A Brief History of Branding

The concept of Branding has been around for hundreds of years and likely much longer. What it means to brand something has broadened quite a bit since the word first came in to use. Despite the changes, each of the older kinds of branding are still in wide use today. This post will explore how the concept of branding has changed and grown over the years, and speculate on what’s coming next.

Trouble at the O.K. Corral

The modern word Brand is derived from the word “Brandr”, a word from Ancient Norse meaning “to burn”. Around 950 A.D. a “brand” referred to a burning piece of wood. By the 1300s it was used primarily to describe a torch, essentially a burning piece of wood that is used as a tool. By the 1500s the meaning had changed to refer to a mark burned on cattle to show ownership. Individual ranches would each have their own unique mark so ownership could be determined if their animals were lost, stolen, or mixed in with animals from another ranch. Each brand had to be simple, unique, and easy to identify quickly – essential traits that are still common to modern logos.

The Mark of Quality

The 1820’s saw the rise of the mass production and shipment of trade goods. As products like ale and wine began to see larger batches and wider distribution, producers began burning their mark into crates and cases of goods to distinguish themselves from their competition. Over time, the brand evolved into a symbol of quality rather  than ownership. Products that were perceived as high and consistent quality could command a higher price than their undistinguished alternatives. In 1870, is became possible to register a trademark to prevent competitors from creating confusingly similar products. Brands promised functional benefits such as Coca Cola’s 1905 slogan, “Coca Cola Revives and Sustains”. Brands themselves had become valuable.

The Rise of Mass Media

The introduction of radio and television gave manufacturers new ways to create demand for their products. In 1928, Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, published a book called Propaganda. Bernays argued that by associating products with ideas large numbers of people could be persuaded to change their behavior. The book was enormously popular, and Madison Avenue took notice. By the 1960’s, marketers were using mass media to associate brands with emotional benefits rather than functional ones. Advertisements showed how using a particular brand would make you more desirable, part of an exclusive club, or — as Coca Cola promised in 1979 with “Have a Coke and a Smile!”  — just happier.

A Swiftly Shrinking Planet

By the 1980’s, distribution channels reached around the globe, and consumers had more choices than ever. Companies began to focus on building brand recognition for themselves rather than focusing exclusively on their products and services. This allowed them to build loyalty that extended across product lines and gave their consumers a sense of belonging and personal meaning. In 1984, Apple Computer released their iconic “1984” television ad that showed users breaking free of rigid conformity by using Apple computers. The computer itself was almost an afterthought. The concept took off and businesses began to focus on establishing long term corporate identity rather than creating short ad campaigns. Advertising agencies grew into brand consultancies. Corporate branding extended to non-profits, political groups, and even personal brands for celebrities.

What Comes Next?

The rise of the internet and social media is driving the next stage of the evolution of branding. Unlike consumers of the past, internet-connected people of today aren’t satisfied to merely consume – they want to participate. Social media brands like YouTube and Facebook rely on their users to help establish their value and how they are perceived by the public. Content sites like Amazon and Yelp depend on reviewers to provide their most persuasive content. Although internet-based companies give up some of the control of their brand image, the loyalty from an actively participating customer base is unparalleled. Viral marketing, search engine optimization, and outsourced delivery allow organizations to gain visibility and deliver products without spending millions on advertising and infrastructure. What comes next is anyone’s guess. Personally I can’t wait to find out.