I recently took a PhD-level course about the evolution of marketing theory. While learning about the origins of marketing as a concept, I also started to reflect upon my own thesis topic – branding – through a historical lens. While marketing and branding might typically be considered modern practices in society, they actually have roots in ancient times.
Branding has been practiced in some forms as far back as over 4000 years ago. For instance, in the Indus Valley civilization in 2250-2000 BCE, small animal-themed seals were used to distinguish one merchant’s goods from another’s (5). In common lingo, people still today refer to brands as identifiers of specific products, services or companies. The identifying function of brands is also reflected in the official definition by the American Marketing Association: “a brand is a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers” (2).
While some fundaments remain, scholarly perspectives on branding have also evolved significantly over the years. Here is a list of some changes that I find noteworthy, and essential for marketing practitioners to be aware of.
1. Virtually anything or anyone can be branded.
While brands are still to some extent seen as identifiers – for instance in the form of logos and names – they are also much more than that. Scholars now consider brands complex and dynamic entities that evolve over time in various stakeholders’ minds (6). In other words, stakeholder perception matters along with actual, observable characteristics of brands. A brand does not need a creator or company behind it to exist, and accordingly, almost anything can be branded, such as nations, organizations, people, animals, events, ideas and experiences.
2. Companies’ branding processes occur in a multi-stakeholder network.
Traditionally, the target audience of companies’ branding practices has been mainly customers. However, more recently, companies’ branding processes have started to involve a larger ecosystem of stakeholders (4), including for instance employees, business partners, investors, the media, the government or other institutions.
3. Stakeholders are active contributors to brand meaning.
Through a conventional lens, brands can be considered the legal property of companies. Therefore, it has been assumed that companies have the power and responsibility to decide and articulate what their brand stands for. However, through the emergence of new and digital communication platforms, consumers and other stakeholders are more empowered and vocal than ever. Now, brands have an increased potential to evolve organically in multiple contexts that are outside of the company’s control. The loss of managerial control can be considered a risk, but also a great opportunity – for example, managers have the choice to adopt brand management styles that are more open and inclusive (3).
4. Stakeholders enter complex relationships with brands.
Finally, scholars have taken an increasing interest in studying the complex relationships between stakeholders and brands. Brands are considered to resemble humans in a sense that they have a distinct personality (1), and people can have complex relationships with them over time. Brands are loved, they are hated, and they play an increasingly fascinating role in society.