Smokey the Bear – Branding Guru


The town of Big Bear, in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California, has everything you could want in the shape of a bear or stamped with the likeness of a bear – salt shakers, tea pots, T-shirts, plates, plush toys (Teddy Bears, of course) and more. Your typical tacky souvenir collection.

I am not usually drawn to tacky souvenirs. But among all the bear-i-phenalia, one item called to me, an item of iconic branding. I had to have it the moment I saw it – a Smokey the Bear baseball cap.

There is his familiar teddy bear-like face with staring eyes, round snout, chubby chin and his park ranger hat that says Smokey. Below Smokey’s memorable face are just two words: Only You.

You know the full slogan, Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires, but thanks to years of repeating the message, the last four words are no longer necessary. In fact, if the entire slogan had been printed on the hat, I doubt I would have wanted it so much. The brevity is what makes the slogan so compelling.

Smokey has given me complete responsibility for my actions. Now, it’s all up to me. He’s not even going to remind me what to do because he and I both know. And now I own it – the hat, the slogan and the responsibility.

Recently, a group of clients told me their elevator pitch is different in every encounter. Good thing Smokey didn’t give in to that or we’d have no forests left.

To be sure, your message should be tweaked for various audiences and situations, but not by much. It is consistency that creates a brand. If every encounter sends a different message, how will people know what you stand for?

Smokey and his slogan have been in my life for decades. I’m not bored with Smokey. In fact, his familiarity made me want him more than ever. If you repeat your story, your ad, your message over and over again, customers will start to want you too. It worked for Smokey.