• Transform magazine
  • July 18, 2024

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The evolution and significance of branding

Mark Rollinson

Mark Rollinson, chairman of Abu Dhabi-based creative communications agency All About Brands, explores the history of branding and what it means for marketing today.

Branding might seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, but symbols have been used to claim ownership and define identity for thousands of years. 

Over time, the motivations behind branding have shifted. With the rise of mass production, a drive to influence consumer behaviour has dominated the narrative. But branding is also about communal identity – many subcultures and protest groups have used the principles of branding to unite likeminded people under a common symbol and purpose.

Ancient roots

Branding in its earliest form was about claiming ownership. As far back as 2000BC, farmers would brand their livestock to make them easier to control and identify. 

Craftsmen have often utilised a maker’s mark as a means of claiming ownership and signifying the origin of goods. In China, Rome and India, as far back as 1300BC, potters marked their wares to denote ownership. Jump forward to England in the thirteenth century, and the branding of goods with proprietary marks would be made mandatory by the craft guilds as a means of controlling trade.

However, branding has long been about more than just ownership. Some of humanity’s earliest symbols can be found in Ancient Egypt in the form of hieroglyphics. This image-led language was the principle means of communicating ideas. The Egyptians even pioneered the use of grid structures into their designs to provide fixed standards and uniformity – something that is fundamental to logo design to this day. 

In many ancient civilisations like Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome, there is evidence of merchants utilising painted shopfronts, pictorial signs and writing for advertising purposes to draw in potential customers. Clearly, even in its earliest forms, branding has been about influencing behaviour. 

The printing press

The invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg streamlined the production and dissemination of printed materials. Many see this period as pivotal in the development of modern advertising, as well as the beginnings of more widespread literacy.

A number of printers started using logos to identify their works and produced leaflets to advertise their books. By the 1600s, the first newspapers were in regular circulation, along with the first printed advertisements, posters, pamphlets and flyers – announcing information, communicating ideas and promoting goods.

From ownership to quality

For many, the industrial revolution marks a turning point from branding as ownership to the branding we know today. 

With the rise of mass production, manufacturers and producers began marking crates to differentiate their goods from the competition – marks that came to symbolise quality, rather than just ownership. With large batches of goods being shipped all over the world, quality was more important than ever – allowing producers to command a higher price.

The industrial revolution also led to the emergence of the middle class – a mass market for producers to sell their goods to. These people had disposable income and a wide selection of goods and services to choose from. That meant businesses had to do more than claim ownership or provide information – they needed to forge an emotional connection with consumers to secure their business. 

Personal symbols and protest

A symbol is easily replicated, easy to understand and charged with meaning. The 20th century saw brands begin using symbols as a visual shorthand for communicating with consumers, creating ‘cult’ brand identities for consumers to rally behind.

In 1914, the creation of the Olympic flag by Pierre de Coubertin reflected the roots of the logo as a means of cultural communication and identity marking. And nowhere can these ideas be seen more readily than in the symbols of subcultures and protest groups. 

Think, for example, of the Extinction Rebellion hourglass – a global momento mori that communicates the group’s central message far quicker than words can. 

The latter was developed by street artist Goldfrog ESP and made freely available to environmental groups provided it was only used for non-commercial purposes. These examples of non-commercial branding speak to another side of the story – the human need to be part of a group, forge connections with others based on shared values and a sense of belonging. 

Symbol oriented

Humans are innately symbol oriented. We look for pictures in the world around us, and respond more readily to visual cues. It’s not surprising, then, that we’ve been branding the world around us with symbols since the dawn of historical time. 

This potted history demonstrates how branding is never just about selling goods – it’s about forming emotional connections with others in your ‘tribe’, inspiring loyalty and signalling that you belong. 

Understanding the deep human needs behind branding means understanding that a successful business identity is about so much more than selling goods or services. It’s about establishing what you stand for, and what you stand against – who you represent, and what value you bring to the world.

These days, people are demanding far more from brands than ever before. These little symbols have a big job to do.