A Brief History Of Branding

JP KuehlweinSeptember 1, 201611 min

Did it all start in the caves of our earliest ancestors and their sign language?

Or was it in the Wild West where cowboys ‘branded’ their cattle? Or did Josiah Wedgewood invent the modern concept of branding when he marked his tableware to command a premium in the 17th century? There are many points of view on what defines the origins of branding, but in the widest sense it is as old as we people are, since it serves our human need for connection as well as distinction. And while our thinking about brands and the roles they play has evolved over more recent decades, most elements of them were there all along – they were just not being analyzed or consciously utilized. For instance, from the very early days a branded good has bestowed a certain aura of sophistication or status on its user. It just wasn’t marketed this way then, but rather sold on the merits of its functional superiority. Because most customers were more interested in factual aspects during times when their functional needs weren’t entirely satisfied yet.

Which brings us to an important point: the development of branding and marketing outlined below is by no means universal yet, nor is it irreversible. It relies on certain socioeconomic conditions. Not only through Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs do we know that people don’t migrate to the fulfillment of higher needs until their more immediate ones are met. The same holds true for the way we deal with brands. First of course, one must be in an economic position to indulge in ‘higher order’ products and brands. This is the case for many people in many developed societies, but certainly not for all. Also, historical and cultural differences play a big role. While, for instance, most of us in the West have been living in the ‘experience economy’ since the ’80s, many people in Asia or other parts of the world are just recently entering that stage. It is only in times and cultures of material security or surplus that we become more concerned with the immaterial aspects of our consumption. Only when we have everything we need do we start wondering about what else we desire.

The following chronology thus shouldn’t be understood as one idea of branding replacing the other: rather, they were layered on top, living and working in parallel – as they still are today. Which of them takes priority can switch very easily, depending on socioeconomic realities or even from person to person and moment to moment, depending on levels of involvement or psycho-social context. We will all sometimes look at a brand as a mere quality guarantor while in other situations and categories happily engage more emotionally, becoming completely enamored by their myth or loving them as a medium for connecting with others.

Brand As A Quality Guarantor

One of the first companies to establish today’s idea of marketing and brand building through rigorous go-to-market plans and communication strategies was arguably Procter & Gamble. ‘All thy garments smell of myrrh and aloes and cassia, out of the ivory palaces whereby they’ve made thee glad’ (Psalm 45.8) was supposedly the inspiration for Harley Procter in naming ‘Ivory Soap’. And as a very devout, proud and shrewd man it doesn’t surprise that he took God as the ultimate, though indirect (and unpaid we might add) endorsement, while his overall marketing strategy was completely down-to-earth, focused on the functional and rational. ‘99 and 44/100 per cent pure’ was what we today would call his promise, benefit or USP – Unique Selling Proposition – and ‘floats in water’ was his RTB – Reason To Believe – because ‘only what is so pure’ is lighter than water.

And that’s the point: When Harley Procter – and with him others like Coca-Cola or The Quakers (of Oats fame) – started what we now call ‘branding’ in the commercializing world of the early 20th century, their focus was on exactly this: functional benefits. Brands for them were first and foremost a way to signify and guarantee superior quality. The idea was to physically distinguish their product from the competition and build a quality reputation, which would allow them to charge a premium.

The consumer relationship, if that term is even appropriate for those early days, was thus one that was supposed to be based on trust. They tried to build a trust bias, an emotional shortcut to stir purchase decisions and to ensure customer preference and loyalty. The interesting thing is that today, in many ways, we are closing the circle and getting back to exactly the same point – albeit on a higher level. It’s like T.S. Eliot says in Little Gidding: ‘And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.

Brand As A Badge

Thorstein Veblen had already discussed the idea in his groundbreaking 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class, but it wasn’t until the middle of the last century that a lot of focus was directed towards the social aspects of branding. In 1950 the economist Harvey Leibenstein published an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics entitled ‘Bandwagon, snob and Veblen effects in the theory of consumer demand’, and kicked off a deluge of research, theories and talks, which shape our thinking around brands and branding, especially in the prestige world, to this very day.

Then came the 1960s and their passion for cultural theory with two of the most prominent proponents, Ernest Dichter, also known as the father of motivational research, who supposedly coined the term ‘focus group’, and Vance Packard with his blockbuster The Hidden Persuaders. This was more or less the birth of looking particularly at prestige brands as status symbols or badges. In fact, ‘badge value’ as well as Veblen’s original moniker ‘conspicuous consumption’ became so popular they entered our public language and conscience ironically, as the theory was all about the powers of the sub or unconscious.

The idea is in essence quite simple: what we consume says something about who we are – or at least who we would like to be. Of course this had been true from the very beginning of branding, and actually it’s even true beyond branding. It simply means that all our choices and actions, and particularly our consumptive ones, have a social or personal dimension. For marketers and branding experts this thought opened a whole new playing field: positioning and marketing brands for their social currency, triggering and leveraging so-called extrinsic motivations, and overly promising the gain of social prestige beyond a product’s functional benefit. It became about putting brands in aspirational contexts or situations to create the impression of them leading to or at least having the aura of a more sophisticated, desirable life. The big concept of lifestyle branding was invented – and hasn’t left us since.

Brand As A Building Block

Closely connected to the above idea of brands as social badges or signifiers of a certain prestigious lifestyle, but expanding this concept, is the idea of brands as building blocks – the next evolutionary step in brand theory.

It started around the same time as the social perspective came into view, but it took on steam a little later, in the ’70s and particularly in the ’80s – the ‘me’-decade, when everything became bigger and better, including brands. The difference: beyond the external value, the social relevance of a choice, there’s a myriad of other powers, but mainly also internal or intrinsic motivational ones that brands can hold and leverage. They can do so much for a consumer – they are a value in their own right, hence we marketers also often speak of ‘added value’: beyond the actual product value there is the added value of the brand.

Brands quickly started overtly promising everything from might to sexiness, happiness or youth, a sense of adventure or one of control… it was a whole new world and the opportunities were endless, because it wasn’t only that brands could make me appear a certain way; they actually could make me feel this way, or at least so the theory goes. Brands weren’t just badges anymore, they became building blocks, building blocks of my sense of self, of my identity… heck, of my whole world. This was the time of the big advertising icons and campaign ideas like the Marlboro Man and his ‘taste of freedom and adventure’, some of which survive today, even if only in our collective conscience.

This was also the time during which it became clear that the true owners of brands aren’t the companies who invent them, but the consumers who cherish – or despise – them. It is in their heads and hearts that the ultimate meaning and value of a brand is being constructed. As they embrace brands to construct their selves they assess and create the value that these particular brands hold. And they can just as easily deconstruct or devalue those brands, which of course didn’t keep companies from trying to measure and define the value of ‘their’ brands, ideally in monetary terms, thus creating the concept of brand equity.

Brand As A Medium

As if those three tasks – quality guarantor, badge and building block – weren’t already enough for a brand we have recently added two more. Again, we shouldn’t even say ‘add’, as these dimensions were there all along. It’s really more that we expanded our perspective yet again and re-focused our attention on two other powers that brands possess – or through which they possess us.

In the first case of ‘brand as a medium’ we look pretty much back to the early days of modern brand building, the soap opera – the radio or TV formats initially launched and produced by Procter & Gamble to tell stories around their products and promote their brands. In those days, the brand was message and medium at the same time. You didn’t buy media space to place your message in an attractive context – you created the context yourself. Or better yet, you merged the two and produced what we nowadays call ‘content’, something for people to rally around and love – with your brand in the center and hopefully smack in the middle of your audience’s interests and thoughts.

And that’s exactly what marketing and brand building in the 21st century is about again. The only difference is that we’ve gone interactive. TV and radio have lost their luster because communication and content aren’t one-way streets anymore. The audiences have become actors themselves: they’ve started talking back and taking things into their own hands.

But the principle remains, and is regaining popularity: with once-captive audiences having liberated themselves through remote controls, DVRs and the internet, not to mention mobile devices, you cannot rely on borrowed or bought interest anymore – you must become interesting again yourself. Brands can no longer force their way into existing content or discourse, they must become the content and initiate the discourse themselves, attractive enough for people to rally around, connect and engage with. In other words they must become their own media for communities of like-minded people to rally around, just like we once gathered around the radio to follow the latest soap opera. Today, this idea is called Community Marketing – inspiring conversations and a fan-like community of followers.

A brand that has been spearheading this despite its heritage and age is Coca-Cola. Actually, they’ve always been at the forefront of marketing. In the 1920s they created Santa Claus as we know him today, and they were one of the first to objectify men as sex symbols in the United States with their infamous ‘Window Washer’ advertisement for Diet Coke in 1998. Today they arguably set the tone when it comes to creating ‘ideas that do’ . One of the most ingenious examples of late is their ‘Happiness’ campaign. At first, Coca-Cola installed so-called ‘Happiness Machines’, ATMs that dispensed US $100 to passers by who promised to use the money to make someone else happy – by buying them food, serenading them or giving them a backrub. In 2012 they turned this into the ‘Happiness for Couples Machines’, where you had to testify to your love to get two cokes for free. Lately they’ve evolved this even further, into making political connections, asking Pakistanis and Indians to ‘share’ a coke in Kashmir, the region they are perennially fighting over. Apart from engaging people, the brand shows on the spot what it means by ‘the joy of Coca-Cola’. They don’t just tout the benefits of their products, they prove them then and there, turning marketing into a beneficial ‘user experience’.

Brand As A Myth

The last dimension of brands that has been unfolded is the idea of brands elevating themselves into a myth by pursuing a clear mission and sharing, and expanding this through legendary tales.

There are various ways this idea is being talked about. In some discussions you’ll find it as ‘Ethical Branding’ or ‘Ideological Branding’. Roy Spence, one of the leaders in this field of thinking, simply calls it ‘having purpose’ and Simon Sinek, another authority, makes it about ‘starting with why’. What all these theories share is the high importance they place on the fact that brands need a reason for being. They must stand for something in order to connect with people and ultimately guide them, in their decision-making but potentially also in life in general.

One of the main reasons for this is the fact that brands need to regain respect. Consumers have become disillusioned and cynical, yet also more demanding. Brands need to re-prove themselves as not just ‘empty’ marketing shells but reliable holders of meaning. The starting point for this is a clear, definite point of view (POV). Having values and convictions beyond making a buck, and communicating those beliefs openly and credibly, is the beginning of every relationship. Transparency helps control in case of doubt, but it can never substitute for a clearly articulated and reliable standpoint as the basis for a shared commitment. And that’s what brands must be and are in the best of circumstances: consensual communities driven by a core belief that attracts others who share this belief. This is how they achieve the trust bias, which gives them an edge against their competition and an ‘up’ in their commercialization.

Yet, a clear POV is only part of what’s needed today. We have discussed the fact that brands need to be their own medium, create their own content to develop an ever-growing loyal community. And for that it’s not enough to project a clear WHY and have a distinct WHAT: brands need to also translate these into an incomparable, fascinating and engaging HOW. They need to wrap their purpose in engaging stories that can easily be understood, taken to heart and shared. They need to elevate their mission into a myth, projecting a strong viewpoint onto the world, providing meaning and a clear moral compass, but in an enticing and entertaining narrative. They need to light the fire we can gather around, but they also need to keep us there with fascinating tales we can dream of in the dark hours. Brands must become storytellers with a purpose, which is why we called this latest stage ‘Brand as a Myth’ and not just ‘Brand as Mission’.

The Evolving Role Of Brands (And Their Benefit)

Quality Guarantor (Functional )

Badge (Social )

Building Block (Emotional )

Medium (Cultural )

Myth (Philosophical )

Excerpted from: Rethinking Prestige Branding: Secrets of the Ueber-Brands by Wolfgang Schaefer and JP Kuehlwein, in partnership with Kogan Page publishing.

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