The word brand derives from the Old Norse word brandr and it means “to burn” or “to mark permanently with a hot iron.” Old Norse is an ancient North Germanic language from which my Norwegian language derived as well as the other Scandinavian languages.
Originally, branding was a method to mark ownership of cattle to try and avoid theft. Branding was used to differentiate one person’s cattle from another’s by means of a distinctive symbol burned into the animal’s skin with a hot branding iron.
However, the practice of branding livestock goes back to the Stone Age. If you look at cave paintings from way back then you will see that it looks like they marked cattle with symbols drawn in paint and tar.
About 4,000 years ago livestock owners switched to burning. At around this time brands were also used to identify various goods. Pottery makers from Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia (Iraq), China and India used engravings to identify where the ceramics were produced as well as who made them. And in Egypt, masons engraved symbols on the bricks they produced for the pyramids to distinguish their work from other masons.
Many ancient civilisations, from Greece to China, used branding to sell their goods. As a way of explaining their offerings to people who could not read, the merchants hung up pictorial signs and they also painted their storefronts with symbols explaining their trade.
In the 13th century, when trade was established between the east and west, the merchants made it mandatory to brand goods with proprietary marks in order to control trade. These trademarks also helped to assure the buyer of the quality of the merchandise.
Papyrus was, for over 3000 years, the most important writing material in the ancient world. The Egyptians mixed vegetable gum, soot, ochre and bee wax to make the ink. However, what paved the way for different forms of branding was block-printing and paper, which were both invented in China some time during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279).
This was the start of printed banners and printed advertisements, but it was the German businessman Johannes Gutenberg who invented the printing system that enabled mass production. This happened around 1450 and from then on printed information could be easily distributed and advertising became a popular and effective way to sell goods.
The Industrial Revolution (which began in Great Britain in the mid 1700s and reached North America a few decades after) spurred the growth of branding. Petrol and coal powered energy paved the way for mass production. However, the selling of these products came off to a slow start as consumers were used to buying local products made in their own towns. There was trust in that, and generic products created ‘en masse’ didn’t have quite the same appeal. The solution for the product manufacturers was to copy what winemakers had been doing for some time already.
They branded logos onto the barrels used to transport their goods.
So the product manufacturers started to put their brand names onto their products and the brand identities they created represented human characteristics. This responded to the concerns of the public in trusting mass-produced products. It worked. More and more people were drawn away from commodities sold out of barrels to attractively packaged goods that promised “sealed freshness” and quality. Soon after, the product manufacturers began to mark individual products as well, as buyers were now able to choose from a wide selection of products for the very first time.
By the late nineteenth century, companies had invested so much in branding that they needed a way to protect those investments from competitors. In 1875, they got it with the passing of the Trade Marks Registration Act. Now branding wasn’t just something companies did, it was something they could own. And that changed everything.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the western world prospered. More people than ever before could afford to spend money on branded goods, services and luxury items.
As a lot of new brands entered the market and competition between brands was becoming more heightened, visual communication played a more and more important role in the success of their business.
Corporations aimed to create professional images to represent their products. There was big business in targeting specific audiences by injecting a certain ‘look’, style and personality into specific products and companies. The Quaker Oats company replaced their trademark with the Quaker Man, and many popular brands like Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup followed.
This began the modern practice of branding as we know it today. Shoppers were now buying the brand of a product. Branding evolved into a mark of quality and not only ownership.
When Apple released the first Macintosh computer in 1984, they introduced it with a TV ad. This was a TV ad like no other. They got Ridley Scott to direct it and they showed it at the American Super Bowl where almost 50% of American households watched it. That was before internet and social media and we all know how the advertsing channels have changed since then.
But their brand strategy is just as relevant today: It was about introducing Apple as a brand, not just a product. And the main focus was to communicate how they wanted their target audience to feel. The product itself, the wonderful Macintoch (that I purchased my first of in 1991) was only shown at the very end of the ad.
Branding is still about taking ownership, and not just for property and products. It’s about owning what your company values and represents, owning up to your shortcomings, and earning customer trust and loyalty through your words, actions and stories.
Today, the internet is involved in all aspects of advertising and marketing. Search engine optimisation has taken centre stage with the biggest advertising agency now being Google. Pessimists will say that the internet age has created a culture of instant gratification, leading to a generation of more and more demanding consumers. Sure, consumers have more information and more choices than ever now. But success is no longer determined by who has the biggest advertising budget or the most recognizable logo. It is determined by who makes the greatest emotional connections.
And we can all do that. So go on. Tell your story.