Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

Steven Kroeter | Essays

Untitled by Anonymous: An Ode to Branding

Branding received a thorough thrashing in Lucas Conley’s 2008 book, Obsessive Branding Disorder. In the discussions that followed its publication, there were those who agreed with him (see Obsessive Branding Disorder I) and those who disagreed (see Obsessive Branding Disorder II). Conley himself seems conflicted. Ironically, in the biography that he includes at the end of his book he ends up demonstrating his identification (obsession?) with branding. Twenty of the 46 words in his biography are brand names. In listing his professional experiences he names The Atlantic Monthly, Fast Company, The Boston Globe and ESPN: The Magazine. You would think that an author so riled by branding might instead want to take a stand against it, maybe forgoing the biography; maybe naming the book “Untitled” or attributing it to “Anonymous.” But perhaps he found that “Untitled” and “Anonymous” were brand names already trademarked by others! 

Ultimately, the primary takeaway from the debate that was generated by Conley’s book is that there’s a lot of confusion about the concept of branding: what it is; what its history is; and what its value is.

Definition of Branding

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “brand” as “a class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer.” That’s a good place to start, but “goods or services” might be more accurate, since Harvard University and Harvard Business School, for example, are brands just as much as Apple and iPod. An additional refinement would be to say that the concept of brand isn’t confined only to “firms or manufacturers.” Personalities can be brands, too: Martha Stewart, Steven Spielberg, John Grisham, James Bond, and even Batman, are all brands.

The American Marketing Association (AMA) provides an expanded definition, recognizing that branding includes the concept of trademarks and other graphic representations of intellectual property: “A brand is a name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers.”

Another important concept identified in the AMA definition is that the practice of branding arises only when there is more than one good or service available in the relevant competitive set. If there’s only one option and no choice, then there’s nothing to differentiate and therefore no reason to brand.

Merriam-Webster dates the word “brand” back to before the 12th century and says it is related to the Old English word baernan, meaning “to burn.” The word “branding” (defined as “the promoting of a product or service by identifying it with a particular brand”) came into use in 1970.

History of Branding

In The Birth of Brand: 4000 Years of Branding History, Professors Karl Moore and Susan Reid of McGill University assert that “brands are as old as civilization.” Their research shows that branding can be traced back to the year 2250 BCE in the Indus Valley (now India) where seals attached to jars, baskets, and other containers served two purposes:

1) To convey information about origin and ownership
2) To convey image or meaning — such as about quality, value, or personality

Moore and Reid suggest that the development of the Greek city-states between 825 and 336 BCE provided economic environments that “allowed an entrepreneurial culture to flourish and (that) was supportive of the efforts of entrepreneurs to distinguish themselves from one another.”

As early as the seventh century BCE the potters of Euboea began to label their work, and the practice spread to Athens and Corinth in the following century. Sophilos was the first Athenian potter to thus identify his own work. Around the top of his vases Sophilos sometimes paraded the gods of Athens. His signature, as well as that of other potters, indicated both a pride in the product and a desire to attract future orders.

One vase said “Sophilos painted,” another boasted “Exekias painted and made me” and one vase of Euthymides bragged that it was of “high quality as never (were those of) Euphronios.”

The ultimate role of brands, according to Moore and Reid, is “to carry and communicate cultural meaning that is both transactional (information-related) and transformational (image-related).” In the case of ancient civilizations, they conclude that the rise of branded products “helped to remove uncertainty for consumers, thereby reducing risk in purchase decisions and thereby increasing perceived quality.”

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the use of hallmarks functioned similarly for gold- and silversmiths — as did baker’s marks for bread bakers and watermarks for paper makers.

Livestock Branding and the Unbranded Brand

The history of branding also includes, of course, the practice of using fire-hot irons to mark livestock. Developed as a way to indicate ownership in areas where herds of multiple owners grazed together on open range, this practice was common in ancient Egypt, Europe during the Middle Ages, and famously in the 19th century on the American frontier. Even though the open range in the United States is long gone, the practice of branding livestock continues (see L&H branding irons).

Shunu Sen — a well-known and respected marketing consultant and advertising agency executive, who was based in India and died in 2003 — wrote about how over time the branding of cattle evolved from an indication solely of ownership to additionally functioning as a sign of quality. He noted that at the Chicago livestock markets experienced meat buyers would recognized that cattle from certain ranches were of better quality — whether because they fed on better grass, had access to more water, or had a shorter journey to the slaughterhouse. With this development, “no longer was ‘meat on the hoof’ a commodity; it was ‘branded’ and the better quality was recognizable by the brand” (see Can ‘Made in India’ Become a Brand.)

There was also, it turns out, even the idea of branding by not branding. Samuel Augustus Maverick, a mid-19th-century Texas cattle rancher, decided that if all the other ranchers were branding their cattle, then his cattle would be the ones identified by not being branded. This is where the term “maverick” comes from — as applied to someone who chooses not to play by the generally accepted rules.

The Birth of Brand Management

In the modern era brands began to be actively managed, and you can’t talk about brand management without talking about Procter & Gamble (P & G). On May 13, 1931, Neil McElroy, who worked on advertising for P & G’s Camay soap, sent out an internal memo suggesting a shift in how P & G was organized. He saw an opportunity to change from centralized decision making at the corporate level to decentralized decision making at the individual product level; from a focus on business functions (e.g., advertising, manufacturing, sales, etc.) to focusing on an individual business unit (e.g., Camay and Ivory soaps). In this way all the factors affecting a brand’s profit and loss could be consolidated under one identifiable and accountable manager.

Thomas K. McCraw of Harvard Business School describes McElroy’s revolutionary proposal in his book American Business, 1920 – 2000: How It Worked (2000). McElroy proposed having:

…a person in charge of each brand…(and a) substantial team of people devoted to thinking about every aspect of marketing it. This dedicated group should attend to one brand and it alone. The new unit should include a brand assistant, several “check-up people,” and others with very specific tasks.

The concern of these managers would be the brand, which would be marketed as if it were a separate business. In this way, the qualities of every brand would be distinguished from those of every other. In ad campaigns, Camay and Ivory would be targeted to different consumer markets, and therefore would become less competitive with each other. Over the years, “product differentiation,” as business people came to call it, would develop into a key element of marketing.

This change in approach to management structure then rippled through American business, affecting every major manufacturer and marketer of consumer package goods — from General Mills to Quaker Oats, General Foods, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Kellogg and Kraft — and eventually many other companies, as well.

Globalization and the Spread of Branding

I haven’t done any research on this, and I haven’t seen any articles that specifically address this issue — but it seems to me that there is good reason to believe that a direct correlation exists between the increased emphasis on branding by businesses and the growth of globalized commerce. As the number of options and choices for purchasers grows, so does the desire of purchasers for information and the need for producers to identify and differentiate what they offer.

Many product categories that once were dominated by one or a small number of local or regional brands — now include large numbers of national and international brands. Depending of how far back in time you want to go, examples include: clothing, shoes, beer and wine, bottled water, bottled and canned foods, cars, furniture…the list goes on and on.

Earlier I noted that the date given by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary for the first use of the word “branding” is 1970. The date for the term “globalization” is given as 1951. It makes sense that the phenomenon would come first — followed by business strategies developed to deal with the phenomenon.

With the current world financial environment leading to domestic business failures, and with certain protectionist tendencies being discussed to address national economic priorities, one might be lulled into believing that the importance of brands and branding will be diminishing. Given the long amount of time it can take to establish a viable brand, and given the short amount of time in which brands can evaporate (witness Michael Phelps), my guess is that companies who are counting on surviving this environment are continuing to devote time, attention and resources to their branding efforts.

Branding and Human Behavior

Branding is sometimes positioned as a practice foisted by companies on an unsuspecting public. But the ability to identify and differentiate between options in the marketplace seems to be a core concern of buyers. Shunu Sen (again in Can ‘Made in India’ Become a Brand) relates the following story about consumer behavior in the early days of the Soviet Union.

When products were sold under a generic name, the factory manufacturing the product had to mark its identity on the packaging. Customers soon realized that a detergent powder produced in one factory was superior to another in quality. Eventually, housewives would turn the packaging around while purchasing to identify the origin of the product and make their choices on the basis of its manufacturing location. The serial number of the factory had become a brand as it is differentiated from other similar detergents, which, according to the state, were supposed to be identical in formulation and in every other way.

This example suggests a couple of things. First, people have strong ideas about how they want their purchases to function — and they differentiate their purchase options along those criteria. Second, even if market circumstances aren’t conducive to it, once one option is determined to be superior to a second option, people will look for cues that allow them consistently to identify the option that is perceived as better — even if that means resorting to makeshift rather than intended identification cues.

In the context of the various historical and cultural perspectives of branding that have been outlined here, while Conley may have an argument that branding is an obsession, it seems to me to be pretty clear that it’s certainly not a disorder. Rather it seems to be a fairly predictable and understandable behavior that springs from the basic human inclination toward choice — and therefore it’s no surprise at all that branding is "as old as civilization."

Steve Kroeter is the president of Archetype
Associates, a consulting firm specializing in design management. He is
the author of DESIGNnewyork and a former chair of the Design and Management Department at Parsons School of Design.

Posted in: Business

Comments [17]

When I first read No Logo, by Naomi Klein, I have to admit I became skeptical of large brands, and this was due in part to the business practices she described of corporations and their CEOs. It made me think about, and actively seek, alternative purchasing, or non-purchasing, options. And to a certain degree I still do. But what Klein undermined—with purpose and good intention—was the role of the audience. Like most communications, the message of a brand, branding, is dependent upon recipients' perceived intentions. Those perceptions vary greatly among cultures and among individuals. That's what I particularly like about the conclusion of this article—the observation of the ability to choose. I believe that ability also implies the option to select mindfully and responsibly.

Also, I had no idea that the term "maverick" stems from a non-branding pioneer. That's excellent news. That would make designers who conform to normal marketing strategies a non-maverick, right? Given the right argument, one could say something like, how un-maverick of you. Maybe not. Anyway, thanks for informing.
John Rudolph

Thank you Steve for your post.
I thought it would be interesting to see it in a Word Cloud and compare it to Adrian Shaughnessy and Debbie Millman’s posts about OBD.

Word Clouds + “Design”

Obsessive Branding Disorder I = “Design” (19 times)

Obsessive Branding Disorder II = “Design” (6 times)

Untitled by Anonymous: An Ode to Branding = “Design” (1 time)

Carl W. Smith

Strong branding with a correct positioning and enough marketing support will make the probability of a product successful in the market higher.

It is amazing to see how almost 'similar tasting products' like mineral water have different success rate than others.

KFC might not be the best tasting fried chicken or BigMac might not be the best tasting burgers, but they are massively successful because of their branding and the marketing support they have.

I am on a mission to elevate a humble product like malaysian curry puff, brand it and see if it can travel as far and widely available like Big Mac.

How important is Branding for smaller businesses and it's ability to increase sales?

My view is not. For them it is either a selfish act of ego-boosting or they have been sold a concept that does not apply to their business yet.

When a product has little competition/usage then branding is less of an issue but when the product has stiff competition then branding becomes a higher priority and product positioning is vital to its success.

Debi - Graphic Design Hertfordshire
Debi Sykes

Slightly paraphrasing the above post by Debi, if one takes the consumer point of view;

The Brand commands a much larger mind-share when faced with multiple choices, wherein the product is forced to distinguish itself amongst many of the same kind.

I also agree that small business / minimal competition, derives less from the use of the Brand other than simple self-promotion.

You "guess" that businesses surviving the economic crash will continue to put resources into their brand?

Of course they will. Kinda silly for them not to, right? Would a company whose competitors are struggling or gone unbrand themselves due to lack of competition? Imagine Coca Cola being the only cola brand around after the dust settles, only now they are "the company that makes cola".

I would have to believe you don't have to guess at that one.
Eric Swartzwelder

1) To convey information about origin and ownership

There seems to be a history of 'brands' that were about who or what they actually were, whether they liked it or not. It may have been identified as a purely technical issue but these also created "image and meaning" over time.

2) To convey image or meaning — such as about quality, value, or personality

Most brands are more about who or what they want to be, whether the "image or meaning" is who or what they are, or not. "Forward-looking" or "aspirational" brands are words I heard a lot, working at one of the world's largest branding agency for three years.
Michele Champagne

From Shunu Sen's article on India: "consumers find it difficult to make a choice between a large number of products and services." And, therefore, we need brands.

I wonder if this is entirely true. The farmer's market near my house is full of 'commodities' without brands. I pick and choose based on visual appeal, ripeness, price, firmness, etc.

Otherwise, the farmer (or the farmer's cousin, wife, kids or employees), perhaps, is the brand, or the way consumers make choices between a large number of apples. They are the one's who know the stories behind their products and can help make decisions.

Their personalities are also an important factor. Someone who is more eager to smile and be friendly usually gets my business. Someone who is also honest enough to tell me these tomatoes are fresher than those earns my trust. This is how I make decisions.
Michele Champagne

I've always liked the term "goods" as an umbrella term for products, services, assets, etc. It reminds me that the intent of a brand is to offer something beneficial or "good".

It's a crazy irony that Maverick's strategy to be a non-brand eventually led to his own name becoming a brand for such behavior. And in the case of our recent elections, you might even say it eventually became the antithesis of itself by becoming a common-place brand.

Funny, I've always thought of “Brand” as a reward. Not unlike “Cool” but certainly unlike “Trademark”.

What about "branding" from an aesthetic point of view in regards to clarity of message?

All businesses should be concerned with delivering a clear & concise message about their product or service and this is usually delivered through careful consideration of a trademark and mission statement.

Other elements then naturally fall into place, such as color, typography, grid structures, and start to form what most people would call their "brand."

I think "brand" has become a bad word in some people's perspective because of the obsessive "re-branding" of already market-dominating products in order to 1-up new products on the market or give their own brand a "face-lift."

I haven't concluded yet what I think about branding but I am satisfied that to brand or not to brand you're still going to need a graphic designer at some point.

Nicely done, Steven. No need to say more.

Stumbled across an interesting article on Britain’s first brand, this morning.

Although I agree that a strong brand is a factor in the success of a product/range, I believe that creativity can be the deciding factor in how well received something is... Cadbury's, Honda etc
Sizzle Creative Agency

Any discrete identity can be usefully handled as a brand. What varies between identities is scope, depth and complexity of value. The more articulated an identity the more effortlessly it can be handled. This holds for tangible, intangible, animate and inanimate identities, and includes all possible experiences. Implicit in this notion is perception, which makes the experience of everything to be grasped by this proposition, subjective. Consequently, every thing can be usefully held as an opinion.

All we can ever hope to handle is opinion. Firing a rocket, driving a car, having a thought, eating food, holding hands, banking online or buying shares is the same as handling opinion. Managing opinion is the same as managing Brand.

Brand = Opinion.

Branding is inescapable. Brands are impossible to avoid. Brands enable us to make our way in the world.


Andrew Sabatier

interesting – especially the part about the subtle non-intended branding on the Soviet Union.
However i can see that today, the brands do not only work as a guarantee of quality and consistency, but also as something that makes us perceive consistent quality when it might not be there. I guess all of us that dont drink Coca Cola every day perceive the taste as pretty much the same every time we drink, while those who drink it more often says the taste vary a lot between different fast food-chains, different packagings, etc.

On an international market, it seems impossible to really deliver the same quality every time, but the brand is there to "guide" our experience.
karl westin

Steven Kroeter Steve Kroeter is the president of Archetype Associates, a consulting firm specializing in design management. He is the author of DESIGNnewyork and a former chair of the Design and Management Department at Parsons School of Design.

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