We think of branding as Coca Cola vs. Pepsi, not fire and empire-building. But for most of human history, it was the cooler, sexier, latter.
Please note that if we were to include the vast military, political, and religious dynasties of branding, this would have to be a (really cool) book. So we’re limiting this insight to commercial ventures only.
Bear with us, it’s a complicated story. We don’t need to express it formulaically, but we’re just doing it for fun. Today we can understand brands as having two main functions:
Branding = Information x Image
Information can refer to the origin of the product or its quality; basic details that aide the much sought-after purchasing decision. Image, however, refers to the much more intangible aspects that evolved much later.
Power, value, personality, even emotive relationships all fit within this category. We can then express branding as:
Branding = (Origin + Quality) x (Value + Influence + Personality)
Now, archeological research suggests that branding evolved from left to right, in terms of the variables and sub-variables. Ancient Sumerian vases, Egyptian grain orders, and seals from Shang China show a rather fascinating notion: branding is the history of humanity.
Branding = Origin
In English (this is English), the word “brand” comes from the Old Norse word “brandr” which literally means *to burn. *Throughout this insight, we’ll see fire as an inseparable aspect of branding until roughly 100 years ago.
But to begin with, let’s throw ourselves back six thousand years. Since the agricultural revolution reaped its peak in the Near East’s fertile crescent, people began to permanently settle in small villages.
You get to sleep under a roof and don’t need to spend all day naked in the wilderness foraging against starvation. Humans have begun systematic animal husbandry, the cutting edge technology of the time. Mothers warn their daughters against the bad-boy with the awesome wheel. What a time to be alive.
Livestock roams and herders need a way to identify their cattle, especially in the event of theft. In small self-governing villages, it was almost impossible to prove theft of livestock.
Herders needed a way to identify which ones were theirs. So they literally burned them with their own unique, identifiable insignias. Hello, branding! Images of branding oxen and cattle have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, dating to around 2,700 BCE.
Ploughing with a yoke of horned cattle in ancient Egypt. Painting from the burial chamber of Sennedjem, c. 1200 BC.
Branding = Origin + Quality
For the vast majority of history, people were born and died in those small self-sufficient villages. Things didn’t change for thousands of years. Picture it: they made their own clothes, ate from food produced by their neighbors.
So the introduction of branding was what made trade possible: it convinced you to try something made somewhere else.
People wanted in, so burning an identity spread to other industries: carpenters and potters would burn insignias on their wares, while pharmacists and wine-makers burned wax seals.
Overwhelming archeological evidence shows that branding emerged independently across all continents. (Destiny, is that you?) But then, the cultures began to inter-mix.
A seal discovered during an excavation of the Mohenjodaro archaeological site in the Indus Valley, showing the four-faced “Pashupati,” god of animals.
Branding allowed an illiterate world a step ahead: brands could surpass the barriers of different languages, currencies, and cultural practices. People, no longer tied to basic agriculture, could invest their time in their curiosities and the bronze era was born.
What we can relish in this fact is an incredible insight that seems counterintuitive in the modern age:
Branding did not evolve as a response to competition. It evolved first, which actually created the conditions for competition to occur.
Dance with us in that thought for a while.
Branding = (Origin + Quality) x Value
In a pre-taxation world, a localized control of resources was what built cities and armies. It would make you royalty if you had enough. Empires were simply business organizations that imposed their will via force or fiat.
The island of Cyprus, meaning “copper,” experienced a mining boom in 1500 BCE. Due to their location, the Phoenician empire acted as middlemen, trading copper for Egypt’s ivory, Babylon’s gold, and Mesopotamia’s precious metals and jewels.
Phoenician merchants and traders. From Wikimedia Commons.
Unlike many civilizations at the time, Phoenicians allowed for private ownership. Craftsmen pursuing creativity and curiosity smelted raw copper and tin, plus the gold and ivory of Egypt into finished products which would be shipped all over the world. No one had seen anything like it before.
While copper, tin, and ivory as raw materials have a basic market value,* what the Phoenicians sold their products for was greater than the sum of its parts.*
In the fiery smelting rooms, the Phoenicians invented something that changed the world: the notion that simply owning something became a symbol of status.
Branding = (Origin + Quality) x (Value + Influence)
Only a few hundred years after the Phoenician venture, an alternative business model challenged palaces in Ancient Greece. The first free market meant branding had to deal with competition.
Literacy became more commonplace, so branding could become more sophisticated. Once again with fire, Greek potters and painters championed this practice.
Names were devised to fit the supposed artistic personalities, careers invented, and a whole folklore created. People chose names that showed their ethnic origin, trade, or status as a slave or freeman. Copy was born.
A cheeky slogan on a cup imported to Italy from Rhodes may be history’s first advertisement: “Nestor had a most drink-worthy cup, but whoever drinks of mine will straightaway be smitten with the desire of fair-crowned Aphrodite.”
Potters noticed that some designs did well in Spain, while others performed in the Black Sea. Hence, they began creating targeted products, learning that brand imagery could influence consumer behavior based on their demographics.
*Pegasus, from the 4th Century BCE. In the military culture of Ancient Greece, the wealthy were in the social class of knights, not footmen, and hunted to develop skills for fighting in the cavalry. Horses and their status sold well to wealthy Greeks. From the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. *
Branding = (Origin + Quality) x (Value + Influence + Personality)
The hyper-connected world gave way to free markets, consequently, branding had to adapt to unprecedented competition. Trains and ships made the world smaller.
Brands took on human characteristics that consumers identify with, and as a result became a way to express yourself. No longer affiliated with fire, this notion that branding could seem sophisticated or sincere would probably seem strange to our agrarian ancestors.
During the rise of mass media in the 1920s, a contemporary account noted that “a few years ago consumers did not know men’s clothing or flour or fruit or coffee by manufacturers’ brands.” So, brand personality would have been impossible before; people didn’t recognize brands in the same way we do today.
In conclusion, branding has deeply shaped human history and commerce. Consequently, it paved the way for trade, created the conditions necessary for market competition, altered our social systems, and built the modern consumer.
From Indus Valley branding irons, Phoenician blacksmiths, and Greek ovens, like fire and with fire, branding has forged the very nature of human interaction and become an inseparable part of how we engage with our world.