A History of Branding

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Last updated on June 21st, 2024 at 10:58 am

Everyone has a general idea of what branding is these days, but does everyone really know what branding is and how it came to be so important? In its earliest days, we’re talking back in the 1500s, branding was used to depict ownership, though it wasn’t branding the way we know it now. For example, a farmer would brand his cattle to help them stand out from other livestock. Nowadays, branding is when you create a unique name or image for a product or service. This serves the same purpose; distinguishing your product in the marketplace and helping it stand out to all potential buyers.

Cows in a field

The beginning of branding

The word “brandr” comes from Ancient Norse, a Scandanavian language. It simply means “to burn.” In its origins, a brand was a burning piece of wood, eventually, it was referred to as a torch. As I mentioned, sometime around the 1500s, farmers would brand their cattle to show ownership. From the getgo, branding was literally about making your mark. Each branding mark was unique to the specific cattle ranch that owned the cattle to help identify where they belonged. These brands were simple and distinctive, two pillars of great branding, even now.

Moving forward

Jumping ahead to the Industrial Revolution, branding was as relevant as ever. With new manufacturing processes that sparked the beginning of mass production, Europe and the United States completely transformed. With mass production came many new companies and lots of competition. This meant standing out was as important as ever. This is when branding really took hold and trademarks were born. A trademark consists of words, symbols, phrases, shapes, colors, and designs legally registered or established by use as representing a company or product. Trademarks became an important piece of branding around the 1870s and in 1881, the U.S. Congress passed its first Trademark Act. This marks the first instance of branding as intellectual property, allowing companies to officially claim their products as their own and better avoid copycat products. 

White and black Chanel

The turn of the 20th Century

Soon after, technology began to transform everyday life. 1903 marked the Wright Brothers’ historic and inspiring flight, dawning the age of creativity, imagination, and innovation. Around this time, several companies that would go on to become major brands around the world were established, including Ford, Chanel, and LEGO. While technology was evolving, we were still a long way from the digital age and brands would leave their mark via newspapers and magazines. Companies were marketing by way of informational ads that described how products worked and could be used.

Getting in front of the customer

As production was streamlined and technology continued to evolve, companies began marketing in different ways. Enter the radio. At the start, radio stations were operated by manufacturers and retailers that mainly promoted their own businesses. As radio became more popular, station owners had to look for other ways to generate income to make their businesses more sustainable. Radio advertisements became another way brands were able to get in front of their target audience. In 1922, the first paid radio commercial aired on WEAF in New York to advertise a new apartment complex in the area. Radio brought branding to a whole new level by bringing in a more memorable experience than words on paper. By attaching a voice to a brand, audiences were able to connect on a deeper level.

Soon after, television followed. In July of 1941, Bulova Watches aired the first television commercial before the broadcast of a New York baseball game. This commercial was just 10 seconds long and seen by a few thousand people. That may not seem like many people these days, but back then that was good reach for your brand. As television grew in popularity, more and more ads were created, bringing brands into the homes of people around the world.

TV remote pointed at a blurred out TV

Modern branding

The 1950s-1960s brought about a whole new era of branding. After World War II, there were many changes in the US, including the growth of the middle-class, suburbanization, car culture, and more. As more and more people began to bring televisions into their homes, things only further developed with color TV and even more advertising. Think billboards and subway signs. Anyway and anywhere that a brand could reach people, they were.

Around this time, companies were taking branding more and more seriously, developing brand management protocols to help differentiate products and services from the countless others that were so similar. The real breakthrough in branding around this time was emotional advertising. There was so much competition, that it was hard to stand out to your audience, and brands had to find other ways to connect with them. Marketers started studying their target audiences to develop a better understanding of what they needed and wanted. This allowed brands to craft messages based on those specific wants and needs, better targeting their customers. 

Branding evolution

As the world changes and evolves, so do brands. In order to stay relevant, brands need to evolve with the times. Most brands that you know of these days, such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Mcdonald’s, etc. have been around for a long time. They do not look the same as they did when they were first established, which is why they are still thriving to this day. Revamping logos, slogans, and other design elements help brands continue to stand out to their target audience.

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Branding in the 2000s

Branding has come a long way since the 1500s, yet it is continuously evolving. No matter how unique your brand is, there is always a competitor, meaning you always have to keep up with your branding. Gone are the days of simple print marketing, and here are the days of print marketing plus digital marketing, plus a social media presence. While technology helps you get in front of your audience in ways you never used to be able to, it also enables competitors to target the same audiences, making your branding more important than ever.

While branding has changed immensely since its inception, some things remain the same. When in doubt, simplicity is key. There is a reason Apple is as successful as it is, and branding plays a significant role. Likewise, connecting to your customers on an emotional level will take you much further. Branding is here to stay, but who knows what it will look like 50 years from now.


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