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A brief biography of brands

Sensemaking / A brief biography of brands

Anna Simpson asks how brands emerged, what value they have brought, and where they might be going.

By Anna Simpson / 23 Oct 2014


How did brands begin? The subject emerged as a major discipline in marketing schools in the 1970s, but academics trace the origins of brands as a commercial phenomenon to over 4,000 years ago in the Indus Valley. Professors Karl Moore and Susan Reid of McGill University describe the emergence of proto-brands in the Harappan cities of 2500 BCE, where craftsmen working in stone and bronze would create little square seals with animal figures, and sell them to merchants as trademarks. These marks indicated the origin of manufacture and points along the supply chain (sorting, storage). Etymologically, the word ‘brand’ is often associated with traders’ marks burnt onto livestock hide.

Brands evolved not only to convey information about where a product came from and who made it, but also to carry imagery suggesting value. Early examples might include the use of Shiva as a fertility god in the Harappan seals, or the brand of Melqart, a Tyrian Iron Age king whose princes and priests presided over a well-oiled multinational trading machine, closely linked to Melqart’s godlike status and imperial agenda.

As Moore and Reid put it, the value of a brand is not just transactional, but transformational. By evoking common cultural markers, they cultivate and respond to aspirations for change and development.1

What came next?

Shift west, and leap forward to the 1730s, when the printing press triggered a news frenzy. Newspapers would provide advert space and coverage to new brands, and chart innovations such as the Wright Brother’s first flight (1903). In 1885 the Lever Brothers begin making soap, later merging with a Dutch company, Margarine Unie, to form Unilever. By 1892, General Electric is on the scene, making trademark advances in electric lighting and appliances. Henry Ford’s conveyor belt assembly line comes on-stream in 1913, building cars in 23 minutes to put them within the economic reach of the average American. Then in the 1930s, the first ever television broadcast leads to TV adverts and product placement. Leap forward again, and the hashtag has transformed the speed at which ideas, messages, criticisms and entertainment circulate.

Changing context

The context in which early brands developed was dominated by urbanisation and the rise of international trade. Local crafts journeyed from the maker to the packaging and sorting centre to the seafarer to the merchant: a supply chain tracked to add value for the end user. Iconic brands, from McDonald’s arches to Apple’s bite, have combined deep cultural roots with easy adaptation to different contexts.

Needless to say, what we make and how we trade has changed, and is now subject to rapid flux. New approaches to manufacture and trade are emerging in a hyperconnected world, where more people now have access to smartphones than sanitation.2 The journey of a product can now be so complex that every milestone could be as significant to the brand as the origin. Traceability is a concern for health-conscious consumers, particularly in Asia, but is this enough to determine a brand’s value and success?

As London Business School Professor Nirmalya Kumar told Spiegel, “Brands are not being defined by their country of origin any longer. Of course, if I market champagne, the country of origin still plays a role. However, if you buy an iPhone from Apple you don’t think Made in China. And if you drive a Jaguar or Land Rover you don’t care about its Indian owner Tata or that the CEO of Jaguar Land Rover Automotive is a German. What matters to the consumer is whether the brand keeps what it promises.”3

What promise?

The notion of ‘brand promise’ bridges the gap between business strategy and marketing: what the business does, and what it says it will do. The Chinese tech giant Alibaba rose with no branding to speak of, even in China. Its promise and strategy were one and the same: simply to deliver, ensuring customers always got what they ordered. And so it burst almost unknown onto the New York Stock Exchange, opening with an overall market value of $168 billion.

The implication is that if the business has a clear sense of its purpose and sets out to achieve it with integrity, then it will keep its ‘promise’ and the brand will thrive as a result. So runs the logic leading to what Singapore’s Business Insider describes as the “worst nightmare” of Abercrombie and Fitch’s CEO, Mike Jeffries. He built up the brand by plastering logos – the square seals of the 20th century – all over the company’s clothes and consumables. Now, he’s taking them off.

Brands beyond logo

The fall of the logo is not the fall of the brand. Brands are multimedia channels, delivering meaning and culture through journalism, art, film, pop-up theatre, music videos and more. Their value rests as much in the quality of the story they tell – uprated by their online audiences – as in the product reviews. Hits, visits and trending tales sit alongside sales as markers of a successful campaign. They are expected to add cultural value, challenging our assumptions through political campaigns, decorating our streets with art and not just advertising. Moreover, people are looking to brands not just for embellishments, but for long-term engagement with societal issues. The study ‘Combining Profit and Purpose’ published in October 2014 by Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) in partnership with Cranfield’s Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility and The Financial Times’ FT Remark (FT), found that 88% of current CEOs and 90% of future leaders surveyed believe businesses should have a social purpose. Brands are expected to make life better not just momentarily but in the long-term. TUI, for instance, promises “a holiday where you can get back to your true self and enjoy moments that really matter, now and in times to come” – emphasising both the experience and its sustainable approach.

The potential of brands is no longer framed by either logo or trade. Political leaders, non-profits and global socialites are developing their brand. In China, Premier Xi Jinping is the first ruler to employ a big team to build his public profile since Chairman Mao. And he’s challenging what it means to be head of state in China: out of the limo, and onto the bus.4

Beyond brands

Stripped of the logo and the commercial context, what is a brand? Its ultimate role, coming back to Moore and Reid, is to “carry and communicate cultural meaning that is both transactional (information-related) and transformational (image-related) in character”. Of course, meaning must travel between two or more parties. Another way to understand brands is a means of mediating relationships – mostly, though not exclusively, between an organisation and its users, and often between a company and its customers.

If we take this mediation as our definition of a brand, then anything affecting those relationships will also affect the role and manifestation of brands: the messages it carries, the vessel it chooses and the route it takes.

Changes in how people relate to each other and to social structures come from many sources: communications technology is an obvious one, now offering people an unprecedented capacity to share and to influence. Other shifts might be demographic – affecting the values and aspirations of the people in question; political – shaping motivations; or cultural and linguistic, challenging any assumptions of common understanding. Scientific applications are already unleashing the potential for people and business to engage in ways that are very close indeed – through lifestyle monitoring, internal health sensors, and even modifications to the human microbiome. These pressures will have an impact on how we relate to one another, how quickly and by what means messages are shared, how they are understood, and what impact they have. There’s much talk of ‘emotional branding’; what does it mean for a brand to care? Is that possible? Should it be?

New memes

As Stefan Liute, Strategy Director at the brand agency Storience argues, branding is reaching the end of its days. “The trade’s terminology is constantly evolving and fashionable labels grow tired at some point. We will call this discipline by a different name, giving up the pretty barbaric branding.” Liute believes branding terminology and concepts will diverge into two subspecies: a “pragmatic one”, focused on economic results, and “an academic one, idealist and focused to bring the world back into balance”.

Our latest special edition explores the future of brands, questioning their value in mediating relationships, and interrogating their readiness to adapt in order to engage with people on three levels: civic, creative and personal. In the first chapter, we question the roles brands can play in the lives of citisens, activists, visionaries and change-makers. In the second, we ask how brands can engage with creativity in individuals and society. And finally, we reflect on the capacity of brands to gain greater personal proximity to us, from our physical health to the workings of our minds.

Anna Simpson is the Curator of Forum for the Future’s new Futures Centre, and author of The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Readers of Green Futures will know her already as Green Futures' most recent editor. @_annasimpson

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Image credit: Seal, Mohenjo-daro. Copyright J.M. Kenoyer/, Courtesy Dept. of Archaeology and Museums, Govt. of Pakistan

The Future of Brands special edition will shortly be available as a free download here.

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