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February 9, 2021

A Brief History of Branding

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eBrandcast / A Brief History of Branding

eCommerce may have changed the way we discover and buy products, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed why we buy. Today’s episode dives into the history of branding, from marking livestock to digital marketing, in order to reveal how branding has always served the same core functions: to build trust, create a unique identity, and simplify choice. Which isn’t to say the role branding plays in our lives hasn’t changed. It is continually evolving to meet our ever-changing needs and socio-economic circumstances.
Recognizing how branding has morphed over time reveals important insights into the role it plays today, in eCommerce. Especially because so many entrepreneurs believe branding has no place in the online market at all. Certainly, some branding strategies are outdated and irrelevant, but it’s by understanding branding’s role in our lives that you can best position your business online, and find the strategies that do work today.

You'll Learn

A brief history of branding

How branding has adapted to continually meet our evolving needs

What Maslow’s Hierarchy applies to the history of branding

The important role branding plays in eCommerce


Full Podcast Transcript

Hello Beings of Earth! I’m your host Neil Verma.

Welcome to eBrandCast, where we decode what branding truly is, so you can build a dominant eCom Brand.

In this episode, we’re going to look at the big picture, and I’ll walk you through a brief history of branding.
But I promise this won’t be a dry history lesson.
There are some important insights we can gain about modern branding online if we take the time to understand how branding has evolved throughout human history.
And I do mean human history because the history of branding runs parallel.
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can tell you that branding’s history can tell us a lot about where branding is going in the future.
This is an often-overlooked perspective, because over the last 20 years, the digital revolution has drastically changed everything.
From how we communicate with each other, to how we organize our daily lives.
In the past few years, we’ve seen how our connectedness has even influenced how we consume news, and how we vote.
Within this revolution, one of the major shifts that’s taken place is to how we shop, and why.
Not so long ago, a funny, and expensive, ad we saw on TV would sway our opinion.
Today it might be an image on Instagram posted by a friend.
There was a time that discovering products required either hearing about it though traditional advertising, walking into a store, or getting a recommendation from a friend.
Today, anyone can hop online and with a few clicks find dozens, even hundreds, of product solutions for their problem within seconds.
Comparing products has become easier too.
You don’t need to visit different stores, and talk to several sales associates, to figure out the major features of each option.
Now you can find a comparison table on any product page on Amazon.
And where we used to be confined by what we could buy in our local area, the internet has opened up the global market.
It’s now just as easy to order something from France, as it is from the retailer down the street.
And that’s not even accounting for the rush to eCommerce due to the COVID pandemic.
For more consumers than ever, eCommerce is how they order the essentials.
Not to mention, eCommerce hasn’t been a one-time innovation.
Every year, the speed with which eCommerce evolves and innovates seems to increase.
Even looking at the state of eCommerce 5 years ago, we’ve come a long way in a short time.
And with so many more consumers now jumping on board, a lot of the eCommerce trends that were only taking shape are going to accelerated exponentially.
So the pace of change is about to speed up again.
With these seismic changes, consumer behavior and expectations have shifted, too, and with it, the role of branding has also evolved to keep up.
[[START CLIP 1]] In some ways, branding has never changed.
It has always been a tool to distinguish one business from another, and carve a unique identity to build consumer trust and simplify choice.
And branding has been around for about as long as human beings have.
But the role branding has played in our lives, the specific aspects of branding that have been emphasized from era to era, has shifted.
Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the history of branding.
Not only can it help us more clearly understand how branding can benefit today’s eCommerce entrepreneurs, it will also shed light on why branding is essential to any successful business.
And while the role of branding has certainly transformed, its relevance has not.
The oldest known instance of branding, is the practice of branding livestock.
This would guard against theft, and help the owners know if some of their flock had gone missing.
And this is an ancient practice: there are Stone Age cave paintings that depict marked livestock.
There are even images of branded cattle in the artwork adorning Egyptian tombs from 2,700 BC.
There’s also evidence that stonecutters regularly marked their work – though probably in an effort to ensure fair pay rather than communicate quality.
All over Asia, Africa, and Europe, ancient examples can be found.
Seals, early proto-brands, which were maker’s marks, are found on products made in China during the Qin Dynasty, which was early 200’s BC, and throughout the Mediterranean, where trade was important between 1,500 and 500 BC.
What’s even more impressive, is that at this time, stamped labels were beginning to be used to help consumers learn information about the item’s quality, the materials used, and its origins, not unlike modern packaging. [[END CLIP 1]]
And this was a pre-literate society, so this wasn’t copy, but a system of meaningful symbols.
In the 4th century, a kind of urbanization of ancient Mesopotamia (which covered parts of today’s Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria), saw the first instance of products being mass produced.
Commodities like alcohol and cosmetics.
Quality control became important for the success of these items, and stone seals were widely used to identify the maker’s personal identity.
Not that brand management was going on, but these seals were clearly used to reassure trader and merchants of a standard of quality that could be counted on.
A function of branding that still remains today, even if it has become less influential to many purchase decisions.
Meanwhile, this basic form of branding continued through the Greek and Roman empires, where stamps were used on bricks, pottery, and ceramics.
Brand marks were so common in Rome, that there’s even evidence some bakers marked their loaves of bread.
By the 3rd century, as trade was expanding, there were well-known potters and manufacturers, whose works were traded all over Europe.
This was also the time, when precious metals were routinely beginning to be stamped to indicate their origin, and therefore their authenticity.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, branding commodity products fell out of favor, but once again, branding didn’t disappear, it just transformed.
At this time, the Middle Ages in Europe, heraldry rose in importance.
Heraldry is the development of painted crests, and shields, that indicate rank and pedigree.
Families and various guilds had their own symbols, and heraldry itself was complex symbolic language.
Colors, animals, and shapes all held widely recognized meanings, which spoke to the bearer’s character and history.
[[START CLIP 2]] Seeing as branding, even in its most basic form, is clearly present in human civilizations as old as humanity itself, it’s worth asking why.
Why does human nature seem to go hand in hand with such a strange practice?
Preventing the theft of livestock, particularly in the Stone Age, would have been key to our very survival, not just an awareness of property.
Same goes for the stonecutters of ancient Egypt, ensuring fair pay dictated whether or not they ate.
But we don’t need to travel too much further in history, to see that branding means more than that.
Whether the seals on Roman ceramics, or the heraldry of a family’s crest, branding has also always been deeply tied to defining identity, and self-expression.
When you take the time to think about this history, a startling realization emerges.
The evolution of branding imitates Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
If you’re not familiar with this theory, it was developed by Abraham Maslow in the 1940’s.
He was a psychologist and professor, who was tired of psychology treating patients as if they were “bags of symptoms,” rather than whole, complex people.
For Maslow, psychology was too focused on what made people sick, rather than what made them well.
As a humanist, he believed in the inherent goodness of people, and that everyone has an innate drive to self-actualize and reach their full potential.
However, he noticed that if someone was struggling to afford their mortgage, or were mired in health problems, they weren’t very likely to be worried about realizing, and expressing, their creativity.
This insight inspired Maslow to ask himself this question:
“It is quite true that man lives by bread alone – when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread, and when his belly is chronically filled?” [[END CLIP 2]]
This led Maslow to create a hierarchy of needs, which he visualized as a pyramid with various levels, based on the assumption that higher emotional needs only emerge in our consciousness, once our physiological needs are met.
He looked at the needs common to all people, and organized them from the most basic needs, up to self-actualization at the top of the pyramid.
The base level has to do with our basic needs for survival: at this level people are focused on securing their physical needs like having enough air, water, food, basic shelter, sleep, and clothing.
It’s not until these needs are met that we’re then free to start focusing on higher-order needs.
The second level of the pyramid, above physiological needs, are our safety needs.
Here, we’re worried about securing our personal safety, employment, health, property, and having enough resources.
Next, the third level are the needs of love and belonging, where we seek to form friendships, strong family bonds, intimacy, and a sense of connection to those we love.
It’s only when these 3 levels are more of less addressed that we can then turn inward to our emotional needs.
The fourth level of the hierarchy is ‘esteem’ where we pursue feelings of respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, and a sense of freedom.
Finally, the fifth level is self-actualization where our desire to grow and become the best version of ourselves is pursued.
Coming back to branding, and the history we’ve already covered, we can see the beginnings of a journey up these levels.
First, we have the branded livestock, aimed at protecting a tribe or family’s ability to eat.
Beyond this, the first instances of what we’d recognize as modern branding appears in its strictly functional capacity.
Branding indicated quality, and gave basic information about the product’s manufacturing history, such as who made it, and the materials used.
Occasionally, these early seals would also specify where the item’s materials came from.
Here are the two lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy: branding as supporting survival, then safety as a guarantor of quality.
It’s not until heraldry, a cousin of branding, beginning to address the needs of belonging and social ties.
But in the absence of being tied to products, heraldry speaks more to the deep connections between shape, color, and form, to meaning, than it does to branding as a signal to consumers.
It’s worth mentioning here, too, that although early iteration of Maslow’s theory stated that self-actualization was a one-way journey, and an individual couldn’t move from a lower level of the pyramid to the next until those needs were absolutely and fully met, later Maslow adjusted his idea.
He realized that while certainly you won’t care about anything else if you’re genuinely starving or deprived of oxygen, everyone’s individual conditions change throughout their life.
And at one moment, tending to your social needs and esteem needs may coincide.
And sudden change happens too: you might be secure enough to be pursuing self-actualization and then suddenly you lose your job due to a shift in the market, and you find yourself back at level 2.
Our needs are not always predictable, and they certainly change with our circumstances.
That’s at a personal level, of course, but the same applies to broader social and economic regions as well.
When it comes to branding, the role it plays in our lives absolutely corresponds to the socioeconomic conditions of the market at large.
In a third-world country, for instance, specific brands and their self-expressive personalities aren’t going to register if simple access to the desired products is what’s at stake.
It’s not that brand itself is fundamentally changing, rather, it’s that different aspects of branding have been called for in different socioeconomic realities.
[[START CLIP 3]] In the history of branding, the next major change didn’t happen until the industrial revolution.
This was when our ability to mass produce a large variety of products surged.
At this point, the challenge for companies mass producing items, was that until then, it was the custom of most people to buy their necessities from local farmer and artisans.
When mass-produced, generic products were offered alongside the familiar products of their neighbors, consumers overwhelmingly stuck with what they knew.
To compete, factories took a cue from the wine industry, and began branding logos on their shipping containers.
Eventually, this practice extended to labelling individual products.
Consistently branding products built familiarity among consumers, and mass products were accepted as a viable alternative.
As labelling became a standard practice across markets, companies faced a new challenge: there was no way to protect their logo and products from copycats and unscrupulous competitors.
Up until then, logos and trademarks were associated with companies, but there was no way to ensure authenticity.
So ,in 1875, the Trade Marks Registration Act was passed and from then on, companies by law “owned” their brands for the first time.
Now, branding wasn’t just a guarantor of quality, it was also a way to build trust.
Because logos were protected by law, consumers could be sure that a certain mark promised reliable quality.
These were the first modern brands, and many recognizable brands born in this era survive today, including Coca-Cola, Campbell’s Soup, and Aunt Jemima.
Once companies owned their brand, too, advertising was born.
The first advertising firm was opened in 1889 by James Walter Thompson, although for many years it was not an opportunity many businesses took advantage of. [[END CLIP 3]]
Thompson not only defined branded advertising, and shaped its modern face, at the time his firm accounted for 80% of all ads placed.
This changed, though, in 1901, when he decided to share his wisdom, and published 2 books about advertising, that included his best practices and the opportunity it offered companies in every market.
[[START CLIP 4]] Happening in tandem with this, was that as the industrial revolution grew, more and more businesses were able to enter the market, and offer their own products.
By the early 20th century, when Thompson’s advertising techniques were starting to catch on, most businesses had a list of serious competitors and were struggling to distinguish their products.
Mass production meant that quality was becoming standardized, and consumers were starting to see them as interchangeable.
As brand at the time only aligned with quality and trust, when trust was basically universal, it was harder for individual brands to get ahead.
The nature of brand trust began to change.
Through the early decades of the 20th century, brands began to use advertising to full effect.
Brands adopted mascots, slogans, and radio jingles with which to capture consumer mindshare, and educate consumers about what made their products special.
Brands began to give their products a human face and personality through advertising.
Mass media meant their message would be heard widely and individual trust in a brand became a public reputation.
By the time the 1940s rolled around, brands were beginning to develop consumer research, to better understand what motivated customers to buy one brand over another.
With the first TV ad airing in 1941 – for Bulova clocks – the stakes were growing.
It was at this point that branding began to leave Maslow’s second level for the third: belonging.
Brands were realizing that customers preferred brands whose personality was like their own, which opened up a whole new avenue for appealing to customers.
By the early 50’s, of course, TV advertising outweighed magazine and radio ads, bringing about the so-called Golden Age of advertising.
The era of ‘Mad Men.’
TV brought about seismic changes in branding. [[END CLIP 4]]
Consumers could now see the products and actors in live action, and TV spots were longer than the average radio ad.
This gave advertisers and brands the latitude to tell a story, to build an emotional connection with the viewer, luring them to the brand.
At this point, the social dimensions of branding were coming into their own.
Brands no longer wanted customers just to trust them, they needed them to be loyal.
Creating a kind of tribal association between the customer and brand became more important, so the practical appeal of various products were abandoned in favor of the personality and emotional qualities of the brand.
Of course, this was primarily happening in the United States, whose economy was booming after the war, and the average consumer was secure enough to have multiple options for any commodity product they desired.
Brands in Europe were still heavily relying on trust and practicality, however.
In England, for instance, rationing was still happening well into the 50’s.
It wasn’t until 1953 that the rationing of sugar and butter was lifted.
For Americans then, brand consciousness developed throughout the 50’s and 60’s.
For brands, this meant that sales were closely aligned with brand awareness, and spending more money on advertising usually resulted in higher sales.
TVs were in every home, and with only a handful of channels that only broadcast during certain hours of the day, the exposure for any single ad was potentially huge.
Advertising techniques were maturing rapidly in this era, and it wasn’t long before Harvey Leibenstein, an economist, recognized the various social forces influencing consumer choice.
He laid out his observations in a famous article for the Quarterly Journal of Economics called ‘Bandwagon, snob, and Veblen effects in the theory of consumer demand.’
In the 60’s, his ideas were picked up by others.
Focus groups were standardized, and Vance Packard’s book ‘The Hidden Persuaders,’ brought the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to mainstream consciousness.
Conspicuous consumption, basically, was the theory that customers bought certain brands to signal who they are, as well as who they’d like to be.
It was at this point that brands began to exploit the dimensions of Maslow’s third tier fully.
Brands were now not just a way to share an identity, they were signals of social status.
However, it would be false to accuse big companies of manufacturing cheap tricks to gain more sales.
Conspicuous consumption wasn’t a marketing technique, it was simply the recognition that every decision we make is filtered through our personalities, beliefs, and socioeconomic situation.
Brands were only responding to this awareness, and tapping into what are wholly natural human motivations.
And by the early 70’s, as brands explored their social dimensions, material comfort was largely great enough for most people, that these higher aspirations were becoming more important to the average consumer.
The 80’s saw the next major shift in the role of brand, and a leap to the next level of Maslow’s pyramid.
Appel’s iconic 1984 ad which debuted during the Super Bowl, and was directed by Ridley Scott, totally shifted the goals of branding.
Many point to this ad as the first instance of modern brand strategy.
While the ad was selling a product, the Macintosh personal computer, it was only shown briefly at the end of the commercial.
Instead of featuring the product heavily, even in an emotional context, the ad focused on how Apple wanted the customer to feel.
They made the bold assertion that buying an Apple computer was a way to “Think Different,” and break out of the crowd.
Being an Apple customer was a way to bravely declare your individuality and uniqueness.
Following the unprecedented success of the ad, brands began to focus on the “added value” they offered customers.
You were no longer just buying a computer, you were buying individuality.
You weren’t just buying running shoes, you were buying dedication and determination.
You weren’t just buying a carbonated, sugary drink, you were buying happiness.
Advertising now shifted to the 4th level of need: esteem, and brands sold youth, sexiness, coolness, adventure, and control.
In other words, they were selling self-esteem.
Brands became essential building blocks for the consumer’s sense of self.
It was around this time, that companies began realizing that despite the Trade Marks Registration Act, customers were now the owners of the brand.
Then in the late 90’s, something interesting happened: eCommerce entered the market.
[[START CLIP 5]] The funny thing was, though, that eCommerce didn’t just pick up with branding where it was.
The internet was only beginning to become a mainstream channel, and as far as commerce goes, it was the wild west.
Most consumers were new to the internet, and buying products online was filled with uncertainty and distrust.
So, eCommerce branding didn’t start with the “added” self-esteem value of mass market brands.
In these early days, eCommerce was focused on Maslow’s second level: assuring personal security and building trust.
It took several years of steady growth, before most consumers felt comfortable sending their personal information over the web.
So in those days, eCommerce branding could withstand not being much more than a consistent logo and a workable website.
But once this basic trust was built and standardized, eCommerce branding quickly evolved.
The irony, of course, is that as eCommerce has matured, it has overtaken traditional retail as the vanguard of branding.
As mobile devices have proliferated, and social networking platforms have reshaped how we connect with each other, eCommerce merchants quickly realized that the old advertising wisdom didn’t always work in the digital world.
Consumers are now so bombarded with ads and messaging that they’ve become experts and tuning it out.
And online, the consumer is in control.
Back in the 50’s, a TV ad would reach tens of millions of people instantly, but the customer controls what sites they visit, which ads they click on, and which products they look up.
The internet is not a passively consumed medium, and branding has had to adapt to this new reality.
Naturally, it did this by borrowing an old idea.
Back when TV was only a burgeoning medium, Procter & Gamble pioneered the soap opera format on TV and radio in order to promote their brands. [[END CLIP 5]]
They did this by telling stories that would naturally offer the show’s characters, or plot, to feature their products.
Instead of buying up advertising space which might put their product in an unflattering or problematic context, Procter & Gamble decided to create their own context.
This is the essence of today’s content marketing, except now it’s more important.
Because the internet is interactive, you can’t rely on borrowed interest the way traditional ads do.
Your brand needs to publish content that’s interesting and engaging in its own right.
But over the last few years, eCommerce has undergone another shift.
It has moved branding to Maslow’s fifth level, self-actualization.
With all the advertising noise in our lives, customers are more skeptical than ever about brands, and the only ones who cut through, are those the customer feels are authentic.
Brands today need to help customers move beyond self-esteem, and become who they want to be.
Brands can’t be empty marketing shells anymore, they need to be relatable and meaningful in order to connect.
Brands need to have clear values, to create the foundation on which customers can feel a shared sense of commitment, and identity.
Brands today are also using Maslow’s third level, social belonging, in a more transparent way.
Instead of focusing on building social status into their brand, they’re building online communities where relationships between customers are more important than their enthusiasm for the brand itself.
Shared core beliefs now form the basis of trust, and are the barrier for customers using a brand as a “building block” for their identity.
Consumers have never been more sophisticated about advertising and business practices.
They take to heart their choice of brand as an extension of what they believe, but not just about themselves.
Consumers are looking for brands that share their moral compass and a vision for a better world.
This is the current role brand is playing in our lives, and it goes beyond Maslow’s fifth level.
Appropriately enough, years after his theory was first popularized, Maslow added a sixth level to his pyramid: transcendence, in which the fullest self-realization, is being willing to give yourself over to a cause larger than yourself.
As eCommerce and technology has made products more readily available than ever, and democratized so many power levers in society, consumers are now looking for their higher-level needs to be fulfilled.
Purpose-driven brands are picking up this mantle.
Even if you’re cynical about the potential of business to change the world, improving people’s lives, offering solutions, and building communities have always been at the heart of business.
And with the pandemic pushing so many people online for essentials – grocery shopping online, for instance, had never really taken off until now – the lower tiers of the hierarchy are again being revived.
But that doesn’t mean modern brands can abandon purpose.
Actually, it’s more important than ever, as consumer trust is going to make or break brands.
No consumer in this crisis will tolerate businesses that are manipulative or selling empty promises for profit.
Branding has always played an important role in human society, because it’s an extension of our very nature, how we understand ourselves, others, and our place in the world.
And today that means brands who are acting as responsible citizens, while also helping us find ourselves in such an uncertain time.
So that’s our brief history of branding.
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