Can an ad campaign become too successful? Every brand wants to become iconic, and few have fulfilled that goal like Spain’s legendary Osborne distillery. Let’s learn more about the Toro de Osborne.

The Bull as a Symbol of Spain

Since pagan times, the bull has been an incredibly important animal in Spain. In ancient times, it symbolized power and fertility, celebrated with traditions that would later evolve into famous events like Spanish bullfighting and the running of the bulls. During early Christian times, when these traditions were seen as pagan and heretical, the Spanish stubbornly clung to their way of life. Because of the repeated attempts to ban these activities, the bull also became associated with ideas of freedom, independence, and Spanish identity in the face of opposition. 

In other words, the bull has been an incredibly powerful symbol in Spanish culture for thousands of years, and evokes a sense of pride and national identity. 

The Toro de Osborne

The Osborne company is one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1772 by Thomas Osborne Mann. The young Englishman moved to Cadiz to trade in wines, and started a company that would last for more than 250 years. Today, the Osborne group is the second oldest company in Spain, and the 94th oldest company in the world. 

In 1956, Osborne wanted an ad campaign to promote its Brandy de Jerez. Ad agency Azor suggested roadside billboards near major roads, and hired designer Manuel Prieto to design the billboards.

Prieto knew that the billboards needed to be iconic, since drivers don’t have time to read a lot of text, and that they needed to appeal to men. He pitched the idea of a silhouetted black bull (Toro de Osborne), with nothing but the words “Veterano Osborne” on it. 

At the time, it was an incredibly daring proposal. The design didn’t even include a glass or bottle to indicate what the product was. But the company agreed, and the first billboard, 4 meters high and made of wood, was erected near Madrid in 1957. 

In 1961, a revised design, made of sheet metal for more durability, and 7 meters high, was introduced, and an icon was born. The new signs were introduced more and more along Spain’s roads and highways.  

In 1962, new laws restricted roadside advertising, requiring it to be 20 meters away from the highway. The Osborne bulls were increased in size to 14 meters and moved further from the road. 

Over time, as more and more restrictions were passed on the placement of billboards and the advertising of alcohol, the Toro de Osborne a.k.a. the Osborne bull became larger and all words were removed. By that time, the shape had become iconic, and there was no need to mention the brand. They were placed on hillsides overlooking the landscape, and people became attached to the familiarity of the symbol. It seemed as though they were benevolent, protective figures watching over Spain. 

When is a Billboard Not a Billboard? 

In 1988, a law was passed forbidding all advertising visible from motorways. But by then the Osborne bull was no longer an advertisement: it was something else. Spanish citizens, backed by designers, artists, and historians, lobbied for an exception for the Osborne bull as a cultural artefact. In 1997, the Spanish Supreme Court gave the bulls an exemption, and they were permitted to remain as part of the landscape. 

However, because of the ruling that these signs have “aesthetic and cultural significance”, they were also entered into the public domain. While people had been adding the Osborne bull to a wide range of Spanish symbols (notably the flag), they had been violating Osborne’s copyright. Because the shape was now in the public domain, it could be used and recreated by anyone. 

Although the company lost the copyright, it won the war. Toro de Osborne is one of the most important and distinctive designs in Spanish history, and is forever associated with their brand name. The Spanish Designer’s Association recognized the bull as the most representative design of the 20th century, and it appears on a huge range of stickers, shirts, flags, and souvenirs. While only 92 of the original 500 bulls remain on Spanish hillsides, replicas have been installed in Japan, Denmark, and Mexico. Osborne has created a Toro gallery in their exhibition space, celebrating this beloved icon.

By tapping into Spain’s love of the bull, Osborne and Prieto created something unforgettable. Normally, when a brand loses its trademark, it’s a disaster. In this case, it was a triumph.

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