Branding received a thorough thrashing in Lucas Conley’s 2008 book, Obsessive Branding Disorder
. In the discussions that followed its publication, there were those who agreed with him (see Obsessive Branding Disorder I
) and those who disagreed (see Obsessive Branding Disorder II
). Conley himself seems conflicted. Ironically, in the biography that he includes at the end of his book he ends up demonstrating his identification (obsession?) with branding. Twenty of the 46 words in his biography are brand names. In listing his professional experiences he names The Atlantic Monthly
, Fast Company
, The Boston Globe
and ESPN: The Magazine
. You would think that an author so riled by branding might instead want to take a stand against it, maybe forgoing the biography; maybe naming the book “Untitled” or attributing it to “Anonymous.” But perhaps he found that “Untitled” and “Anonymous” were brand names already trademarked by others!
Ultimately, the primary takeaway from the debate that was generated by Conley’s book is that there’s a lot of confusion about the concept of branding: what it is; what its history is; and what its value is.Definition of Branding
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “brand” as “a class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer.” That’s a good place to start, but “goods or services” might be more accurate, since Harvard University and Harvard Business School, for example, are brands just as much as Apple and iPod. An additional refinement would be to say that the concept of brand isn’t confined only to “firms or manufacturers.” Personalities can be brands, too: Martha Stewart, Steven Spielberg, John Grisham, James Bond, and even Batman, are all brands.
The American Marketing Association
(AMA) provides an expanded definition, recognizing that branding includes the concept of trademarks and other graphic representations of intellectual property: “A brand is a name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers.”
Another important concept identified in the AMA definition is that the practice of branding arises only when there is more than one good or service available in the relevant competitive set. If there’s only one option and no choice, then there’s nothing to differentiate and therefore no reason to brand.
dates the word “brand” back to before the 12th century and says it is related to the Old English word baernan
, meaning “to burn.” The word “branding” (defined as “the promoting of a product or service by identifying it with a particular brand”) came into use in 1970.
History of Branding In The Birth of Brand: 4000 Years of Branding History, Professors Karl Moore and Susan Reid of McGill University assert that “brands are as old as civilization.” Their research shows that branding can be traced back to the year 2250 BCE in the Indus Valley (now India) where seals attached to jars, baskets, and other containers served two purposes: 1) To convey information about origin and ownership
2) To convey image or meaning — such as about quality, value, or personality
Moore and Reid suggest that the development of the Greek city-states between 825 and 336 BCE provided economic environments that “allowed an entrepreneurial culture to flourish and (that) was supportive of the efforts of entrepreneurs to distinguish themselves from one another.” As early as the seventh century BCE the potters of Euboea began to label their work, and the practice spread to Athens and Corinth in the following century. Sophilos was the first Athenian potter to thus identify his own work. Around the top of his vases Sophilos sometimes paraded the gods of Athens. His signature, as well as that of other potters, indicated both a pride in the product and a desire to attract future orders. One vase said “Sophilos painted,” another boasted “Exekias painted and made me” and one vase of Euthymides bragged that it was of “high quality as never (were those of) Euphronios.” The ultimate role of brands, according to Moore and Reid, is “to carry and communicate cultural meaning that is both transactional (information-related) and transformational (image-related).” In the case of ancient civilizations, they conclude that the rise of branded products “helped to remove uncertainty for consumers, thereby reducing risk in purchase decisions and thereby increasing perceived quality.” In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the use of hallmarks functioned similarly for gold- and silversmiths — as did baker’s marks for bread bakers and watermarks for paper makers.
Livestock Branding and the Unbranded Brand
The history of branding also includes, of course, the practice of using fire-hot irons to mark livestock. Developed as a way to indicate ownership in areas where herds of multiple owners grazed together on open range, this practice was common in ancient Egypt, Europe during the Middle Ages, and famously in the 19th century on the American frontier. Even though the open range in the United States is long gone, the practice of branding livestock continues (see L&H branding irons). Shunu Sen — a well-known and respected marketing consultant and advertising agency executive, who was based in India and died in 2003 — wrote about how over time the branding of cattle evolved from an indication solely of ownership to additionally functioning as a sign of quality. He noted that at the Chicago livestock markets experienced meat buyers would recognized that cattle from certain ranches were of better quality — whether because they fed on better grass, had access to more water, or had a shorter journey to the slaughterhouse. With this development, “no longer was ‘meat on the hoof’ a commodity; it was ‘branded’ and the better quality was recognizable by the brand” (see Can ‘Made in India’ Become a Brand.) There was also, it turns out, even the idea of branding by not branding. Samuel Augustus Maverick, a mid-19th-century Texas cattle rancher, decided that if all the other ranchers were branding their cattle, then his cattle would be the ones identified by not being branded. This is where the term “maverick” comes from — as applied to someone who chooses not to play by the generally accepted rules.
The Birth of Brand Management
In the modern era brands began to be actively managed, and you can’t talk about brand management without talking about Procter & Gamble (P & G). On May 13, 1931, Neil McElroy, who worked on advertising for P & G’s Camay soap, sent out an internal memo suggesting a shift in how P & G was organized. He saw an opportunity to change from centralized decision making at the corporate level to decentralized decision making at the individual product level; from a focus on business functions (e.g., advertising, manufacturing, sales, etc.) to focusing on an individual business unit (e.g., Camay and Ivory soaps). In this way all the factors affecting a brand’s profit and loss could be consolidated under one identifiable and accountable manager. Thomas K. McCraw of Harvard Business School describes McElroy’s revolutionary proposal in his book American Business, 1920 – 2000: How It Worked (2000). McElroy proposed having: …a person in charge of each brand…(and a) substantial team of people devoted to thinking about every aspect of marketing it. This dedicated group should attend to one brand and it alone. The new unit should include a brand assistant, several “check-up people,” and others with very specific tasks. The concern of these managers would be the brand, which would be marketed as if it were a separate business. In this way, the qualities of every brand would be distinguished from those of every other. In ad campaigns, Camay and Ivory would be targeted to different consumer markets, and therefore would become less competitive with each other. Over the years, “product differentiation,” as business people came to call it, would develop into a key element of marketing. This change in approach to management structure then rippled through American business, affecting every major manufacturer and marketer of consumer package goods — from General Mills to Quaker Oats, General Foods, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Kellogg and Kraft — and eventually many other companies, as well.
Globalization and the Spread of Branding
I haven’t done any research on this, and I haven’t seen any articles that specifically address this issue — but it seems to me that there is good reason to believe that a direct correlation exists between the increased emphasis on branding by businesses and the growth of globalized commerce. As the number of options and choices for purchasers grows, so does the desire of purchasers for information and the need for producers to identify and differentiate what they offer. Many product categories that once were dominated by one or a small number of local or regional brands — now include large numbers of national and international brands. Depending of how far back in time you want to go, examples include: clothing, shoes, beer and wine, bottled water, bottled and canned foods, cars, furniture…the list goes on and on.
Earlier I noted that the date given by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary for the first use of the word “branding” is 1970. The date for the term “globalization” is given as 1951. It makes sense that the phenomenon would come first — followed by business strategies developed to deal with the phenomenon.
With the current world financial environment leading to domestic business failures, and with certain protectionist tendencies being discussed to address national economic priorities, one might be lulled into believing that the importance of brands and branding will be diminishing. Given the long amount of time it can take to establish a viable brand, and given the short amount of time in which brands can evaporate (witness Michael Phelps), my guess is that companies who are counting on surviving this environment are continuing to devote time, attention and resources to their branding efforts.
Branding and Human Behavior
Branding is sometimes positioned as a practice foisted by companies on an unsuspecting public. But the ability to identify and differentiate between options in the marketplace seems to be a core concern of buyers. Shunu Sen (again in Can ‘Made in India’ Become a Brand) relates the following story about consumer behavior in the early days of the Soviet Union. When products were sold under a generic name, the factory manufacturing the product had to mark its identity on the packaging. Customers soon realized that a detergent powder produced in one factory was superior to another in quality. Eventually, housewives would turn the packaging around while purchasing to identify the origin of the product and make their choices on the basis of its manufacturing location. The serial number of the factory had become a brand as it is differentiated from other similar detergents, which, according to the state, were supposed to be identical in formulation and in every other way. This example suggests a couple of things. First, people have strong ideas about how they want their purchases to function — and they differentiate their purchase options along those criteria. Second, even if market circumstances aren’t conducive to it, once one option is determined to be superior to a second option, people will look for cues that allow them consistently to identify the option that is perceived as better — even if that means resorting to makeshift rather than intended identification cues. In the context of the various historical and cultural perspectives of branding that have been outlined here, while Conley may have an argument that branding is an obsession, it seems to me to be pretty clear that it’s certainly not a disorder. Rather it seems to be a fairly predictable and understandable behavior that springs from the basic human inclination toward choice — and therefore it’s no surprise at all that branding is "as old as civilization."
Steve Kroeter is the president of Archetype
Associates, a consulting firm specializing in design management. He is
the author of DESIGNnewyork and a former chair of the Design and Management Department at Parsons School of Design.