A picture of the word "branding" on a typewriter.

A Brief History of Branding in America and the World

The roots of branding are debatable based on your definition. There is evidence of branding dating back to earliest days of recorded civilization in 2250 BCE. You could point to Josiah Wedgwood’s branding of his fine china and tableware products with his name to denote high quality during the 18th century. Though many were likely not aware of the concept as we know it today, there have been many pioneers and trailblazers in branding. This article will review some of the more important developments in the history of branding.

The Earliest Days of Branding

From the earliest days of human civilization up through the first half of the 20th century, branding was used as a marker of superior quality. When consumers saw certain markings on the products they purchased, it served as a guarantee that they were buying high-quality products that did what they were supposed to.

You can find evidence of this in the ancient Indus Valley civilizations, where craftsmen etched square seals into stone and bronze tools, and merchants also used seals for their own products as well. One of the earliest examples of branding in the known world was in this era where merchants were forced to use seals of bulls, elephants, tigers and other Indian animals to brand their wares and communicate across different cultures.[1]

This practice of using branding to differentiate between quality and efficacy was extremely popular in the early 1900s. Companies like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble used branding to corner their respective markets. They used branding to build a reputation of quality that would precede them. So when a person was looking to buy a bar of soap or a can of soda, they immediately thought of one of these companies. This created a consumer relationship that was built on trust.[2]

Brands as Status Symbols

As the 20th century marched forward, pioneering companies like Coca-Cola, Quaker, Procter & Gamble, General Foods and Unilever faced a growing problem: their products were no longer head and shoulders above the competition. A person could spend less on the same products produced by lesser known companies and get similar results. To position their companies ahead of the growing list of competitors, they had to use branding as a badge of sorts.

A Pepsi print advertisement from the 1950s and 1960s.
Source: 1950sUnlimited – Pepsi 60s (https://www.flickr.com/photos/blakta2/8194543363)

As the 1950s ended and the 1960s began, just saying you had the best product was no longer enough. In addition to offering functional value, products also needed to add emotional value and associate a person’s identity with the products they used. At a time when disposable income had reached an all-time high in America, companies focused on being more creative in their advertising so that they could charge more than their competitors and still command market dominance.

Some popular branding examples from this era include:[3],[4]

  • Pepsi’s “Think Young” and “Pepsi Generation” campaigns
  • Campbell’s new slogan: “M’m, m’m groovy!”
  • Hertz’s “Hertz puts you in the driver’s seat” campaign
  • Noxema’s “Take it off, take it all off” commercials narrated by a Swedish model
  • Volkswagen Beetle’s “Think small” campaign

All of these advertisements and many others went far beyond the functionality of their products and added personality to their brands. It also added emotional value to buying products. This laid the foundation for modern branding practices today.

Brands Adding Value Beyond the Product

The 1970s and 80s saw a new evolution in branding: an embellishment of promises. Through contextual associations in advertisements, brands began promising things like youth, strength, beauty, adventure and control. When consumers were buying a can of Pepsi, they weren’t just buying a great soda, they were buying the youthful adventure that came along with it. This was apparent in the frowned upon subliminal messaging tactics of the 1970s.

A picture of a person using a remote control.Advertisers would allegedly hide sexually charged words and photos in ice cubes, clothing or anywhere else in an effort to get viewers to associate desire with their brands. Even beyond subliminal messaging, many companies used contextual messaging to associate added value with products. This included the setting of the advertisements and the age, characteristics and behaviors of the actors.

Advertising in the 1970s grew at a rapid rate. The average American consumer was exposed to approximately 1,600 ads every day. The preferred advertising method was through television, as more than 69 million U.S. homes owned at least one television set and watched more than six hours of television every day.[5] But the 1980s complicated this with the increasing popularity of cable television, remote controls and VCRs. Not only did networks have to compete in a fragmented television market for the first time, but they also had to contend with viewers easily changing channels during commercial breaks and audiences choosing to control their viewing experience by watching VHS tapes rather than television.

This was also a time when brands began to invest in international marketing more frequently, joining the ranks of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, IBM and others. Technological advances allowed advertisers to be more creative in their commercials and reach farther with their branding.[6] Many of these trends continued into the 1990s as technology continued to race forward.

21st Century Branding

There may be more pressure on brands today than ever before. Not only are they required to guarantee quality and act as status badges, but they are now asked to interact with their consumer base and embody values that resonate with the public. Never before have consumers held brands more accountable for political and societal stances. Part of this has to do with the growing cynicism Americans have towards advertisers in general.

A picture of young girls using mobile devices. People in the public do everything they possibly can to avoid exposure to any type of advertising. With exposure to an average of 5,000 or more ads per day, we are over-inundated with marketing and now instinctively avoid it.[7] Whether it’s using streaming services exclusively, installing ad blockers, changing to one of the 800 channels they have during commercial breaks or burying their heads in their smartphones, Americans have become professionals at avoiding ads. Advertisers also have to combat the increasing fragmentation of the market – it’s hard to predict when, where or how people will be consuming media or what they’ll be reading, watching or listening to.

To get around this, brands now have to be everywhere. This means on social media, television, the radio, in stores and in the news. Powerful brands have to have engaging websites, create viral videos, write relevant blog posts and become part of the public conscious. They also have to create two-way advertising that allows consumers to interact with them.

One of the ways that brands become more relevant (and also more controversial) is by using their marketing to make commentaries on societal issues, such as gay rights, immigration or minimum wage. This strategy can and has backfired because there are very few stances that have no opposition. Virtually any position a brand takes will alienate one demographic or another. Still, with many of these issues coming to the forefront, there’s mounting pressure on brands to take stances in some way.

When you take snap shots of the history of branding throughout the years, it’s clear that changes in technology and societal perceptions dictate how advertisers must evolve. The most successful companies are able to anticipate and recognize shifts in the market and adjust their branding strategies accordingly. If you own a business that is using outdated advertising methods, allow Mary Pomerantz Advertising to give your marketing a facelift. We would love to discuss our ideas with you in an initial consultation. Contact us today at 732-214-9600 to schedule an appointment.