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A Short History of Branding

From runes and trademarks to modern conceptual brands

Dr. Fridrik Larsen

Dr. Fridrik Larsen

Founder of brandr

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If you are interested in the history of branding, you are in the right place. In this post I have decided to travel back in time, not just because I find the subject hugely interesting, but also because I believe it tells us something fundamental about business itself.

In a few words, I believe that branding is inseparable from trade. It is not, as many think, a modern invention, but has existed and developed together with commerce, from the dawn of civilisation to world-conquering modern brands such as Coca-Cola, Apple, Nike, Samsung, Toyota, Ikea and many others.

Branding and trade being joined at the hip means that if you are not paying attention to your brand, you are not taking care of business. As you will see, together with ancient examples of branding, history has passed down to us some good examples of brand management and promotion.

Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean

As I wrote in my latest book “Sustainable Energy Branding” (Routledge, 2023), even the most casual researcher on the history of branding will soon enough come across academic articles such as Rise and Fall of Marketing in Mesopotamia: A Conundrum in the Cradle of Civilization, or The Birth of the Brand: 4000 years of Branding, or perhaps A Brief History of Branding in China.

In fact, I believe that modern branding has three distinct historical lineages. One has emerged in Ancient Greece, around the Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent. Diana Tweed’s often quoted article Commercial Amphoras: The Earliest Consumer Packages? gives us an excellent introduction to branding as an enabler of ancient trade in bulk liquid goods.

As wine, olive oil and fish-based condiments were shipped across the Mediterranean, Greek city states exporting such goods sought to protect their reputations, and by extension, their profits. In other words, they protected their brands in ways which we would recognise even today: first, by laws and regulations, and then by designing special product-packaging, putting tamper-proof lids and embossing the brand logo. Hence, the concept of “brand as a promise” was born.

Northern Europe and Song Dynasty China

The other predecessor to modern branding emerges in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. As Frank Girling wrote in his monograph “English merchants’ marks: a field survey of marks made by merchants and tradesmen in England between 1400 and 1700”, in ancient times some kind of mark, often resembling a Nordic Rune, was fixed on the ridge pole of a house.

By degrees”, writes Girling, “this house-mark came to be regarded as the personal mark of the owner of the house. Later, it was used as an ownership of mark on his goods and chattels. If he engaged in trade it was natural that he should use the mark to identify his goods. In addition to proclaiming the ownership of goods, the mark came to stand for the integrity of the merchant and the quality of his goods. It was, in fact, the forerunner of the modern trade-mark.”

Finally, the third lineage, the one that we would recognise as distinctly modern, emerged in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1276 AD). In fact, the White Rabbit brand of sewing needles is taken as the world’s first “conceptual brand”. Just as we, the modern consumers, understand that the brand name Apple was chosen for its symbolic value (and not because the company was ever intending to sell fruit), so the White Rabbit name and pictorial logo seems to have been chosen because of the animal’s feminine symbolism in Chinese folklore.  

Historians of marketing tell us that the White Rabbit’s brand collateral included posters, fliers and shop signs, all of which we would recognise today as necessary brand-promotion tools. Fascinatingly, one of these fliers, showing a rabbit holding a needle, has survived to the present day.

The industrial revolution and the emergence of the modern brand

The last stop on our quick branding-history tour is Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery business in 18th century England. Historians of marketing often remark that there is no modern method of promotion that wasn’t trialled by the enterprising Wedgwood. He is often mentioned as “the father of modern marketing.”

From roping in celebrity endorsers (“brand ambassadors”) and BOGOFs (“buy-one-get-one-free”), to luxury showrooms and international export strategies, Wedgwood has tried everything and succeeded. After 250 years his business is still going and the company’s website carries a wealth of information about its illustrious founder.

Conclusion

There is a tendency amongst some business practitioners to separate the company’s “core activities”, from branding and marketing. As this article shows, branding is inseparable from business. It was there right from the start, and for a good reason. It protects your profits and grows your business. In many ways, your brand is your business.  

 

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