History is always at your door when you work in a landmark neighborhood. There’s world-class art, design, and some ripe cultural history to keep it firmly democratic. In fact, a decorative detail provided this interactive copywriter the most powerful lesson in Branding 101. The lesson begins in the early 19th century and ends with Google.
A charming typo (so I thought as an eye-strained writer) on a house plaque caught my eye one day and queried its way to my imagination. The modestly sized cast-iron plate was secured to the front of a Federal style townhouse. Set just above eye level, it’s hard not to miss against the flat white of the painted brick. Set on point, it shows a foursquare of hands clasped firmly at the wrist. A three-digit number is elegantly embossed just below. It’s one of those “things” you notice on your way out somewhere, thinking you’ll look up one day, and never quite do.
Then along came Google and the mystery unraveled like a branding 101 lesson boot camp.
By coincidence, I Googled one of the oddest of local street names. What I did learn was even more fascinating. The street was home to one of the first municipal fire departments. Oh? (I didn’t know municipal fire departments were a relatively modern convention). Early on, insurance companies managed their own brigades — or paid commissions to volunteer brigades. These brigades would receive a commission for extinguishing flames on houses covered by insurance providers. Insurance maps indicated covered properties.
If you’re a devotee of Theodore Levitt your mind is jumping in white paper madness. Levitt’s business marketing concepts of exclusivity (1983, 1986) were already hard at work in the 19th century. These insurers knew a thing or two. Before the advent of insurance, people were left to their own resources when fires broke out. As wood homes were replaced with brick townhouses, city homeowners invested in a new product, insurance, to protect their property.
Fire brigades charged out to save homes but were financially motivated to save protected homes first! Shocking! Brigades battled each other and not the fires, sadly. They acted as non-salary, commission-only employees. How would a brigade know? Sure there were insurance maps. Still, in the heat of the moment, a sign was critical.
Creating a plaque and attaching it to the front of the house denoted the home’s insured status. Hence, the plaque signaled the brigade which insured homes could be attended to without delay and with reward. This was big.
- Earlier traditions throughout Europe and Scandinavia included house marks. Business owners affixed them to the front of their homes to indicate a place of business. This pushed the message out.
- The mark I saw was actually a brand mark (the hand-in-hand) with a customer code — No 706. What I’ve since learned that it’s a fire mark, denoting the homeowner as a policy holder with a certain company.
Talk about CRM! It denoted both a customer and a brand and a relationship. It served as a sign to the firefighters as well as a promise that held all together in trust. This brand mark called someone in. The design, I’ve since learned, is called a hand-in-hand (makes sense!). While research hasn’t fully verified the unique purpose of the number (i.e., policy type or individual policy), it’s clear that is serves as some relationship code.
No longer was this piece merely decorative or an enigmatic symbol with a typo. It was clearly a logo in the truest sense – conveying deeper knowledge (i.e., promises). It was also a sign that directed behavior (i.e., action). There’s much spirited debate and documentation on the subject. For more information, visit FMCA Firemark Circle of the Americas
In fact, in researching this blog post, I’ve learned that clasped hands appear quite frequently in fire iconography. It’s also lead me to review Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung (1964, 1968). Obviously, some part of me knew that this decoration conveyed some meaning. I wasn’t aware just how much — some of it commercial and, as I’m learning, commercial meaning that draws from universal symbols and signs.
Look for additional posts on the creative process of branding, brainstorming, and engagement. From the eye of this creative director, it’s my thesis that the Web 2.0 world isn’t so different after all. A recent Twitter #brandchat (3.03.10) summarizes initial thoughts.
What branding lessons have you learned in the oddest of places or the most ordinary of objects?