Brands: Half a million years before Google

They are hundreds of thousands of years old, live in our minds, markedly influence our lives and are recognised by two year olds

Alan-KaplanBrands are far older than most imagine

If you have a burning desire to know the origin of the term brand, it’s from an Old Norse word, brandr, which means “to burn.” Furthermore, if longevity is an indicator of success then brands have done exceptionally well.

It has been said that people were the first brands, and faces the first logos. Whilst I agree with the principle I would venture that this concept began a lot earlier with species, like Homo erectus, who preceded Homo sapiens by many hundreds of thousands of years.

The discovery of lines and shapes carved into rocks by Homo erectus has many archaeologists and gurus believing that they were more advanced cognitively than first thought.

Not only would individuals in these earlier species have been brands to their peers, but so would places and possibly even primitive ‘gods’ worshipped at the time.

This may well have been the first time that the equivalent of ‘snake oil’ salesman was grunted in disgust when a frenzied attempt at an unfair barter ended in a spat.

What many ancient brand elements had in common was association, and association arguably remains the most important element of brand equity, along with brand advocacy which, sequentially, occurs further down the brand equity chain.

When it comes to product related brands, many believe that brands and branding are a relatively new phenomenon emanating from cowboys who marked their cattle over a century ago to communicate ownership and quality.

However, long before this, brands such as Kronen Beer (1308), Cambridge University Press (1534) and Husqvarna (1689) were, like Mick Jagger, already strutting their stuff.

In the bigger picture though, these brands are relative infants; new boys on the block.

Researchers, including Karl Moore and Susan Reid of McGill University, have assembled research material proving that early brands associated with specific product types are over 4000 years old.

The oldest brands discovered pertain to the Early Bronze Age around 2250 BC in the Sumerian and Akkadian economies which extended from Egypt in the West to the Indus Valley in the East, roughly where modern India is today.

Craftsmen specialising in stone and bronze artefacts began to craft small square seals which they sold to merchants to attach to their goods, mainly jars, baskets and other basic containers.

Many of the designs on the seals were animals and were distinct to the merchants concerned, serving as a very basic combination of ‘logo and trademark’ for individual traders, and certifying the source of the goods. Excavations later found these seals in many other territories indicating that an early form of export had occurred.

Early use of sex to sell

Some seals were, however, more emotive and carried images of gods, such as Shiva, the god of fertility.

This is said by Moore and Reid to be the first time that the power of sex was used to sell. Could the ancient message association have been: Buy me! It will send Shivas down your spine?

In the Middle Bronze Ages, commencing around 2000 BC, areas in the Shang Dynasty were divided into towns, called Zu’s. Each had a unique and distinctive crest such as: pottery, figs, cooking, pot, wine, etc. to promote the town’s speciality.

Miniature crests were attached to goods emanating from each area, again to indicate origin and quality and, in addition, some craftsmen would place their own individual mark or sign on goods, indicating who’s who in the Zu.

The late Bronze Age saw the fall of the Indus Valley, whilst the Shang Dynasty remained relatively isolated as a trading partner.

The epicentre of trade, after being at sea, shifted in waves to the eastern Mediterranean region in which Cyprus (meaning copper) played a leading role.

This was not only as a consequence of its advanced copper smelting and craftsmanship, but also because it was the first port of call for huge fleets of Phoenician ships sailing further afield to trade with the Egyptians, Babylonians and Hittites.

Millennia before Tiffany’s and Chow Tai Fook did their thing, Phoenician craftsmen blended gold and ivory from Egypt with Cyprian copper and branded these as high quality jewellery.

Furthermore, countries supplying the raw materials to these craftsmen also became valued in the context of quality which led to many positive associations from a place brand perspective.

Once more, many pieces contained a simple maker’s mark. The jewellery manufactured was either sold internally or exported with the help of excellent distribution channels.

Early brand values beyond functional value alone

Word of mouth, the conspicuous nature of jewellery and brand advocacy all played a role in the fast diffusion of these brands, even at this early point in history. More than just functional, goods of this quality inculcated emotional and self- expressive values, just like wearing an exclusive piece of jewellery would today.

The huge profits earned by the Phoenician traders not only benefited the craftsmen individually but also the kingdom, and substantial amounts were reinvested to increase the size of the trading fleets. Brands were now benefitting a stream of different stakeholders.

Added value gains momentum

The Iron Age revolution which began circa 1000 BC had its focus on the greatest of all Phoenician cities, Tyre.

In an environment where added value became the order of the day, trade and brand related activities really began to motor and big wheels made considerable fortunes in a good year in Tyre.

Products, whose added value turned them into valuable brands, included distinctly crafted: ivory, pottery, wine, garments and iron, all produced primarily for export.

In the same time period, but on different shores, Spanish potters were also producing very distinctive works, identifiable by their materials, colours and patterns. All of this argued well for purposes of brand identification and quality, through association with the source.

There was considerable status in owning pieces of this nature, which often enhanced the image of these Spanish brands; whilst colourful, bright and customised Spanish fans also had plenty of fans.

Like everything, the dominance of Tyre did not last forever and was finally punctured.

Marketing: More on target

The Iron Age in Greece began around 825 BC. Like the Spaniards, Greek pottery had very distinctive colours and designs of their own and the signatures of their makers took the form of symbols or scratched inscriptions, again conveying prestige on those owning them.

By the sixth century BC potters in Greece had actively developed target marketing.

Geographically there target market stretched from Spain to the Black Sea. Wealthier customers were also an important part of the mix. One of the greatest Greek potters, Sophilos, developed his own distinctive style and mark. Many of his works featured the gods of Athens, which he depicted in a stylised way.

Some of the more prized Greek works were exported, including to Rome, and featured designs of the goddess Aphrodite, which is yet another early example of utilising the power of sex to sell.

This tactic has intensified over time and who knows, perhaps these early designs provided modern brands like American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch and Axe with inspiration? Like French kissing though, some may regard this suggestion as little more than tongue in cheek?

The Roman Empire which began around 700 BC and which continued for well over a millennium contributed greatly to the genre of brands and branding.

Makers of more exclusive clay items placed their fingerprint at the base of their creations to distinguish them from mass market products, some of which looked similar at first glance. Others preferred to use symbols such as fish and stars.

Whilst you wouldn’t have found any Royal Albert or Doulton marks amongst these, their owners were just as proud, some possibly as talented.

The works of Ennion, who produced fabulous glass objects, and who became a legend in ancient Rome, are now on display at museums worldwide.

Unlike other craftsmen Ennion never signed his pieces or put his name on the bottom, but instead inscribed his stylised name onto each piece of glass, making his brand identity an integral part of every piece. This was indeed ground breaking at the time and this technique has been used over time.

Early forms of commercial law

As the Roman Empire advanced it initiated some of the first principles of commercial law, including basic trademark protection.

Roman commercial laws did not, however, prevent large scale counterfeiting of goods, illustrating that issues that brands such as Nike now experience are nothing new.

‘Just do it’ may well have been the perpetrators’ inspiration at the time.

Roaming around Rome you would venture into areas with rows of simply constructed shops selling their wares. These varied from mundane goods to more expensive and imported options.

Shops had to display a licence carved in marble to trade in their specific genre and many stores had mosaics illustrating what they sold, which also served to brand the store and basic store loyalty may have even initiated at this time.

Perhaps 50 purchases from the same store would get you a front seat at the Colosseum and 100 an ‘on-lion’ experience at the same venue?

Many outlets used slaves as store assistants and taking into account what some ‘earn’ in sweat shops around the world, not much has changed.

Long before McDonald’s, Panda Express and KFC, ancient Rome had a multitude of fast food outlets, where an enormous selection of different offerings (hopefully not burnt) were on offer.

Early Branding: From “houses of ill repute” to early shopping malls

As in Pompeii, “Houses of ill repute” abounded in ancient Rome. Signs that hung outside these establishments offered options from fifty shades of grey to forty shades of gay, whilst explicit murals adorned the interior walls. This in fact represented one of the earliest forms of branding a service. And to think all this 1,500 years before Hugh Heffner!

They may not have been the Mall of America or the King of Prussia Mall, but Ancient Rome also had what may have been the world’s first ‘branded’ shopping centre chain, the Basilicas.

Unlike today where the term refers to a large church building, the original Basilicas were several stories high and accommodated offices, professionals and shops. They were extremely popular, easily identifiable and a place where hip citizens hung out.

Very popular markets, called Forums, became magnets for a much broader precinct that developed around them. These included government buildings, banking facilities, stores and general offices. The Forum Boarium, for example, was both a cattle trading market and a great meeting place.

Brands, branding and trademarks advance

Following the decline of the Roman Empire, branding started to take shape across many different parts of the Globe. In England, town criers with voices almost as bad as Lady Gaga’s, screeched the praises of different goods, services and brands, in market squares.

In China the Sung Dynasty was on song between 960 and 1279, with commercially viable block printing leading to arrays of wrappers, banners, printed lanterns, billboards and pamphlets.

In 1448 Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press which advanced the ability of all types of information to be disseminated, and in 1625 the first known advert appeared in England, in a newspaper.

In the USA the first known print advertisement appeared in 1704 in the Boston Newsletter. The extent of brand focus in these historic advertisements is unknown, but as time progressed both brands and branding gained momentum in this medium.

Trademarks became more entrenched and enforceable in the 1700’s, as did copyright laws, but there was still a long way to go.

Many famous brands that were founded in the 1700’s and beyond began to flourish. These included Twining’s (which many feel is their cup of tea) in 1706, Lloyds of London in 1765, Cadbury in 1824, Boots in 1849 and Burbury in 1856.

Today there are millions of brands that cover a plethora of areas worldwide and with the advance of technology, household names such as Apple, Google, Facebook and many others are now firmly entrenched, with brand values that run into billions of dollars.

Brands: Moving into more recent times

In the last few decades we also witnessed a significant increase in many forms of private label brands, mostly in developed economies. This happens particularly where points of difference or value offerings by private label or house brands are perceived to be as, or almost as, good as more expensive brands in the same category.

The last 20 years has also seen a surge in the way in which brand strategy and management has grown in sophistication in areas ranging from brand research and brand identity, (including brand personality and brand values) to positioning, brand equity, brand architecture, brand analytics and much more.

Gurus, such as David Aakar and Kevin Lane Keller, are but two doyens who have made substantial contributions in this regard. An array of social media and other digital advances have changed the face of brands forever and opened up consumer touch-points never dreamt of twenty years ago.

The future of brands: Some aspects

Looking to the future of brands, the role of technology will grow substantially, but old fashioned values such as quality, credibility and trust will continue to play major roles and will need to be factored in at a high level.

Ever increasing touch points with consumers will create both opportunities and challenges. Brand building and promotion on an individual basis will continue to become more sophisticated but mass marketing opportunities will not die.

Enhanced servicing and purchase convenience will also be major factors, along with points of difference as will the creation of additional values perceived to be the most optimal to meet the needs of the most relevant target markets.

Target markets will themselves evolve in innovative ways in both the manner in which they are segmented and selected.

Private labels will continue to make inroads as will Asian brands, but any potential challenge to the USA as the ‘overall brand leader’ is unlikely to proceed at the rate that some attention seeking, over hyped, exponents suggest.

Like Floyd Mayweather, the USA is likely to fend off challenges for the brand championship of the World, for a very long time, but this is not to say that some Eastern body punches won’t cause wincing and even a standing 8 count from time to time.

Many smaller brands will only survive if they find special niches, or face extinction.

Niches would need to be of reasonable magnitude and generally fulfil needs far beyond functionality, unless smaller brands want to scrap it out on the basis of commodity offerings and price.

 More brand research including neurological

Looking forward, there will be increasing efforts to probe far deeper into how the mind processes brands, involving a host of initiatives and disciplines ranging from sociology, psychology to neuroscience.

Already privately funded research has been probing the subconscious mind utilising MRI’s and EEG’s, deployed to determine which parts of the brain responds when different types of consumer behaviour takes place e.g. viewing advertisements.

Based on current findings it is hypothesised that emotion precedes choice in a brand buying situation and that this is followed by rationalisation. In some respects this sequence is ‘similar’ to the theory of cognitive dissonance, as it relates to purchasing behaviour.

The reason for all this advanced research activity appears to be a no brainer as marketers attempt to use the findings to give them a major, sustainable competitive edge.

But as researchers continue to relive their lost youth and get over zealous about colour patterns that resemble disco lights flashing in their subjects’ brains we need to appreciate that, whilst the mind and brain are intrinsically intertwined, they are not one and the same.

So unless it is proven that the relevant correlations between what is happening in the mind and what shows up in the brain are accurate, we need to be mindful of the findings.

We would, however, expect brand owners to continue to utilise increasing amounts of sophisticated technology into the future to procure a sustainable advantage. Cutting edge technology that is flawed, however, can also make brands bleed.

Toddlers: brand recognition and association

There was once a school of thought that believed that brand recognition and association only began once a child was at school and could read, but research across the world over the last decade has found that children can recognise brands and form associations with them long before this.

The inference from recent studies is that the age at which this happens is now actually getting younger.

A recent study shows that children as young as two, no kidding, easily recognise brand logos. In addition there is a direct positive correlation between how long they watch TV and how many brands they recognised.

The study, undertaken by Patti Valkenburg and Moniek Buijzen of the Amsterdam School of Communications Research, entitled: Identifying determinants of young children’s brand awareness: Television, parents and peers, researched brand recognition and recall in a younger age group than any previous study.

Infants as young as two recognised 8 of 12 brands shown and overall the more TV watched the more brands were recognised.

So it’s clear that brands can take hold in the mind at a very young and impressionable age, which has led to a plethora of concern, much with foundation.

One of the most researched and discussed areas of discussion relates to exposing young children to junk food brands that often leads to poor eating habits and obesity, sometimes for life. And that’s certainly food for thought.

However, it’s not all bad news because other studies have shown that healthy and beneficial brands can also make their mark and that parents can control or influence what younger children watch on TV and for how long.

Brief overview

This article has striven to cover some ground showing that brands have been around for a very long time, occupy a powerful place in the mind through associations, and are able to exert influence at a very early age.

Brands will also, no doubt, continue successfully into the future, but will need to adapt in a number of ways, whilst still maintaining many old fashioned values.

About the author

Alan Kaplan PhD is an executive director of Optivance 360, a Sydney based management and franchise consultancy.

Alan’s international experience spans more than twenty five years across academic, media, agency, client and consulting areas.

Alan has worked with clients ranging in size from SME’s, such as Royal Copenhagen, to large corporates such as Agrevo, Aventis, AC Nielsen, BASF, Bates, Ciba, FBC, Minolta, Sakata, Qantas Loyalty and World Vision, to name but some.

Alan’s profile and company testimonials can be viewed at: or on LinkedIn, and he can be contacted at:

Should you wish to connect with Alan on LinkedIn please forward an invitation.

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