Look into the history of branding and you’ll soon discover it’s a massive subject that goes back 5,000 years and more to the time of the ancient Babylonians. Fast-forward towards our own era, and you realise there were plenty of landmarks along the way.
Although ‘branding’ has been expressed in different ways by different civilisations over the centuries, it’s interesting to note that there are powerful themes running through branding activities that are still very much with us today.
The concepts of buying and selling – and this includes bartering – have been with us from the year dot. Along with this goes the concept of ‘ownership’ – and using ‘branding’ techniques to prove that you’re the rightful and proud owner.
The ‘branding’ that most people are familiar with is the use of hot irons that leave an imprint on cattle and other livestock as proof of ownership. More sophisticated examples that denote quality or ‘authenticity’ are the marks by goldsmiths or silversmiths on their products; potters who use marks on their porcelain; and printers and papermakers who used ‘watermarks’.
Branding in its various forms not only denotes ownership; it also provides proof of provenance and quality. In more recent times, especially in overcrowded markets, branding is used for product differentiation that also creates a sense of emotional familiarity or, in modern parlance, a feeling of ‘brand loyalty’.
A changing view of brands
This emergent idea of ‘brand identity’ developed into a form of intellectual property. Product names were created to differentiate what were broadly similar families of products where each product – or ‘brand’ – has its own logo and style of packaging.
Strong and easily recognised brands became valued in their own right, with a unique emotional appeal to the people who bought them. With so many mass market commodities – such as soap or chocolate – being broadly similar, it was vital to create a brand (or ‘product personality’) to achieve and sustain commercial success. Apart from packaging and design identity, the power of ‘brand values’ was reinforced by advertising.
Ad agencies and design consultants went to great lengths to create a unique appeal for their clients’ products. This set out to develop and exploit the emotional links that consumers began to associate with attractive brands.
The process invited major questions – to which the answers would hopefully provide a strong profit centre in a company’s product portfolio. Questions such as ‘Why do they buy?’ and ‘How can we use the various techniques of branding to reinforce key values in the products on offer?’ provided the bedrock of twentieth century marketing.
Present-day consumer goods branding has moved on from the basic techniques of advertising, design and packaging to the ways that mass media and communication can be used to maximise the effects of mainstream branding activities.
In the UK, for example, brands began to be adapted for TV advertising and colour newspaper supplements from the 1960s onwards. This involved using superb photography alongside emotive art direction in ads (fuelled by market research findings) that introduced the idea of integrated creative concepts i.e. benefit-filled headlines and copy that linked directly to superb visuals or storyboard ideas.
Compare this to the austere monochrome press ads of the early twentieth century where line drawings and somewhat archaic typography were the order of the day. Improved printing technology changed all that; as did the endless opportunities that TV created.
In our current era…
The limitations of online technology have resulted in some retrograde presentational steps for branding, albeit temporarily. Until very recently, the downloading limitations of PCs and Internet speeds had an adverse effect on creativity. Today, with rapidly developing computing power and ultra-high-speed Broadband, all that is changing.
An ironic offshoot of all this has been the advent of social media. Seen by some as the democratisation of the consumer, it can also be seen as anti-branding where consumers can now rail against the attempted manipulation of the masses by Big Business. The jury is still out on where the under-currents of these developments in the evolution of branding are leading us.
The logical extension of all this could lead to accusations that branding is a tool of Capitalism and therefore has political overtones. Fortunately, the timeless values associated with branding – ownership, emotional attachment, quality and product differentiation – mean there’s no turning the clock back.