Today, we’re going to go for a slight journey through history, looking at the symbols and forms of representation that have been used for centuries to denote familial traits, character and aspiration: the coat of arms. I am no medieval buff, and I am happy to open a wider conversation about this with the folks who may follow this blog, but I do find it fascinating that the projection of values through brand has been around for a long time, by most estimates as early as the 12th century. So back off marketing buffs, the Knights of the Round Table were at it before you!

The ‘brand’, and by extension the branding conversation, is one Dan and I started having a while back as we were working with Knox City Council on a Brand Strategy. Although only an ancillary piece of thinking to the whole project, Dan could not help but notice how decidedly 19th Century Knox’s coat of arms was. I was more astonished that a council would have such as a thing as a coat of arms in 21st Century Australia, but apparently, that was so very Gen Y of me…

The coat of arms is an aspirational composition of symbols and mottos that is meant to simultaneous define and guide the destiny of a place, person or family, how very similar to the way we use brands! If you stop and think of it, the choice of national emblems on the Australian coat of arms is no exception, the kangaroo and the emu, two distinctly Australian species selected for their inability to walk backwards (as an aside, I may have benefitted from that inability today, having injured myself at the gym by stepping backwards on someone’s foot!). The message is: Australia is moving forward, it biologically, physiologically, and symbolically cannot resist progress. There’s a brand statement if I ever heard one!

Going back to the origins of the coat of arms, these were used to describe people, knights mostly, on the battlefields, when heavy armoury esconded most facial features and the sound of clashing swords made voice recognition near impossible. From a very personal form of branding, these went on to designate whole groups of people, or as they called it then ‘houses’, that rallied under common family origins and values. It was not long before the land that these said ‘houses’ were attached to also came to be designated by coats of arms.

This is how Knox got its motto ‘I move and prosper’, a great brand statement for a largely rural 19th century community committed to rearing cattle and working the land. But how does this fare in 21st Century urban fringe? How does the pre-modern image of a peaceful frontier play with the suburban and car dependent reality that is outer Melbourne? And can Knox promise to deliver on moving and prospering?

Beyond the motto, there are some very deliberate choices of in the heraldry of Knox: two cornucopias and 2 steers, two men each holding a shovel and a rifle, just the symbols a modernising council would be after. But what would be an appropriate 21st Century coat of arms? If we accept that this form of branding can have enduring appeal, how can we recast the heraldry into a realistic, contemporary and relevant set of symbols that embody the area’s current aspirations?

To some extent, I gather that it is the historic value of the heraldry that make it so special and worth coveting. That must also be the reason behind the councillors civic regalia and insignia, another imported medieval tradition.

It begs the larger question that, again, comes from Dan: why do we use medieval, 18th or 19th century institutions and customs to solve 21st century problems? What scope for reform is there within this categorical mismatch? And more importantly, how do we design 21st century institutions and what would they look like?

I’ll let you ponder on that one. Till next time!

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