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What Is A Brand?

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Brand v1: marking ownership

The emergence, centuries ago, of the idea of private property meant people needed to mark their property – to say either ‘this is mine’ or ‘I made this’. People used painted marks, written signatures, watermarks, hallmarks, stamps – or marked burned on to things like cattle. Though this practice goes right back to the ancient Egyptians, the mark wasn’t called a ‘brand’ until some time in sixteenth century.

Branding

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Brand v2: guaranteeing quality

With the industrial revolution, and the emergence of mass production, came a new insight: if you were a factory owner, you could put a mark not just on your property but on your products. The mark would mean ‘this is a product you can trust’. In an era of shoddy products, and often adulterated foods, these marks could command higher prices.

The great pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood was a precursor of this idea, with products labelled ‘Etruria’ from the 1760s. The technology of branding shifted: burned marks evolved into marks stamped on to products like pottery, and then printed on to packaging. By the 1820s. the word ‘brand’ was being used in this new sense. The focus was on brand names and on brand reputations, and a new expertise emerged: the new breed of artists behind trademarks and packaging design.

Brand v2 turned direction, and gained huge new power, in the 1870s, with the idea that you could protect these new assets as ‘registered trademarks’. Design and law made a potent combination, and many of the earliest registered trademarks are still effective value-creators now, like Kellogg’s, Campbell’s or Bass.

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Brand v3: promising pleasure

Around the start of the twentieth century, mass production was amplified by mass media. Factory owners realised they could combine with media owners to give their trademarks even more power: that through advertising in newspapers, then cinemas and radio, they could associate their products with powerful emotions. Brands could do more than guarantee quality: they could promise pleasure.

The chocolate entrepreneur George Cadbury anticipated this new version of brand. He associated his products with a big idea – purity – and gave that idea emotional power through advertising that used images of children. Once again, the technology of branding shifted, into the new arts of advertising and public relations. Cultural forces like psychoanalysis played a role in this: Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays was a founding father of PR. Brand makers defined brands through a proposition (or ‘unique selling proposition’, USPs) and a personality, in order to create powerfully persuasive communication. Large manufacturers of consumer goods – Coca-Cola, Procter and Gamble, Ford and many more – became masters of the art.

Brand v3 turned direction, and grew in power, in the 1960s, with the arrival of television in almost every home, and the ‘creative revolution’ in advertising, which produced hugely more sophisticated brand messaging. Increasingly, advertising appealed not only to people’s sensory pleasures, but also to the deeper pleasures of self-image: by choosing the right product, it suggested, you would look good to your friends, or feel better about yourself.

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Brand v4: inviting belonging

Through the mid twentieth century, a new force emerged: the post-industrial corporation. Companies became huge supra-national centres of power. Big corporations, and their institutional investors, saw that they could broaden the impact of brand, from their individual products to the company itself. Brands could now be corporate brands, and could do more than promise pleasure: they could invite all kinds of stakeholder to feel a sense of belonging. By feeling they belong, employees would work harder, and customers would stay loyal for longer.

Early pioneers of what was originally called ‘corporate identity’ included Peter Behrens at AEG in Germany before the first world war, then London Transport in the 1920s, then IBM in the 1950s. The technology of brand shifted into defining an organisation’s purpose (or vision or central idea), expressing it through visual design – the logo and its supporting paraphernalia – and sharing it through the various mechanisms corporations use to build their internal working cultures. And a new kind of expert took centre-stage: the design-based brand consultant.

Brand v4 turned direction in the 1980s, when two contradictory things happened together. First, Reaganism and Thatcherism glamorised the corporation still further, and created a new cohort of privatised companies. Second, the PC gave individuals a new sense of power, culminating in the Apple Mac, and the 1960s generation started identifying with a new kind of apparently anti-corporate company, like Apple, Virgin or Southwest. These new phenomena felt like consumer brands, and the old terminology of ‘corporate identity’ switched to ‘corporate brand’.

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Brand v5: enabling action

At the end of the twentieth century, patterns of consumer behaviour were transformed by the arrival of the internet. Writers like Alvin Toffler were talking about the producer-consumer, or ‘prosumer’, back in the 1980s, but the internet made prosumers mainstream. Suddenly, people had more knowledge and power than ever, and gained huge new scope to make and sell things, as well as buying them. Entirely new businesses transformed industry after industry: Amazon, eBay, Google, YouTube, Skype, Facebook, Wikipedia. None promised pleasure, or (in any deep emotional sense) invited belonging, but they all offered people a platform on which they could do new things: they enabled action.

The technology of branding is therefore changing once again. These new platforms think in terms of their role in people’s lives, and of the principles behind the user experience – and their success depends on how well that experience works. The old arts of advertising and logo design are much less important in this world, and expertise lies with the tech companies themselves, and with new kinds of specialist like service designers.

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Brand v6: Creating Conversation Points

Aligned to the social economy, ready to engage with GEN C. The 21st century brand seeks out to build relationships.

Brand Experiences

Branded Content

– Branded Entertainment

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Where we are now

All six versions of brand still exist, side by side. Probably v3 brands are still the most common, and advertising agencies are still the most powerful force in the brand world. Most big corporations now take their brand v4 very seriously, and brand consultancies are still very influential. Brand v5 is still very young: it’s impossible to predict how it will play out, and it’s unclear who the new breed of experts will be. And the story isn’t linear: it may even be that the biggest v5 brands will start to look like big corporations, and behave much more like v4 brands. What’s certain is that evolution never stops, and v5 isn’t the end of the story.

 

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