Brand New: The History of Branding

November 29th 2012 - Design

Brandingimage: Marion Doss

Recently I gave a talk for CHP Consulting with a colleague, Martyn Davis, on: “Brand New – The psychology of branding and logo design”. This article was written to complement that talk and shall look a little deeper into the history of branding and further explain how and why we use branding the way we do.

As an aside, if your interested in this subject even remotely then I can not recommend Walt Kuenstler’s classic highly enough.

In the beginning…

The term branding comes from the Old Norse “Brandr” which means to burn. Cattle, slaves, timber and crockery were burnt or branded with the markings or symbols of the owner using a hot iron rod. The concept of branding was essentially to depict ownership, in particular things which had value, this practice dating back to 2000BC. The transition from “This belongs to me, so leave it…” to “This was made by me, so buy it” started to evolve in the 1800’s.


With the discovery of the new world we saw the rise of Pitchmen, who were a mixture of sales people and a precursor to MadMen advertisers. Of those favoured by the English royal family, these Pitchmen were granted patents to make and sell their medicines to and in America.


There was a lot of money in medicine as well as a lot of ridiculousness and sometimes incredibly dangerous claims in the way they were marketed. For example one of these miracle cures was pitched as a cure for exhaustion and headache relief. Its main ingredient was cocaine. It sort of worked on the headache and as for exhaustion; well I’m sure you can figure that part out.

What’s interesting about this medicine is that it is still sold today, albeit without it main ingredient, though it is still named after it. Coca-Cola seemed to be the magic cure for a lot of things in ye-olden-days. Another medicine that made it its way to market contained pepsin as its main ingredient and was sold as a cure for stomach relief. Years later it would go on to become Coca-Cola’s main competitor.

It’s quite funny that Coca-Cola and Pepsi now pitch themselves as fun loving family products despite their origins. But that’s the power of love branding.



Towards the end of the 19th Century we see a massive shift in attitudes to products and purchasing of things. This push was led by a collection of new technology and methods of communication such as the invention of mail order catalogues, the advancement of railroads and the expansion of the postal service. These things combined allow people for the first time in history access to things not within their reach. Mail order catalogues, also known as wish books, gave aspiring people the ability to shape their homes and environment. The population was empowered to buy status. And by the 1920’s, especially in the west, society evolved from a culture of need to a culture of desire.

The end of the Second World War saw a manufacturing boom as many factories which were set up in order to produce military equipment could now be used to make products. With the facility for mass production now in place coupled with access to markets years’ earlier production for brands could now reach and produce for almost anyone.


There was a lot of competition for the populace’s attention, so brands needed a means to distinguish themselves from their competitors, which led them to develop the concept of the unique selling position (USP). Like the pitchmen 100 years earlier some of these USP’s were simply ridiculous and others conceptually amazing, ranging from Lucky Strikes “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” to help weight loss to IBM’s THINK campaign.

IBM’s USP was also its internal company mantra. IBM would use this single word on most of its marketing and advertising material. The idea behind their USP was that it stood for everything the company was about, the way it worked and what it produced. Its products could be surmised by this one word. This selling point became so powerful that other companies wanting to associate themselves with technology would soon incorporate THINK into their own selling points. VW started THINKing small while Apple was trying to THINK different.

The goal of any brand is to reach the zeitgeist of the age. Once it enters that spirit and establishes itself as unique, it transcends from being just a brand to something much more. One clue to see if a brand has achieved this is parodies and association. The fact that Apple were and still are essentially advertising IBM in their own USP as a means to tell the world they are a tech company but not like IBM is quite ironic.

IBM’s slogans and USP changed over time from THINK to I THINK THEIR FOR IBM, which to me is one of the most powerful statements any brand could make.


The use of characters had always existed in design and branding before but by the 50’s we see start to see the use of characters moving from being merely decorative illustrations on the packet to become the face of a brand with their own story and mythology.

Clarence Hailey Long
was just an ordinary cowboy from the west who had an article written about him in Life magazine. This was seen by the chief at Philip Morris Cigarette Company who was having a terrible time trying to sell his brand of cigarettes which were aimed at women. In a moment he pictured Clarence as the face of his brand, repackaged the cigarettes, aiming them this time at men and thus the Malboro Man was born.

The success of the story and character was so great that Philip Morris saw the sales of their cigarette jump up by 300%. Young aspiring city men wishing to associate themselves with the ultimate alpha male could buy into this fantasy by coughing up for some fags. Poor old Clarence went from being a quiet shy cowboy to world-wide famous celebrity. And he died of cancer.

Still his memory lives on in the form of the most successful cigarette brand of all time. Marlboro country has never had it so good.


Semiotics and word play start to become more apparent and incorporated in the branding, advertising and even in the naming of products. Traditionally most company names were derived from the founders surname or place of origin of the company. By the 60’s we see a change in the naming of the product. Sometimes it would develop into the mission statement or in other cases deceiving the public completely by playing on their stereo types.

In America if you wanted to premium dairy products you would buy anything Danish as it was perceived that the Danes produced the best dairy in the world. Playing on this and using the public’s perception of Danish letters and words, two men set out to create Häagen-Dazs, the name implying that its heritage was from Denmark. The reality was it was created by two Poles from Brooklyn and the name of the product was actually a made up word.

Häagen-Dazs managed to work on the American people’s perception simply by naming and designing their brand in a certain way. But they are not the only ones. Most foreign food companies do this and in some cases if we were to get really pedantic cloths companies too. Levis Jeans aren’t made in Texas, they are made in China. Even the material used to make them comes from Asian countries. But when we think of Levis Jeans the connotation is either the Wild West or American 1960’s rebellious teens. They are the garments of rebellion and independence, or at least that’s what we fantasize while we are on our way to work.

MadMen – 1979’s

By the Mid 1960’s we enter the MadMen Era where we see major brands becoming something more than just a product, from Harley Davison to Adidas to Mercedes, be they a believer in counter culture or harbour an idealistic status symbol, selling the myth of the culture with a brand had become fundamental.

This does seem quite counterproductive in some cases though as why would any brand associate themselves with counter culture movement who seek to undermine large corporations. The reason for this is brands like tap into youth culture and become the visual face of that movement. Once the brand is established as the face of the movement, aspiring fantasists start to gravitate to their brand. This is what Adidas successfully did during the early days of hip-hop, by targeting the major players and paying them to wear Adidas’s sportswear.

Adbusters, 1980’s and on…

This parody of life imitating art came to an abrupt end when a new counter culture movement born out of the recession of the 1980’s. The celebration opulence and decadence created an atmosphere of distrust with anything that presented itself as an authority or aspiration.

Society started to question the truth of brands; they questioned the language use in advertising which was incredibly misleading. McDonalds, a massive family brand was now was seen as unhealthy damaging fast food restaurant. This forced them to do a complete redesign using tones of green and yellow in their advertising as a means to position them as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Nikes business practises in sweat shops also were being questioned as was Calvin Klein’s treatment of models used in there adverting. It seemed no brand was safe, each being pulled down one by one.

Though this was short lived however as the parody of life imitating art couldn’t contain itself no longer when the Anti-branding counter culture movement itself became a brand with books like No-Logo becoming a best seller, anti-establishment comedians who were the main voice of the anti-brand movement stated becoming mainstream and even appearing in ad’s and finally films like cult classic Repo man marketing itself as a film that contained no advertising or branding.


Most brands have settled or rebranded. Logos are abundant and companies with products are plentiful and the brand still remains as a strong simple repetitive message. However our attention spans are now incredibly short as we have become increasingly impatient due to living in the age of information and interwebz.

Brands live and die by the will of the consumer in an instant. The internet which in its early days was seen merely as a techy fad is now accessible from almost everywhere. Even the biggest advertising company in the world just happens to be the world’s number one search engine. In terms of the look and feel of newer brands they did start out as anti-brand, but the likes of Ebay and Googles have since modified their brand. Partly due to Apples design successes as the largest Tech company and partly because their brand image had become a running joke in silicon valley.

Another trend in branding today is also due to Apples design influence being incredibly strong. A lot of logos and brands seem to imitate the glossy iOS look without understanding the meaning behind these stylistic choices.

The godfather of cartooning H.M. Bateman once expressed his views on modern art in 1919 when he said “I’am not an admirer of people who draw like Picasso. I feel his influence has been a bad one, demoralising. It’s reducing the world to a farmyard.”

Replace the words draw with design, Picasso with Apple and farmyard with app-store and you get a picture of Branding in the modern world especially where technology brands are concerned. Nobody seems to be THINKing different.

What we need is a revolution. But for that we need a brand…..

14 comments to...“Brand New: The History of Branding”
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