20-Mule Team Borax

20_mule_team from desertusaIn his role with Pacific Coast Borax in the 1890s, Stephen Tyng Mather was one of the first people to recognize and harness the power of a brand.

Mather hailed from a well-to-do Connecticut family but grew up in the booming West, and this duality created in him what his biographer Robert Shankland called “a striking alloy of drive and amiability.” He crossed the country three times by the age of five in an era when most people never did it once in their lifetimes.  An eager scholar and industrious young man, Mather took the ferry from his home in San Francisco across the Bay each day to attend college in Berkeley, and in his spare time liked to hike and ride horses through the meadows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

He then spent a few years as a reporter for the New York Sun, the populist newspaper that often reported sensational stories of crime and was one of the first to hire reporters to go out and collect news.  He developed the skills and instincts of a journalist, learned the newspaper business inside and out, and built up a network of contacts that would serve him well throughout the rest of his life.

Before long, however, family interests pulled him into the employ of Pacific Coast Borax and its egotistical, tightly-wound president, Francis Marion Smith.

Working together – and often battling each other – Mather and Smith created a “personality” for their company and its versatile white powder, a “brand” that was respected and desired for reasons beyond just its product attributes (which, until that time, had been the main focus of all product advertising).  In particular, Mather co-opted an image of quintessential Westernness – the rugged 20-mule teams that had been used to haul borax out of Death Valley, but which had been retired – and put their name and image on every package.  This rapidly helped develop the lucrative consumer market for borax, and turned a plain Jane industrial company manufacturing a boring commodity product into a well known household name.

Mather clearly learned a great deal about the borax business:  he would go on to create a borax marketing company of his own, and in so doing became a millionaire.  But he also developed a preternatural understanding of the power of images and publicity, and it was this skill, in particular, that would enable him to succeed in the grandest venture of his life:  the creation of the National Park Service.