Defining Brand: A Brief History and Why It Matters

Our agency works with all types of brands. Large associations. Small non-profits. Organizations in education, government, transportation, and beer.

You know what that means? We talk, think, and brainstorm about branding a lot.

But what is branding, really? Not the elements that make up a brand, but what does the word actually mean and represent?

Let’s find out.

How it Started

The concept dates back more than 7,000 years. Brands were symbols and engravings used by artisans in China, India, Greece, Rome, and Mesopotamia to differentiate their work. A few centuries later in the Indus Valley, we adopted the term brandr  (“to burn”) referring to the practice of branding livestock.

This evolved into watermarks during the Medieval period and personal branding with artist signatures throughout the renaissance.

However, the most significant change occurred during the Industrial Revolution when a new category emerged: mass-branding. Consumers traditionally bought local products from local merchants––generic goods didn’t have the same quality or appeal. So, factories borrowed a tactic from winemakers by branding logos onto the barrels used to transport their goods.

Soon after, they also began marking individual products, paving the way for iconic brands like Coca-Cola, Kellogs cereal, Campbell’s Soup, and more. By the late nineteenth century, companies needed a way to protect those brand investments from competitors. And in 1875, the Trade Marks Registration Act was introduced.

Now branding wasn’t just a strategy; it was something they could own.

As more brands entered the market, James Walter Thompson had a brilliant idea: establish a creative department to design advertisements on behalf of clients. He followed this up with The Thompson Blue and Red Books explaining the concept of trademark advertising in 1901––possibly the first attempt at defining what we recognize as branding.

Companies started introducing slogans, mascots, and radio jingles to promote their brands––not just their products. In 1941, Bulova clocks released the first TV commercial. By 1952, TV ad revenue surpassed magazine and radio ad sales, ushering in the “Mad Men” era of advertising.

Around this time, several leading consumer packaged goods companies including Procter & Gamble, General Foods, and Unilever, developed the concept of brand management, or “marketing.”

Suddenly, branding wasn’t just about putting a logo on a product. It was about giving the company a strategic personality. Where early ads might have just shown the product or someone using the product, new ads began to tell stories.

Over the next few decades, consumers who had never given much thought as to what type of cereal they bought became very brand-conscious. In this era, the formula for winning was clear: mass spend + a good commercial = sales. We had entered the original “pay to play” environment.

In 1984, Apple changed everything we’d known about branding (again). Its ultra-successful Super Bowl commercial told a story charged by emotion. Viewers were also introduced to the Macintosh computer––but not until the last second. Instead, the ad was all about the brand and how it wanted to make customers feel.

Timeless Lessons from the History of Brand

We can learn two things from brand history: it’s getting harder and it evolves quickly.

Today, there are more brands than ever before. And the quality of products and services are overwhelmingly similar.  As a result, the strategic need for a strong brand has shifted. You can no longer rest on some clever copy or a successful marketing campaign.

A brand’s value is now the sum of its parts. It’s the stories, relationships, history, products, people, and emotions that come with the name and visual identity.

That’s where branding agencies come in—to connect those values and communicate them in a timely, unique, and interesting way.

Take Atlas Brew Works, a neighborhood production brewery located in Northeast Washington, D.C. When Atlas first emerged onto the District beer scene in 2013, it had nothing more than a vision. Nothing to really set it apart from any other east coast brewery.

We worked with Atlas to develop a brand identity showcasing a merging of science, culture, and community. This included an artistic steampunk theme, packaging and promotional materials, a responsively designed website, and a distinct visual tone.

Atlas has since expanded in output and styles brewed, opening up a second location alongside a growing team of nearly two dozen employees.

They aren’t just a beer company. Sure, people go to Atlas for the drinks. But they come back for the brand. Atlas is a culmination of the memories you feel when picking up one of the custom-illustrated cans. It’s the distinct tone, ambiance, and identity telling a story across every touchpoint.

After 7,000 years, that’s the power of brand. 

Jonah Malin's headshot

Jonah Malin

Jonah Malin is a creative marketing professional, crafting story-driven content to execute a diverse range of digital, print, and social deliverables.

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