Deep Dive: Brief history of branding

Your brand is your bond. It’s what sets you apart from your competition. Conveys what you do. Conveys what you stand for.  

There have never been more brands than today. Competition is fierce and standing out is getting trickierCreating a consistent brand that will last for decades has become more difficult as technology advances and so do design trends. So how can organisations solve this problem? In understanding what our brand needs to be in the future, we look to the past. 

The word ‘brand’ traces its origins back to the ancient brand word ‘brandr’ which means ‘to burn’ which originally referred to burning a piece of wood (ie a torch) but by the 1500s came to mean the branding of cattle in order to show ownership. 

Skip forward a few hundred years to the 1800s and thanks to the Industrial Revolution it became necessary to brand different goods in order to distinguish them. Trademarks soon followed and before the end of the century businesses were beginning to realise that having a well-known brand was an asset in itself. 

In the early 1900s, companies began advertising. Early ads were all about describing exactly what a product could do, but companies quickly realised the benefits of talking about how their product would make people feel and selling them a certain lifestyle. 

Over the next 50 years “branding” as we know it today would begin to form. As new channels such as television became more widely available, it became easier for brands to communicate to the masses. This was still a largely one-sided conversation, as market research around needs/desires was limited to focus groups and qualitative techniques. Still, it’s in this period that we see that brands begin to understand the importance of consistency around message, colour, typography. 


As we move 30 years ahead to the 1980’s, we see the emergence of truly global distribution channels and with them an increased competition for markets. It’s in this period we see a real ‘land grab’ from big brands all trying to buy up as many advertising spots, product placements and headlines as they could get their hands on. We also see brands start to understand the importance of placing customers into their decision making. The ability to carry out market research at scale enables brands to launch new products, refresh their look and tailor their marketing campaigns. We see a clear trend where brands reflect their overall values against the culture of the time, location or even campaign to expand their traditional reach. 

Twenty years later and the next big shakeup comes thanks to the internet. Where before the majority of communication from brands was from them to the masses, now a two-way street had been established. Suddenly brands were more accountable than ever before. Where most complaints or reviews were dealt with privately, now consumers could hold brands accountable in front of a global audience. What’s more brands were now being expected to be environmentally, ethically and socially responsible. The internet made it easier for anyone to start their own business and suddenly competition increased, online channels become cluttered and we seem to be in a constant state of re-invention.  

So where do we go from here? Well, the major problems a lot of brands have is that they know in order to be successful they need longevity. They need to repeat messages and colours and slogans over a long period of time so people become familiar with them. Yet, we also see brands being refreshed, new websites launched and new messaging applied at shorter and shorter cycles. So what’s happening?  

In order to uncover their brand principles, organisations really need to understand the needs and motivations of their customers. These are a lot less transient than design trends and should underpin all your fundamental brand elements. Once you know your customers better, you need to understand how outside factors are affecting your brand, when something will fundamentally affect this relationship and when it’s just a passing trend.  

Test and tweak with your audience by using an Insight Community. Not only do communities have a shedload of different tools to capture the reaction to your newest and shiniest campaign, but they can better understand the fundamental relationship consumers have with you and your competition.  

Branding will always be in a state of flux, but with your own community you can supercharge your certainty of when is the right time to change. Get in touch today and see how we can Researchbods can help your brand evolve. 

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