The word “brand” traces its origins in Old Norse, a language spoken by the Vikings in Scandinavia during the Viking Age (793-1066 AD). The Old Norse word “brandr” meant “to burn” and was initially used to mark livestock with a hot iron to show ownership. The Vikings were probably not thinking about marketing when they did this – but they certainly were on to something!
However, the idea of branding actually emerged much earlier in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome to identify livestock and goods sold in markets. Egyptians created sophisticated symbols and hieroglyphs to represent goods and services. Ancient Greek and Roman merchants would use symbols and inscriptions to identify their goods and services, including symbols to indicate the type of goods they were selling, such as depictions of fish for fishmongers or wheat for bakers. Think of it as the first quality assurance stamp.
In the mid-18th century, British potter Josiah Wedgwood revolutionized branding. Like an artist signing a masterpiece, Wedgwood began to mark his pottery with his last name, a clever way of putting a ‘face’ to his creations. By doing so, he was able to differentiate his pottery from that of his competitors and establish himself as a trusted maker of high-quality goods.
His exceptional craftsmanship attracted royal and noble clientele, earning him the title of “Potter to Her Majesty” in 1765. Today, 260 years on, Wedgwood’s quality and design continue to influence modern branding and have inspired countless others to create their own unique brands.
Branding continued to grow, particularly in Burton-upon-Trent, where William Bass founded his brewery in 1777 and set out to perfect his recipe. He experimented with different ingredients and brewing techniques until he finally created a rich, full-bodied, flavorful beer. This beer became known as Bass Pale Ale and quickly gained a reputation as one of the finest beers across England.
Fast forward to 1875, Britain passed the Trade Marks Registration Act, taking branding to a legal level. Legend has it that Bass Brewery Company was so eager to protect its brand that it sent an employee to brave a chilly New Year’s Eve overnight at the registrar’s office (talk about dedication to the craft!) so they could be first in line. And on January 1st, 1876, Bass officially registered the world’s first trademark –– a red triangle with the words “Bass Pale Ale” in the center. In the image at the top of this article, the Bass Ale bottle and red triangle can be seen in Manet’s classic painting Un bar aux Folies Bergère which was painted in 1882.
In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution led to mass production and the rise of consumer goods. And with these goods came recognizable, trusted brands, including Corning Glass Works Company, considered one of the first B2B brands. Fun fact: Thomas Edison himself approached Corning to supply the glass for his revolutionary invention – the lightbulb. He needed just the right glass to encase the delicate filaments that comprised the lightbulb, which was stronger and more damage-resistant than glass typically used in windows and jars. By 1880, Edison had designated Corning as his sole supplier of the glass bulbs he needed to bring light to the broader world.
In the mid-20th century, after the Second World War, the rise of consumer advertising and radio and television made it easier for companies to promote their products, and firms began to invest heavily in promoting and building awareness of brands. As the economy grew in the following decades, advertising played an increasingly important role in shaping consumer behavior and driving economic growth.
And let’s not forget about the rise of the internet and social media platforms, which have made it easier for companies to reach consumers directly and have transformed how brands are created and promoted. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok have made it easier for companies to reach consumers directly, build relationships with them, and for everyday individuals to create and tell the world about their unique brands.
Today, brands have a crucial role in our daily lives and have become an essential part of our culture and identity. Just think about how many brands you interact with every day. According to a Kantar study, 82% of Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) believe that solid branding is crucial to the success of their business and that branding is one of the top three priorities for marketing investment. What might our current branding practices say to future historians about our era?
Despite their intangibility, brands can amass tremendous value. According to Brand Finance, Apple, valued at $389.3B, leads the pack, followed by heavyweights like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola. These brands have all established themselves as leaders in their respective industries and have built strong brand identities that resonate with customers worldwide.
Branding has come a long way from hot irons and livestock, yet it’s still about making a mark at its core. And if you think about it, aren’t we all just trying to do the same in our own way?