The History of Branding in Ten Key Milestones

by Dane Cobain at September 19, 2016

Branding is key to everything we do at fst – after all, brand guidelines and brand DNA help to define the work that we produce, from print campaigns and trade show booths to e-mail marketing and online content.

It’s a hot topic amongst marketers right now, and so today, we wanted to take a step back and to look at how we got to where we are right now.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief history of branding in ten major milestones:


2,000 BC: Cattle Branding

The term branding is derived from ‘Brandr’, an Old Norse word which means to burn. Before the advent of branding as we know it, people used to burn markings into cattle, slaves, timber and crockery, to make it clear who owned them. These are the origins of what is now a multi-billion dollar industry.


1890s: The Origins of Distribution

In the late 19th century, the growth of railway usage and long-distance distribution meant that for the first time in history, consumers were able to easily choose from a wider selection of goods, which were brought in from outside of their local economy. Because of this, companies started to use logos to indicate the manufacturer and to signal quality to potential buyers.


1900: Publication of the first Michelin Guide

The publication of the first ever edition of the Michelin Guide is a major milestone in the history of branding – it’s the first major example of content marketing, and also an early example of a brand which realised that they could add value to consumers’ lives and sell products at the same time. At the time of the first edition, which was released in France, there were only 3,000 cars on French roads. The guide was designed to boost the demand for cars, because people would need to drive to be able to reach the restaurants, and it was given away for free because Michelin realised that if more people owned cars, more people would need to buy tyres.


1930s: Proctor & Gamble produce the first radio soap operas

The humble soap opera, which started out as a radio show created by P&G to sell more soap, would eventually go on to become a popular form of television entertainment. Back in the 1930s, though, P&G pioneered this form of content marketing, and they would go on to sponsor soap operas right up until 2010.


1950s: Era of the USP 

Fast forward to the 1950s, which was a golden era for the USP (unique selling proposition). In the fifties, brands focused on creating physical products that were different to anything else on the market, and this uniqueness was what caused people to buy. Of course, these days, markets are so saturated that nothing is really unique any more.


Late 1950s: The Traitorous Eight form Fairchild Semiconductor

The Traitorous Eight were a group of eight engineers who collectively resigned their positions working for Nobel-prize winner William Shockley, and who began to seek investment. When all other options had been exhausted, they approached entrepreneur Sherman Fairchild and secured the first major venture capital investment in history to form Fairchild Semiconductor. This new approach to building a brand paid off, and they grew from 12 to 12,000 employees within several years, raking in a profit of $130 million per year. Fairchild Semiconductor went on to be the first major electronics brand and, in 2014, almost $50 billion was invested into new brands by venture capitalists.


1960s: The Mad Men Era

Whilst Don Draper isn’t a real person, he’s modelled on the marketers of the 1960s, who invested huge amounts into television advertising and were able to build iconic brands such as Coca Cola and Volkswagen. By the mid-60s, you were able to reach 80% coverage with just three television spots. Nowawadays, television advertising is so saturated that it’s often no longer even used.


1970s and 80s: The switch to emotive-based messaging

As different markets grew more and more saturated, brands realised that focusing on the tangible benefits of a product just wasn’t enough to stand out. Popular messages from this era include, “Between love and madness lies Obsession” by Calvin Klein, and, “Once driven, forever smitten” by Vauxhall.


May 1999: Seth Godin releases Permission Marketing

Marketing guru Seth Godin introduced the world to permission marketing with his bestseller book, and brands immediately began to take note. The core principle here is that consumers should be given a choice, and that asking dedicated followers of your brand to opt in to receive messages through e-mail and other channels is far better than simply placing advertisements in front of people, whether they want to see them or not. This is a trend that continues today, and in many areas of marketing it’s now a legal requirement to get permission from the consumer if you want to send them messages.


2,000 – The Present Day: Consumers take ownership of brands

The rise of the internet and social networking gave consumers a new arena in which to discuss the brands that they buy from. Up to this point, a brand was decided entirely by the company; now, with the rise of social media, consumers have a lot more power. It only takes one dissatisfied customer to bring a brand to its knees – just look at Dave Carroll, who posted a music video about a bad experience with an airline and knocked 10% off the company’s stock price, costing shareholders $180 million.


The Future…?

Nowadays, consumers have greater choice than ever and markets are fully saturated. Context is everything, and brands are focusing on delivering the right message to the right person at the right time.

The average western consumer is exposed to over 3,000 branded messages per day, and they’re used to searching for the products and information that they actually need, rather than buying products that they don’t need purely because of an emotional connection.

That’s not to say that we can’t learn from the approaches used by brand marketers in the days of yore, though – branding is made up of many elements, from the logo that you use to the way that your employees answer the telephone.

At fst, we partner with brands to deliver inspiring creative to meet their needs. Whilst it can be hard to look too far into the future, some things never change, and we’re looking forward to applying our skills to whichever big trend in the branding industry comes next.