Branding Origins, Part 1

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Brand: A mark used to represent a producer, product, or service.
  • Branding: The set of skills used in applying brands to organizations, products and services.
  • Branding is about establishing ownership and creating effective differentiation.

Branding is one of those words which has been bandied about in so many different ways that it often is lost in a kind of haze the covers everything. As is often the case with things that are unclear, they usually get over simplified and often in a way that actually makes things worse.

In the case of branding, this over simplification is usually the interpretation that brands and branding are just about the logo and the visual look. This is not the case. But rather that go through a lot brand terminology, I thought it easiest to look at the earliest roots of branding and build from there.

One of the initial complications around the term “branding” is that it case be used in a variety of forms. For example, we can talk about branding as a noun as in “Branding will be crucial for our new cat laser product.” We can use it as an adjective as in “The branding program for our new round boxes needs improvement”. We can even use the term as a verb in saying, “We’re branding this product for the Arrested Development crowd.” On top of this, we have to add the root word “brand” itself, which can be used in multiple forms: adjective (brand thinking), noun (improve our brand) and even verb (we need to brand better).

This is not to say that our confusion is related to language. English is filled with single concepts that can be used in multiple ways to describe specific instances of a certain thing. Take the word “run”, for example. We can use run, running, ran, and even idioms like “running an errand”. The word never creates confusion because everyone has a pretty clear idea of what the basic concept of running looks and feels like. There is a highly accurate shared assumption based on common experience.

With branding, however, this is often not the case since the root of the word is not often clearly understood and the word is not really a part of everyday vernacular. So what is a brand?

The earliest uses of the word have very little to do with the branding industry today and were, more than anything else, a means of convenience. Farmers who had large herds of cattle would brand (coming from the Old Norse word brandr which means “to burn”) their stock with symbols of their respective groups, so they would have not just have an easy way to identity their herds, but an easy way to tell if someone else was in possession of them as well.

So our first cases of branding are really an attempt to do two things: 1) establish ownership, and 2) differentiate the product from other competing offerings. Based on the origins of the word, we now have our first couple of key terms:

Brand: A mark used to represent the producer of a product or service.

Branding: Physically applying the brand to a product or service.

We’ll look at the concepts of ownership and differentiation in the next post.

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