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What's in a Brand?
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Brands heating up on a fire.
Photo: Michael Zimny

What's in a brand? Functionally, a brand identifies the ownership of various livestock, helping ranchers prevent theft and recover strays. Over time, a brand can become something else, a symbol of family history, seared into the memories of descendants.

The Official Brand Book of the State of South Dakota has grown exponentially over the years, in part because people hold onto brands no longer in use. Debbie Trapp is executive director of the South Dakota Brand Board, which registers all brands in the state and publishes the brand book.

"Brands have a lot of sentimental value to individuals," says Trapp. "So there's a lot of brands where someone's grandfather may have used it and passed it down, but there's no longer anyone operating a ranch or in a need of it. But because it was something that their grandfather had originally registered, they continued to keep the registration current."

Dakota Life

Brand Recognition


Why some people hold onto a brand long after they leave the ranch life.

"In ranching, they're very much like a family crest," says Robert Dennis, who owns a ranch outside of Red Owl. "When you hire on to work for a ranch, you're loyal to that ranch. That's your first loyalty. You ride for the brand and if you don't, you're frowned upon."

"You're professional in any dealings cause you're representing that ranch by your actions. We don't work a lot of nine to five days. I know in certain times, in storms during calving and blizzards, you basically are working twenty-four hours a day. You're there until the job is done. And so if you're loyal to the brand, you don't shirk. You're proud of the fact that you can do this work and you do it."

In medieval Europe, family crests were bestowed, almost always, on nobility by kings. In the American West, brands were invented, often by formerly landless migrants, and ennobled by those who "rode for the brand."

Most Americans inhabit a world teeming with symbols — corporate and sports' team logos, organizational and religious icons, political slogans, internet memes — not of our own making.

A symbol is like a semiotic bit in the mouth of human consciousness, steering us toward Big Macs, patriotism, forgiveness. They operate on a stepped field of recognition, in an asymmetrical dance-off between innumerable shifting symbol-alliances and symbol-soloists customized to your mind. Collective recognition of a symbol can be small and deep like Crater Lake or wide and shallow like the Plains-submerging ancient seas.

Smart people at top universities study semiotics (the study of signs) and semantics (the meanings behind them). There's been argument about whether signs ever reference anything objectively real like a yucca plant or a hog or just signify other signs. The meaning of signs is said to be interpreted through codes, which correspond to places and times and evolve in sync with the latter. To the extent that the code can be owned, it probably comes with the deed to the signs. Sign monopolies are established through outright ownership (copyright), or controlling the means of distribution (ex: the internet).

Brands are signifiers that exist in worlds — the outdoors, rural peoples' remembrances, the South Dakota Brand Book — outside the reach of symbol monopolies. The signs themselves and the codes for interpreting their meanings — the utilitarian, as in "that cow belongs to..." and the sentimental — are invented, handed down or traded by people who work the land.

They wield the brand and they decide what it means to them as a group and as individuals. The people, landscapes and values it symbolizes are not assigned by a marketing department. They are products of individual memory and invention. There are other, non-visual examples of small, "indie" signifier-interpretation loops, like regional slang, but people who ride for the brand have a unique relationship with a visual symbol that most of us will never experience.

The South Dakota Brand Board is currently processing renewals, which are good for five years. This year, for the first time, people renewing brands were asked if they are renewing that brand in order to use it, presently or in the future, or for sentimental reasons. With so many brands currently registered, it can be hard to find a desirable brand.

"When someone new comes into the industry and wants a brand, it's very hard to get a good, legal brand that actually works," says Robert Dennis. "When I say works, it doesn't blotch. It's easy to put on. It's easy to read."

If a brand includes characters that are too busy in a small area, the heat in that area while applying the brand can blotch. Some brand figures could potentially be changed, like from a three to an eight.

Many types of brands — like character brands — have been discontinued, but are still allowed if the brand has been continuously renewed. So there are still registered brands with figures of everything from a cowboy hat to a cactus to a duck.

Finding a practical number, letter, or symbol combination is not easy to do.

"It's getting more difficult based on the number of brands we have registered," says Debbie Trapp. "For example, a quarter circle-J or a bar-J or something like that is very difficult because there's already so many of those registered. And we have S-es — items such as fives, Z's or two's resemble S-es, so those type of characters will kick out those images."

Ideas for clearing some of the unused brands from the books occasionally get tossed around in the state legislature.

Debbie Trapp understands from experience why people hold onto brands. "It's a reflection of who you are. I know in our family, it was a tradition. You had to work your way up to be the person that was allowed to even apply a brand, because it has to be done correctly."