History of branding timeline

The history of branding can be traced back to sealing practices in Mesopotamia 7000 BCE. Throughout the ages brands have signaled information and been a source of symbolism all over the world: from Modern day Iraq, to Cyprus, China and the US. Brands have become more sophisticated and the environment is more complex, but the fundamentals still hold true.

If you type “history of branding” into a search engine, you will find several articles listing up a timeline of branding activities through the ages.

Most tend to start their timeline on the meaning of the term: branding. As you may have read in a marketing textbook, branding has roots in the Old Norse language where it means to mark something with fire, or “brandr”. Whether this originates around 500 BCE or 1500 BCE depends on the sources you come across.

When you think about the fact that civilization has existed for ten thousands of years, it seems a bit far fetched to assume that the concept is only about a 1000 years old, though the word certainly may be.

Turns out that hunch is correct and that branding stretches far further back in history than merely to 500 – 1500 BCE In fact, first manifestations of branding can be traced all the way back to 7000 BCE to modern day Iraq.

Branding history timeline

Branding history timeline

The evolution of branding through history

Branding is closely linked with the people’s desires to be someone noteworthy, both through possessions and distinctions. Various items may be building blocks of the personal and social identity and help us feel as we belong or stand out from certain circumstances.1Bastos, W., & Levy, S. (2012). A history of the concept of branding: practice and theory. Journal Of Historical Research In Marketing, 4(3), 347-368. doi: 10.1108/17557501211252934 Signals (of ownership, quality or origin for example) and symbolism (power and status for example) are central components of these desires and two of the most fundamental characteristics of brands.

7000 – 3000 BCE

A thorough examination of archaeological relics has revealed evidences of branding activities in Mesopotamia, present day Iraq. Researchers believe these to originate somewhere in the region between 7.000 and 3.000 B.C.2Eckhardt, G., & Bengtsson, A. (2009). A Brief History of Branding in China. Journal Of Macromarketing, 30(3), 210-221. doi: 10.1177/0276146709352219

The brand activities that occurred in Mesopotamia at this time were sealing practices of commodities. The seals signaled quality and places of origin and generated demand since they were a source of added value as some seals where considered more prestigious than others.3ibid.

2250 – 2000 BCE

In the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley, present day India, there are similar evidences of branding practices. The seals where intricately designed and decorated with tigers, elephants and other Indian animals which where used by local merchants to brand their goods.4Moore, K., & Reid, S. (2008). The birth of brand: 4000 years of branding. Business History, 50(4), 419-432. doi: 10.1080/00076790802106299

The signaling properties of the seals were mostly for informational purposes. For example, to indicate place of origin to various stakeholders and to facilitate storing, distribution and other marketing functions.

But there are also reasons to believe that some symbolism was involved too. There are archeological records of secondary seals that appear to have the purpose to portray a certain image to buyers. One example is a seal displaying the fertility god Shiva. This is both the oldest known case of brand imagery in use in marketing and it demonstrates that using religion or even sex was also not foreign to prehistoric civilizations.5ibid.

1500 – 1000 BCE

Around 1500 BCE, The Indus Valley and Mesopotamian civilizations diminished and trade and commerce began to grow in the in the eastern Mediterranean. Particularly in Cyprus.6ibid.

The island became a hub for mining and distributing copper to other nations. It can also be said that this is the first documented case of ingredient branding. The Cypriot copper was widely known for its quality and signaled high-end quality and status of the items it was used in.7ibid. The copper was thus also a valuable component of the Cyprus national brand.

825 – 336 BCE

In Ancient Greece, merchants and craftsmen began to use branding more deliberately to portray certain imagery. This is evident when you look at pottery practices of the time. Potters started decorating their creations with sophisticated designs aimed to demonstrate the maker’s pride in the product and to entice potential buyers. The designs were all so unique to each craftsman that archaeologists have been able to trace different artifacts to their respective makers.8ibid.

The Greeks also used mottoes to appeal to potential buyers. Again, we see uses of religion and sex to sell in this period, and that somewhat more aggressively. It also appears that Greek potters targeted specific market segments. Both local and foreign, ranging from Spain to Turkey and other countries surrounding the Black Sea.9ibid.

618 – 906 AD

In China, we have perhaps the best evidences of branding adopting the sophistication and complexity it has today.

In the Tang Dynasty, there are instances of government-mandated regulations to safeguard consumers. This is the first case I could find in my research in which is was a punishable law that all products must bear the names of the manufacturers before going to the market.10Eckhardt, G., & Bengtsson, A. (2009). A Brief History of Branding in China. Journal Of Macromarketing, 30(3), 210-221. doi: 10.1177/0276146709352219

The government branding agenda may have been driven by the collectivist culture. While other cases of signaling in the history of branding were largely driven by the manufacturers for their own gain, in China it was driven by ensuring acceptable quality for the benefit of the common people. This marks the beginning of the multi-stakeholder and regulatory environment brands live in today.11ibid.

960 – 1279 AD

In the Song dynasty, brands reached a new level of sophistication. Brands were no longer only associated with their place of origin and makers and became increasingly abstract and symbolic. Brands such as copper of Cyprus or pot of a certain pot maker became their own icons such as The White Rabbit sewing needle brand the oldest complete brand that still survives today.12ibid.

In this era, brands started emphasizing symbolic differentiation and we began to see more complete brands (brands with rich messages and symbolic logos) and print advertising.13ibid.

1426 – 1566 AD

Last of note are the developments in the Ming dynasty. In addition to the increased popularity of place branding, consumers took on an ever more active role in the branding process. Evidence suggests that there was substantial word-of-mouth promotion of brands by everyday consumers in this era.14ibid.

These efforts were generally quite successful and could take brands from a small local delicacy to a national delight.15ibid. Consumers, therefore, became co-creators of brand value.

Brands in the modern era

As you can see, branding has roots dating back several millennia. That is not to say, though, that there has been no new developments in the past few centuries: there have been.

The recent developments in branding are mostly related to scale and increased nuance in practice. While branding was always a part organizations it evolved further as new medias became available.16Bastos, W., & Levy, S. (2012). A history of the concept of branding: practice and theory. Journal Of Historical Research In Marketing, 4(3), 347-368. doi: 10.1108/17557501211252934

1870 – early 1900s

Back in 1870, branded consumer goods were nothing new, yet it was still a concept bound to selected major industries of the time. In the following years, revolutions in communication and transportation made distributing consumer goods easier while at the same time production capacities increased rapidly. Companies scaled up and national brands became more common in countries across the world.17Low, G., & Fullerton, R. (1994). Brands, Brand Management, and the Brand Manager System: A Critical-Historical Evaluation. Journal Of Marketing Research, 31(2), 173. doi: 10.2307/3152192

As more brands were being introduced to markets, packaging grew more important and its role as a differentiator and a signal of recognition.18Merz, M., He, Y., & Vargo, S. (2009). The evolving brand logic: a service-dominant logic perspective. Journal Of The Academy Of Marketing Science, 37(3), 328-344. doi: 10.1007/s11747-009-0143-3 This was complemented by changes in trademark laws which made it easier for brands to establish and protect their identities.19Low, G., & Fullerton, R. (1994). Brands, Brand Management, and the Brand Manager System: A Critical-Historical Evaluation. Journal Of Marketing Research, 31(2), 173. doi: 10.2307/3152192

1930s – 1990s

Preceding the Second World War and onward, emphasis in branding shifted to the brand image. The brand image was a medium for the brand personality of a product and it was driven forward by new possibilities in media that enabled brand messages to be richer and more complex such as through TV and radio advertisements.20Moore, K., & Reid, S. (2008). The birth of brand: 4000 years of branding. Business History, 50(4), 419-432. doi: 10.1080/00076790802106299

Advertisement agencies grew prominent and influential people such as David Ogilvy pushed the development forward with new ideas based in psychology. Value was no longer only embedded in solving functional problems but also in alignment between symbolic benefits and target audiences: much like in Greece and China during the Song dynasty before.

Brands became valuable intangible entities and companies such as Procter & Gamble started employing brand managers to cope with the competitive landscape which was growing more sophisticated with consequential complexities.21Low, G., & Fullerton, R. (1994). Brands, Brand Management, and the Brand Manager System: A Critical-Historical Evaluation. Journal Of Marketing Research, 31(2), 173. doi: 10.2307/3152192

1990s – present

Now most recently brands have become more global, but at the same time opportunities are presenting themselves to smaller and more focused brands. In a world that is more connected than ever, everything has become a brand and each brand has more ingredients than ever before. From nations to holiday destinations, celebrities to politicians, non-profits to multinational conglomerates.

To cut through the noise, brands have turned to social causes. Many have their own foundations in place while smaller brands find more modest ways to position themselves around pressing issues such as climate change, gender inequality, diversity or poverty.

The consumer also has more power than ever and has become a co-creator of value through various brand communities.22Merz, M., He, Y., & Vargo, S. (2009). The evolving brand logic: a service-dominant logic perspective. Journal Of The Academy Of Marketing Science, 37(3), 328-344. doi: 10.1007/s11747-009-0143-3 But the environment is also fragmented. Consumption is defined by subcultures who each has their own demands and preferences. With brands currently under increased scrutiny, it is now more important than ever to know your audience, stay true to core values and delight customers at every touchpoint.

Final thoughts

Contrary to popular belief, branding isn’t dramatically changing every year. Sure, there are some new areas of focus every now and then but the fundamental roles of brands are always there: convey information and provide symbolic benefits. You will notice that brands in the modern era are not too different from those that were before. Brands have been communicating information about quality, ownership and places of origin for thousands of years. Symbolic benefits have been associated with brands since Ancient Greece. Places have been seen as brands since Cyprus and consumers have been co-creators of brands for almost 500 years.

In the end it comes across as a cycle when we compare current world branding to history. Just with little augmentations and adaptations along the way.

References

  • 1
    Bastos, W., & Levy, S. (2012). A history of the concept of branding: practice and theory. Journal Of Historical Research In Marketing, 4(3), 347-368. doi: 10.1108/17557501211252934
  • 2
    Eckhardt, G., & Bengtsson, A. (2009). A Brief History of Branding in China. Journal Of Macromarketing, 30(3), 210-221. doi: 10.1177/0276146709352219
  • 3
    ibid.
  • 4
    Moore, K., & Reid, S. (2008). The birth of brand: 4000 years of branding. Business History, 50(4), 419-432. doi: 10.1080/00076790802106299
  • 5
    ibid.
  • 6
    ibid.
  • 7
    ibid.
  • 8
    ibid.
  • 9
    ibid.
  • 10
    Eckhardt, G., & Bengtsson, A. (2009). A Brief History of Branding in China. Journal Of Macromarketing, 30(3), 210-221. doi: 10.1177/0276146709352219
  • 11
    ibid.
  • 12
    ibid.
  • 13
    ibid.
  • 14
    ibid.
  • 15
    ibid.
  • 16
    Bastos, W., & Levy, S. (2012). A history of the concept of branding: practice and theory. Journal Of Historical Research In Marketing, 4(3), 347-368. doi: 10.1108/17557501211252934
  • 17
    Low, G., & Fullerton, R. (1994). Brands, Brand Management, and the Brand Manager System: A Critical-Historical Evaluation. Journal Of Marketing Research, 31(2), 173. doi: 10.2307/3152192
  • 18
    Merz, M., He, Y., & Vargo, S. (2009). The evolving brand logic: a service-dominant logic perspective. Journal Of The Academy Of Marketing Science, 37(3), 328-344. doi: 10.1007/s11747-009-0143-3
  • 19
    Low, G., & Fullerton, R. (1994). Brands, Brand Management, and the Brand Manager System: A Critical-Historical Evaluation. Journal Of Marketing Research, 31(2), 173. doi: 10.2307/3152192
  • 20
    Moore, K., & Reid, S. (2008). The birth of brand: 4000 years of branding. Business History, 50(4), 419-432. doi: 10.1080/00076790802106299
  • 21
    Low, G., & Fullerton, R. (1994). Brands, Brand Management, and the Brand Manager System: A Critical-Historical Evaluation. Journal Of Marketing Research, 31(2), 173. doi: 10.2307/3152192
  • 22
    Merz, M., He, Y., & Vargo, S. (2009). The evolving brand logic: a service-dominant logic perspective. Journal Of The Academy Of Marketing Science, 37(3), 328-344. doi: 10.1007/s11747-009-0143-3

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