Brand Power for Tools - Blackbourn 405

By: Rob Blackbourn

Presented by

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These days branding is about way more than searing your mark on your steer's hide

I think I got away with using Shakespeare’s ‘What’s in a name?’ question recently to support my ‘motor equals engine’ proposition. Just. It’s a different kettle of fish however when it comes to the ‘brand power’ aspect of names. Names really matter in that setting. And it’s not restricted to top-shelf labels like Zegna or Beluga or Grange, or automotive exotica with names ending in ‘i’ – it’s part of the deal with humbler items, stuff like tradies’ tools, spanners for example.

An early starter in the backyard mechanic game, I used my lawn-mowing-round earnings to buy a pretty serious mechanics’ tool kit for a 14-year-old. For an affordable kit it was surprisingly good quality gear. Sockets, ring spanners and open-enders were VBW, a German brand that traded off cosmetics for strength. No gleaming chrome here, they were nickel plated over pretty much the as-forged finish. But you couldn’t bust ’em or bend ’em. I remember winding severely rusted-on backing-plate nuts off a 1940 Ford rear-axle assembly using about a metre of steam pipe as a cheater on the 15/16" x 1" AF (I think) ring spanner. They came off slowly and reluctantly, and the process was ugly – with tortured, high-pitched creaking and squealing and the acrid smell of very hot steel, all accompanied by my grunting and groaning. But the VBW ‘ringy’ went back in the toolbox unscathed when the last of the eight nuts was finally in the old Milo tin.

However it soon became clear that brand power was in play, even then, when a mate’s dad said, "VBW? Never heard of ’em, Rob. Thought you’d have bought Sidchrome." A bloke in the trade also helpfully advised that if I was serious about becoming a mechanic, I should start saving up for proper pro-tools, like Stahlwille or Snap-on. Funny thing is that although my toolkit is a bit like the farmers axe more than half a century later – third toolbox; pinched or lost stuff replaced; new additions (like metric spanners, 3/8-drive sockets, ratchet ‘ringies’ and so on) – none of my original VBW stuff has ever failed.

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A recent article on a US site about Stanley Black & Decker shelling out more than A$1 billion to purchase US tool brand Craftsman, cast brand power for tools in a new light. That Stanley and Black & Decker had merged caught me by surprise. Just as Sidchrome used to be synonymous with spanners, Stanley meant screwdrivers, and Black & Decker meant electric drills – all dominant brands in different fields. Doubly surprising then was the revelation on Wikipedia that Stanley Black & Decker has also owned Sidchrome for years. Marketers must have their work cut out keeping individual brand identity alive among all this merger mania.

Recalling the times when you could virtually ask your mate to pass you the Black & Decker if you wanted to drill a hole, prompted a magic memory from my student days. My love of aircraft and flying led me to join the university’s weekend-warrior squadron of the RAAF. Recognising our leadership potential (Yeah, I know… ), they put us through basic officer training. ‘Etiquette for Officers’ equipped us to propose the Loyal Toast to Her Majesty, while specifying that a gentleman never sits down to dinner jacketless – whether ‘Her Maj’ is present or not. Other benefits included getting access to handguns (pistols were not available to ordinary ranks). At the range, prior to our first pistol shoot a squad member was selected at random to address the group about what he had grasped about the Smith & Wesson in the classroom session. He started nervously: "The weapon we will be using today, men, is the .38-calibre Black & Decker Victory revolver…" Now that’s brand power.


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