Cave painting of logos on cave wall

What is a brand? A brief history

Understanding the origins of the word brand can help demystify what the word now means.

In the world of business and design, the last 30 years have seen a rapid rise in the use of the word brand. Branding has become something every company claims to be doing, but few really know how to do. The first step in simplifying the mess that is our understanding of branding, is understanding what a brand was and now is.

The era of empires

Going all the way back to the start, the word brand originates from the Old Norse term fire-brand, describing a hot piece of wood, used to permanently mark property, typically animals. However, the word originates here the practice of fire-branding dates back to Ancient Egypt, in 4000 BC, where symbols were used to distinguish who cattle belonged too so they could graze together.

Ancient Egyptian branding cattle — digitalcollections

In Roman times, fire-brands started to take on additional meaning; certain symbols were believed to be magical, typically protecting the herd. The spread of the Roman empire meant that the practise was common across Europe by the 5th century AD. Fast forward another thousand years, the Spanish, Portuguese and English empires spread branding across the world.

With the industrial development that followed the spread of these empires, the practice of wood fire-branding transitioned to mental branding irons and the word brand started to be used to describe the mark created by them.

Americans branding cattle — grapheine

The age of innovation

The invention of plastic at the start of the 20th century made packaging goods easy, cheap and sanitary, and as a result packaging became widespread. Companies selling goods adopted the term brand to summarise the designs on packaging used to distinguish their products from those of their competitors.

Early 20th-century shop — omgfacts

After the second world war, the invention of the television led to an advertising boom. The ability to place adverts before and after shows enabled companies to target products to customers who wanted them and create the adverts to customers preferences. This was when understanding customer’s behaviour and their underlying motivation was incorporated into marketing, and a brand started to embody more than the product it was selling. It started to embody the values and beliefs of the people it was for.

The practice of maintaining brands was named marketing, in reference to growing market share. Strategies were created to develop brands into personalities, movements and ways of living, as represented by the company’s products and its culture, employees, beliefs, and aspirations.

As the rise of the internet allowed for adverts to be increasingly targeted, and results calculated, a new word emerged for the managing of a brand that couldn’t be quantified, branding. The need for a word that explains the unquantifiable is a major part of why the meaning of a brand has become convoluted. It means anyone can claim to know what it is.

A 6000-year history

As it has developed, the practice of branding has grown to include ever more abstract concepts. It started by marking property, developed into differentiating products and has been adapted to represent organisations, people and cultures. It’s no wonder that in the world of business and design it has become something few people have a clear understanding of.

So, what is a brand? Your brand is not what you say it is, it’s what is said about you when you’re not in the room. It is how people perceive a company — because brands are identified by individuals, not companies, not markets, not journalists.

Three core areas exist within branding that must work seamlessly together.

Brand Strategy — will map out how you are different, trustworthy, memorable, and likeable to your customers. It will outline your purpose, promises, and how you solve problems for people.

Brand Identity — is the way that you convey your strategy with visuals, voice, and behaviour. It should personify and expand upon your brand’s culture in a unique, distinctive and memorable way.

Brand Marketing — is how you bring awareness to products or services by connecting strategy and identity with the right audience through targeted communication.

Why branding matters?

Nowadays, people have many choices that are of similar quality, price and feature set. It’s the reason people aren’t just looking for high-quality products anymore, they’re looking to invest in companies that are trustworthy and stand for something they believe in, which is why a brand must provide authentic and remarkable (1) products, (2) communications and (3) actions.

Branding isn’t something you do once and forget about. “A brand is a living pattern of behaviour, not a [static entity or] stylistic veneer” — Marty Neumeier. Brands must have the characteristics of a soul; they must have purpose and personality. As the brand reliably proves these attributes to us, we grow to trust it. The goal is to build a charismatic brand.

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I am a student who loves design, business and all the strategy that comes with it.