Seth Godin, defines branding as this: “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.”


The word ‘branding’ and the term ‘brand strategy’ get thrown around a lot in marketing. If you’re a modern-day marketer slinging 21st century headlines that get any serious traction, you’re bound to know what these terms mean. Moreover, hats off to you for managing to capture the attention of consumers in this vast and ever-changing sea of social media influencers, brand ambassadors, and clickbait content (not that clickbait marketing is necessarily bad). It’s great that we’re able to reach so many billions of people online these days. But it also means that, as marketers, our brand strategy–whatever that means to us–must be on point in order to make an impact.


The origin of the word “Brand”

We know you’re a savvy marketer who knows how to craft a brand strategy that sticks, but have you ever wondered about the actual origin of the word, ‘brand’? The answer may or may not surprise you as we’re certainly not the first guys to make this discovery, but it’s something that’s often overlooked by modern-day marketers. And, it’s actually quite interesting.


The term ‘brand’ dates back over 4,000 years and is derived from the word, ‘brandr’, an old Norse word meaning, ‘to burn’, and referring to a burning piece of wood. It’s not until late Middle English, however, that the term was used as a verb that meant to “mark permanently with a hot iron.” Yep, as in branding, say, a cow or a horse. Really.


While the products, services, and concepts we ‘brand’ today have changed, the meaning of the term as it applies to 21st century marketing hasn’t really. In modern day marketing, the word ‘branding’ still has the same linguistic merit as it did once-upon-a-time. Only its context has changed.


Taking ownership of your Identity

Branding today is about taking ownership of your identity, your mission, and everything your brand stands for. Your brand is not just the product or service that you’re promoting or selling. It’s a valuable asset in a highly competitive global market. What it really boils down to is you placing your own personal stamp on your brand. In essence, you’re the asset when it comes to your brand because it’s nearly impossible these days to offer something that no one else is. What you do possess that no one else out there does is YOU.


Because we all have access to virtually the same mass market, thanks to the internet and social media, it’s more important to stand out than ever before. We do this by letting our personalities, our core values, and, most importantly, the whys behind our brand, really stand out. This is what it means to take ownership in the digital age. So, while the concept of branding has come a long way since it was just a hot stamp on a piece of livestock, it still serves essentially the same purpose at its core, albeit on a much grander scale.


Branding as a means of “Marking” Property and Identifying Goods

Some scientists link the origins of branding to the late Stone Age when hunting tools would be marked with various symbols to increase hunting efficiency. Others claim that it was established closer to the time livestock was being branded, around 4,000 years ago, also the same time the term was coined.


During this time, the process of branding as a means of marking property was frequently used to identify goods. Pottery markers from places like China, Mesopotamia, Rome, India, and Greece used various symbols to identify their work. The symbols would indicate things like who made the piece, where the goods were made, and what materials were used.


Marked Chinese pottery has been discovered that dates back between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago as well. Signing pottery was also widely practiced in ancient Rome and Greece, as it became vital that the products were different due to there being so many competing craftsmen. Approximately 1,000 unique potter’s marks used during the first three centuries of the Roman Empire were identified by archaeologists as well. Once again, it was all about taking ownership.


Products also needed promotion in order to stand out, and this required some level of propaganda. The propaganda used by potters in the ancient Roman Empire is similar to what we refer to today as public relations, or ‘PR’, invented by the late Edward Bernays during the 1920s which we’ll touch on later [add internal link – see header below Edward Bernays: The Father of Public Relations’] .


Engraved Bricks for Pyramid Building in Ancient Egypt

Masons in ancient Egypt were another group of craftsmen who used symbols to mark their work. The practice of engraving symbols on bricks in ancient Egypt dates as far back as 6,000 years ago. Symbols allowed the masons to distinguish their work from other masons and also to ensure that they were being fairly compensated. These symbols were called ‘stonecutters signs’ and they were engraved to the building materials used for pyramids and other projects led by the Pharaohs.


Watermarking appears in the 13th Century

Fast forward into the 13th century and watermarks first began appearing in Italy, but their use spread across all of Europe quite quickly. They were created by bending thin pieces of wire into designs which were then secured to pieces of wire mesh. The designs were used to displace images onto the paper which resulted in faint translucent symbols or markings. These symbols or markings were often only visible when held up to the light, and they served as a means of identifying the paper maker or the guild used to manufacture the paper. Ultimately, watermarks became indicators of the type, size, or category of paper used, acting as the very first trademarks.


Bass Ale Triangle – the first registered trademark?

The first registered trademark is said to be the Bass Ale Triangle which was depicted on beer bottles back in 1882, however, there’s no known evidence for this. That said, the label with the triangle on it, accompanied by the words, ‘Bass & Co’s Pale Ale’ is the UK’s Trade mark number UK00000000001, registered on New Year’s Day 1876. This happened immediately after the passing of the Trade Mark Registration Act of 1875 and the story is generally accepted as true.


Evolution of the term ‘Branding’ over the past 4,000 years

While the dictionary definition of ‘branding’ hasn’t changed over the past 4,000 years, what it means in relation to marketing has significantly evolved and will likely continue to do so. When all is said and done, however, it’s ignorant to assume a concrete definition of branding has ever really existed in relation to marketing. The term in the advertising world is entirely subjective and it’s always changing, so the most useful thing we can do is to observe how it has historically functioned as a marketing tool.


What’s been covered already is how the term ‘branding’ came to be in the first place, and how it was utilized across the board as a tool to take ownership. This was equally as true in late 19th century advertising and as it was back in ancient Rome and Greece when it was used as a means of differentiation. The difference, however, is simply that advertising became a thing. While the history of advertising in some form or another can be traced back to ancient civilizations, it didn’t take on the meaning that it has now until much later.


The Industrial Revolution and Mass Branding

Once the Industrial Revolution took hold, a new type of advertising was born out of necessity. The Industrial Revolution brought mass production and with mass production came mass branding. Consumers were so accustomed to buying from local merchants that large companies needed a way to promote mass-produced generic products in a way that was appealing to buyers. Factories started to mark individual products, and popular American brands like Coca-Cola and Campbell’s Soup were born.


While all of this was a big breakthrough in marketing, branding, and the development of new brands, it also led to big money being spent on advertising. By the late 19th century, it became increasingly necessary for companies to protect their brand investments. Formal registration of trademarks at the UK Patent Office was allowed for the first time with the passing of the 1875 Trade Marks Registration Act.


The Trade Marks Registration Act

When the Trade Marks Registration Act was passed, the meaning of the word ‘branding’ as a marketing tool had completely transformed. At the time, advertising was still a relatively new concept, but a man by the name of James Walter Thompson decided to change all of that. He formed an advertising firm in 1878 (incorporated in 1896) and was the first to establish a creative department to design content for clients. Branding quickly became something that companies could take ownership of. It was no longer just being a means of differentiation.


Thompson later published two books, ‘The Thompson Blue Book on Advertising’ and ‘The Thompson Red Book on Advertising’ which were both comprehensive guides to advertising across all markets. The books cover trademark advertising in detail which, in essence, is what we now refer to as branding.


The Birth of Slogans and Radio Ads

These books couldn’t have come at a better time either. The industry was quickly becoming saturated with companies and there were so many new and competing products on the market. Quality was becoming more and more standardized and it was becoming increasingly challenging for brands to differentiate from one another. They needed a way to stand out, and they needed a way to give their brands personalities.


Now, companies were beginning to do things like craft slogans and release radio ads to promote their brands and not just their products. Companies and brands were starting to take on identities of their own. People were bonding with them, and consumer loyalty became a thing.


Edward Bernays: The Father of Public Relations

While not a formally recognized player in the marketing game and a controversial figure to boot, it’s hard to talk about branding strategy as we know it without mentioning Edward Bernays. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, is certainly a pioneer in the field of Public Relations and propaganda. In fact, the late Bernays’ obituary reads, “The Father of Public Relations” and this is how he’s frequently referenced.


Using Psychology to Influence Decisions and later Sell Products

Bernays did not initially set out to help market products, but rather began his early career as a journalist working in politics. Using his uncles theories, he essentially played on peoples’ psychology in order to influence their decisions and how they viewed the world. This included politics, situations, historical events, and, of course, brands or products.


Good PR: Introducing the Idea that US wants to bring Peacetime to Europe during WWI

Initially, he helped the Woodrow Wilson Administration to promote the idea that the US efforts in World War I were intended to bring peacetime to Europe. Once he saw how useful propaganda could be during wartime, he wanted to see how he could use it during peacetime. Since propaganda had become a derogatory term, he coined the phrase public relations, or PR, which he also heavily promoted.


Piggybacking off of his uncle’s insights, he developed an approach that he called “the engineering of consent”, appealing not only to the rational mind, but the unconscious as well. His clients included Procter & Gamble, General Electric, the American Tobacco Company, and CBS.


“Torches of Freedom”

One of Bernays’ best known campaigns was a 1929 effort to promote female smoking by branding cigarettes as ‘feminist torches of freedom’. This was meant to overcome women’s resistance to purchasing cigarettes since cigarette smoking wasn’t seen as attractive for women. He staged a demonstration at the 1929 Easter Parade where stylish young women came out flaunting their ‘torches of freedom’.


Bernays’ “Torches of Freedom” campaign worked. In 1923, women only purchased 5% of cigarettes sold. By 1929, however, that trend began to shift when the percentage increased to 12%, in 1935 to 18.1%, and in 1965 it peaked at 33.3% where it remained until 1977.


This was the first time that human psychology was used to sell products and promote ideas. It unearthed a significant paradigm shift in marketing and branding as we know it today. It’s impossible to imagine the industry operating without Bernays’ manipulation tactics.


Using Fear to Sell

Bernays even used fear to sell products. When he worked with Dixie Cups, for example, he launched a campaign geared toward scaring people into thinking that only disposable cups were sanitary. He also founded the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink as part of the campaign.


Unfortunately, Bernays’ writing ultimately became a tool of the Third Reich despite Bernays being a Jew. He didn’t find this out until 1933 when he learned from a foreign correspondent for Hearst newspaper that the Nazis were using his work to organize a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. While this shocked Bernays, he also knew that while his techniques could be used for social purposes, they could also be misused for antisocial purposes.


When all is said and done, Bernays’ writings give readers, marketers, politicians, and scholars alike a means for shaping the opinion of the public. They are by no means meant to measure the appropriateness of propaganda, whether it’s beneficial to humans or not.


Bernays’ techniques could easily be called a form of branding today. They’re a set of techniques geared toward getting people to do what you want them to do which, in the case of a product or brand, is to buy stuff. Whether or not these techniques are appropriate is irrelevant in the context of Bernays’ writings. Nevertheless, he is and will likely always remain one of the most influential people in marketing and branding.


Bulova: the World’s First TV Commercial

At 2.29 P.M. New York Standard Time on July 1, 1941, advertising history was made. New York-based watch company, Bulova, aired the world’s first television advertisement. The commercial aired right before a Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies baseball game and it was ten seconds long. It cost just $9 USD to make and it reached 4,000 television sets.


Not only did TV advertising usher in a much broader consumer reach potential, but it also allowed companies to approach their branding differently. Having this new medium meant that companies had a longer dynamic platform on which they could promote their products. They could pull on peoples’ heart strings and create an emotional connection with a built-in audience.


While the TV advertising market has been interrupted by online advertising, social media and influencer marketing, it’s certainly not dead. Moreover, that 1941 Bulova commercial set the tone for a massive movement in marketing. The iconic 1984 Apple Computer MacIntosh commercial that aired at halftime during the Superbowl was groundbreaking for a number of reasons. Not only was it the first advertisement people had ever really seen that was primarily focused on the brand and not the product (the product wasn’t even introduced until the last few seconds of the slot), but it was the first viral ad. So, TV really did set the tone for many new ideas to come in advertising, and while it’s not the medium that it once was, it still has its place.


Marketing as a Concept is Born: Brands take on Identities

In the 1950’s, packaged goods companies such as Procter & Gamble and General Foods were responsible for developing the concept of what we now call marketing. Branding started to focus on giving companies a personality. Where people were once shown only using products, ads now told stories to consumers about the brand itself. People were starting to become brand conscious. This evolved into what is now known as the ‘Golden Age in Advertising’. For all of you Don Draper fans out there, this is the era that’s affectionately been deemed ‘the Mad Men Era’.


Creativity was a big defining feature in advertising during this time and society was beginning to transform. Advertisers really focused on establishing emotional connections to brands, and lots of money was poured into advertising. Opposition to the Vietnam War gave rise to subcultures and empowered anti-establishment groups like hippies and other counter-culture movements. The cultural revolution really drove this era, and advertising was transformed forever.


21st Century Brand Strategy & the Modern Day Marketer’s Crowded Playground in the Digital Age

These days, brand strategy is hard to define. It’s all about storytelling and thinking outside the box with our marketing tactics in order to compete in a crowded marketplace. If a buyer can’t connect with a brand–usually through a story–then there’s really no brand. At least not for the buyer.


Today, there’s almost an absurd amount of competition out there for just about every industry and product you can think of, and that’s okay. The same reason that brands have such a vast reach is the same reason that marketers have the opportunity to connect with such a massive audience. Nearly every person out there has the ability to connect with billions of people at the click of a button. We can connect with people far outside of our geographic region, and we can also do great work that makes a big impact. It’s an exciting time to be a marketer, but antiquated brand strategies aren’t going to work. In order for people to connect with brands nowadays, marketers need to think and reach far outside of the box.


Becoming an Expert in your Field: Another top Brand Strategy

Other 21st century marketing guys like Matt Schuldt suggest becoming an expert in your field. “You can turn a fledgling brand into a multimillion-dollar one if you strategically build a reputation as an expert in your field,” says Schuldt. He suggests offering to consult for high-performing companies in exchange for shares in the company. He also warns to be selective when choosing companies to offer your services to, and to only work with those you believe in and who share your values. Additionally, he suggests regular engagement with social media followers, and the sharing of free content as a way to build trust and value in order to build up your personal brand. Another smart tactic–there are so many these days and so many marketers are very generous with their content, so find some that work for you. Or come up with your own–even better!


Social Media Influencers and Brand Ambassadors

Then, of course, there are countless social media influencers and brand ambassadors out there taking up space on our social media feeds with product and brand plugs. A lot of marketers shun these tactics or sweep them under the rug, but they work. They may not work for everyone, but they’re certainly effective for a lot of people, and they don’t follow the same set of rules as traditional advertising or even modern day brand-centric storytelling.


Branding as a marketing concept is difficult to define now, and maybe we don’t need to. It has never remained a static term and it’s always evolving. It also doesn’t follow just one set of rules because these days, there are too many rules to count.

Keeping this in mind, it’s safe to say that what we know about the future of brand strategy is this: absolutely nothing. And, at the end of the day, does it really matter what we know? Should we be focusing on what ‘the next big thing’ is going to be? Godin argues that the next big thing is no doubt going to challenge and stun us. In other words, we have zero clue what it’s going to be! So, why not just focus on what’s right in front of us rather than searching for something that’s nonexistent at this moment in time?


The future of ‘brand strategizing’

The internet and globalization have transformed marketing, but what does this really mean? More choices always mean big change, but the most important element here is that there really isn’t one way to go about branding your product or service. The whole idea behind the notion of a brand strategy and what it means now is that there are more definitions than there ever have been. Or, perhaps, there are none at all.


Going back to linguistics, the word ‘branding’ means exactly the same thing that it always has. It is a means by which we declare ownership and differentiate one object (or animal, or service, etc.) from the next. What has changed, however, is the fact that we have access to such a wonderfully vast set of tools, mediums, channels, and platforms through which we can tell our story and establish brand identity.


Never in the history of advertising has it been this easy to reach billions of people and to find our audience. It’s such an exciting time to be in this industry because we’re kind of expected to break all of the branding rules. In fact, we should break the branding rules. And we will. If you’re looking for more information on branding, look no further than this online branding course.