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We’ve become so used to branding in our contemporary commercial environment that, for the most part, we don’t tend to question its ubiquitous presence. Brands have become so ingrained in our culture that their influence extends past business, into political arenas, and even on our personal social media accounts. It’s taken as accepted wisdom now that if you don’t have a brand, you practically don’t exist. 

Having one isn’t a guarantee of success, though. Throughout history, we’ve seen attempts at asserting commercial identity fail spectacularly. Effective branding takes thought, must be managed as intelligently as any other organizational resource, and ultimately relies on good timing.


Branding is a powerful concept, one with strong roots in our free market traditions. It is an assertion of individuality, communicating what is special about a company in a landscape that can seem saturated by competition. A number of examples throughout history have shown how we have applied some creative approaches to this endeavor.

The Use of Personality and Reputation as a Brand

In the beginning, word-of-mouth marketing was the only advertising option for many businesses. Entrepreneurs understood the value of building an excellent reputation and having your customers spread the word. As targeted advertising emerged in the early 18th century, companies found new methods to turn their reputation into a form of branding.


Pioneer of the British pottery industry, Josiah Wedgwood, was an excellent example of this. While he spearheaded the mass distribution of catalogs as early as the 1760s and created products to capitalize on his association with the royal family, these were not his most successful or enduring reputational marketing techniques.


That distinction would go to his proclaimed approach to quality assurance. He crafted a narrative that proclaimed he personally inspected each piece of pottery and would immediately destroy any item that was less than perfect. This reputation for extreme behavior to guarantee quality became a key aspect of his brand.


Another notable example of leveraging personality in brand development comes from the early 20th century. In 1920, the Washburn-Crosby Company created a fictional character in order to create a reputation for being a company with a personal touch — the result was Betty Crocker. They used the cheery, trustworthy character to answer questions from housewives across the country. They created a knowledgeable, caring reputation by forging an identity that they knew their target demographic could relate to.

The Mass Market Print Revolution

One of the ways brands thrive is through the ease of their distribution to the public. With the advent of the print revolution came new opportunities for businesses to become household names. For the first time in history, this gave businesses the opportunity to move their advertising from the streets and storefronts directly into consumers’ homes.


Daily newspapers began to appear in the United Kingdom as early as 1702, with the first American magazines being printed in Philadelphia in 1741. Almost from the outset, these periodicals were filled with advertisements. As quality control in print methods began to improve — and continues to do so as modern print defects continue to see improvement — so too did we begin to see more visually stimulating product placement. The first full-color advertisement for Dewar’s White Label Whisky appeared on a full-page spread in 1936.


Print media publishers were themselves an early adopter of brand recognition tactics as well. They created recognizable mastheads, often with splashes of color to differentiate them from their neighbors on the stands. Even in the face of online and TV advertisements, print brands such as Vogue, Esquire, and Rolling Stone are powerful names with an enduring visual presence.


Some continue to be effective in their plain appearance; the National Geographic Magazine masthead has remained largely unchanged since its first publication in 1888, and thus maintains instant brand recognition.

The Adoption of Product Placement

Brands are often at their most effective when they integrate themselves into our positive experiences. As advertising has become more personalized over time, brands have found methods to assert themselves. At times this has been obvious — sometimes comically so — while at other times, the subtlety is almost subliminal.  


One of the first instances of brand product placement was in Edouard Manet’s painting, “A Bar at the Folies Bergere” (c.1881), which prominently featured the triangular logo of the Bass beer company on several bottles. As photography became a popular method of portraiture in the late 19th century, publishers took advantage by arranging for prominent subjects to hold copies of their magazines in order to boost their brand recognition. 


As radio emerged as the entertainment choice for the masses, brands quickly understood the value of supporting popular programs. Proctor and Gamble’s sponsorship of serialized radio dramas with their detergent products in the 1930s is what gives us the term “soap opera.” Mass media provides businesses with a passive, receptive, and valuable audience. You’re unlikely to find a popular movie today that doesn’t utilize brand presence, whether through on-screen product placement or movie tie-in merchandise.

The Instantly Recognizable Logo

When we talk about branding, we usually associate the concept with a business’ use of a logo. This supports the idea that some of the best forms of marketing are instantly recognizable visual markers. Historically, this stretches back to Egyptian agricultural practices, in which ownership symbols were burned into the skin of livestock — a practice which continues today.


The history of the brand logo is inextricably linked to the ideas of individuality and personal ownership. Even the practice of using a signet ring on wax seals in order to personalize their correspondence (which dates back as far as the Middle Ages) was a form of logo branding. However, the oldest business logo that is still in continuous use today, is that of the tea manufacturer Twinings of London, who created their current brand identity in 1787.


When the Coca-Cola company decided in 1930 to use their advertising to make it seem as though Santa Claus enjoyed drinking their product, they inadvertently also influenced the way the character would be visually represented in society right up until the present day. They didn’t just bolster their brand, they helped reinvent the brand of Santa himself. This is a testament to the power of branding. The practice will only continue to develop as time goes on, providing consumers with a wide range of both classic and revolutionary options in the market.