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Branding: from Cattle to Cola

Most of us instantly recognize famous brands like McDonald’s®, Nike® or Coca-Cola® — maybe we’re even familiar with branding as a concept and discipline. From the beginning, branding has always been about making your mark, both literally and figuratively, but when and where did it all begin? How did branding evolve into what it is today? Most importantly, why is it so important to get it right? Like any good story, here’s the who, what, where, why, when, and how.

Photo by __ drz __ on Unsplash

The Who: OBs = Original Branders

Dating as far back as the 1500s, the word brand, from the Norse word brandr or “to burn,” refers to the practice of early human settlers branding livestock to show ownership and to deter would-be cattle rustlers. The ‘original branders’ were most likely the ancient Egyptians. Dating back to 2,700 BCE, images of cattle branding have been found in ancient tombs.

Ancient Egyptian tomb image of cattle branding. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The What and Where: (Cattle) Brand Awareness

As trade began to spread throughout the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, the Indus Valley and beyond, identifying marks communicating origin, ownership, and craftsmanship became commonplace. They appeared on livestock and other goods such as pottery, ceramics, and furniture. These marks became synonymous with craftsmanship and quality, so called proto-brands. In short, the concept of branding is as old as civilization itself!

In the case of cattle branding, each ranch had its own unique mark. They were often simple and distinctive, and yet instantly identifiable — much like iconic brand logos are today.

Burning torches, originally used to create indelible marks, were eventually replaced with metal branding irons. Photo © iStock/GH01

The Why: Necessity Is the Mother of Branding

As the Century Turned

Throughout the 1750s–1870s, new technologies brought increased efficiency to manufacturing processes, sparking the mass production of goods. More choices for consumers meant companies and their products needed a way to stand out from the competition.

Enter the Trademark

The registered trademark rose to prominence in the 1870s. By 1881, Congress passed the first Trademark Act, establishing a legal route for companies to register their names and products for legal protection. Trademarks consist of words, phrases, symbols, designs, shapes, and nowadays even sounds, colors, and smells. Yes, Play-Doh’s smell is protected by law. Described as “a scent of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, combined with the smell of a salted, wheat-based dough,” it pairs nicely with Elmer’s School Paste. The oldest official U.S. trademark was registered in 1884 by the Samson Rope company, and is still in use today.

Samson Rope Trademark Registration

The turn of the 20th century marked the birth of several iconic brands we still know (and love) today, including: Coca-Cola (1886), Colgate (1873), Ford Motor Company (1903), Chanel (1909) and LEGO (1932). These companies were the pioneers, trend-setters, and brand-builders of their time.

Since its birth at a soda fountain in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, in 1886,
Coca-Cola has been a catalyst for social interaction and inspired innovation.

Print advertisers used words, images, and logos to differentiate themselves and to speak directly to consumers—helping them to imagine how much better their lives would be if they used their products.

Image Courtesy of Wikicommons

By the 1920s, radio became a popular and effective way to advertise products with memorable jingles and catch phrases such as Alka Seltzer’s “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz”. By the 1940s, the birth of television meant brands could bring their messages directly into people’s homes. As television culture proliferated, generations of children grew up with a steady diet of commercials for everything from Hot Wheels® to Happy Meals®.

The When: The Birth of Modern Branding (1950s–1960s)

The 1950s and 1960s are often heralded as the Golden Age of modern branding — ushering in the expansion of the middle class, car culture, and suburbanization.

Billboards, packaging, ads, commercials, even architecture brought more opportunities for brands to communicate their marketing message to customers.

McDonald’s Restaurant circa 1950. Photo © iStock/YinYang

We Need Standards, People!

As time went on, companies such as Procter & Gamble, General Foods, and Unilever developed the concept of marketing. Branding was no longer about just a logo on a product, it was about a company’s personality. Whereas early ads focused on the product, marketing began to tell a story.

As branding and marketing progressed, it became necessary for companies to develop formal brand guidelines illustrating how their brand stood out from the competition, and prescribing consistency in how their brand should be used in marketing campaigns.

1980s and Beyond: Storytelling, Reviews, and Do Gooding

With the 1984 launch of Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, branding as an industry turned a page. Apple dared the consumer to break from conformity by featuring great minds and historical figures who broke boundaries (and by the way . . . they were selling Macintosh computers).

Apple’s “Think Different” logo courtesy of Wikipedia

By the 1990s, brands realized that they were more than just the sum of their products. No longer swayed by hearing brands tout how great they were, consumers wanted to engage with content that provided useful information or told interesting stories. They also wanted a curated in-store experience. Today, customer reviews on platforms such as Amazon, Yelp, Google, and Facebook wield tremendous power to influence a brand’s perception, and a consumer’s inclination to buy.

Moving forward, as brands seek to cut through the noise, they aim to appeal to consumers through their company’s mission and their willingness to make the world a better place through philanthropy, sustainability, equity and inclusion—brands are (at least attempting) to become more humane.

The How: To Make Your Mark!

Even though the who, what, where, why and when of brand has evolved over centuries, branding is still about communicating ownership and values. Good branding is key to making a memorable impression and communicating what your company or product stands for. Thoughtful branding is a way of distinguishing yourself from your competitors — making clear why you are the better choice.

In order to stand out and reach an ever-moving target audience, today’s brands have to get ever more creative. Hiring a brand expert to partner with and guide you through the process of creating and growing a brand goes a long way. While many startups and small businesses, even large corporations, try to DIY branding, they don’t always get it right. You wouldn’t perform surgery on yourself, would you? If you need branding, call a professional!

Get a complimentary 30-minute consult!

She’s keen to connect and learn more about your business, so contact ’Berta today!



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Hi Everybody! I’m Roberta Morris, Founder and Creative Director of Leave It to ’Berta. Read my take on all things colorful and creative.