And still, even allowing for the uncertainty and chaos, we continue to ponder the meaning and purpose of brands.

Brand marketing experts have been trying to make sense of life, ourselves, the world, and our place in it, through the stuff we consume since the 1950’s. That’s a lot of crises to go through.

Here are some brief meditations on branding, history, design, and psychology.

(With gratitude to Brain

First, some history:

The word “brand” is derived from the Old Norse word brandr, which means “to burn by fire.” In 1876, after we passed the Trademark Registration Act, Bass Ale became the first trademarked brand in the world with its now-iconic red triangle for trademark status.

The act gave businesses the ability to register and protect a brand marker so that a similar icon couldn’t be used by any other company.

In addition to getting the first trademark, Bass’s trailblazing history includes appearances in Manet’s 1882 masterpiece A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (above) and Pablo Picasso’s 1912 painting Bouteille de Bass et Guitare, providing the brand with the cultural distinction of “first product placement". (Source: D. Millman)

(Luxury brand placement par excellence: Picasso. Bouteille de Bass et Guitare)


The shift from commodities to branded commodities.

It all goes back to the 1920s during the shift from commodities to branded commodities. The force of competition along with the force of mass services and mass products made branding necessary.

(When life was sweeter)

Sugar didn’t need to be branded when only the wealthiest of the French aristocracy could afford it. The brand of the king was more important than the brand of the sugar. But once sugar became cheap and accessible for everyone, those who wanted to profit from sugar needed to distinguish themselves from the competitor down the street who also wanted to profit from it. The same goes for the plantation in Haiti versus the plantation in the Dominican Republic.

And so it was - an industry was born.

Brand marketing, messaging, copywriting, narratives, design, imagery, brand strategy, research, strategic brand thinking, brand names, logo design, online and offline content, website development communications campaigns….
Though mankind’s need to show he (or she)  is different and tell stories has ancient roots:

On early narratives

(My skin, my brand)

Design anthropologist Dori Tunstall says, for example, that in traditional cultures, the art of tattooing was about social coding.
A certain number of tattoos meant you’ve been married. Another number of tattoos meant that you’ve had children. This many tattoos meant that you’ve killed a lion.
Nowadays, of course we wear Dior or drive a Mercedes, which tells a slightly different story. But they still signify values and information to others. Brands in other words.
Here are some (pre-virus but still interesting) experts’ thoughts on the matter:

On brands as a shortcut

“I believe that “brand” is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day.”  (Seth Godin)

On creating successful brands

When asked about the foundation of successful brands and whether market research is useful, Wally Olins said:

“If you are going to create something that is truly a breakthrough, you have to rely on your intuition and your judgment. Finding out what people feel about things that are happening today is extremely useful. Trying to get people to tell you what will work tomorrow is useless”

On brands as civic signifiers

Malcolm Gladwell feels that branding has shifted our relationship with products and services from one of utilitarian and passive consumption to one of political, highly engaged civic participation:

“Material choices as consumers are no longer trivial. They are now amongst the most important choices we make. They have consequences well beyond our own selves — they have global consequences. They have consequences on our economy, on the community we live in.


(What you eat matters)

When you eat a certain food brand, you are casting a vote for a certain kind of agricultural system, and for a certain kind of climate.
In a sense, everything we do casts a vote for a certain kind of world. And this isn’t true in the same way it was one hundred years ago, or if it was, we weren’t aware of it. We weren’t forced to make that connection because our world wasn’t being driven on this macro level by the sum total of consumer choices.”

On ‘brand’ as promise

Cultural critic Daniel Pink defines it two ways: from the sender’s point of view and from the receiver’s point of view.

From the perspective of say Apple, a brand might be a promise of what awaits the customer if they buy that product, service, or experience.

From the receiver’s point of view a brand is a promise … a promise of what you can expect if you use the product or service, or if you engage in the experience.

On the dangers of false promises

Brands promise a certain affiliation that we want to benefit from. We use them to project how we want to be seen in the world.

But this might be a double-edged sword.

As the addiction of social media has proved.

If a brand is making a promise that you’re going to feel better about yourself if you buy it, it is making a false promise.

Let me introduce the concept of what social psychologists call “the hedonic treadmill”:

The hedonic treadmill

Also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.
According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness

If you’re always looking to validate yourself and get satisfaction from buying stuff or having a bigger house, then you’re on an endless, addictive treadmill. There’s no enduring satisfaction to this.

If a brand’s only purpose is to get you on that hedonic treadmill, it might be good for business in the short run, but in the long run, it is doomed.

If you look at the components of long-term well-being, it has nothing to do with material goods.

Once you’re past a certain level of material well-being, people’s long-term happiness and wellbeing is about having deep personal relationships, believing in something larger than themselves, and doing something meaningful that they enjoy.

On branding, design and consumerism

Industrial designer Karim Rashid said:

“I have no issues with consumption. I have issues with consuming things that we don’t need and that are badly made. I have issues with things that break down or cause harm. But there’s nothing wrong with consuming. A lot of what we consume gives us a better life. You could argue that the original intention of design is the betterment of society. If something has to physically exist in the world, so why can’t they be beautiful, why can’t they be uncategorically better than whatever else is on the market?”


It is an issue the current sustainability conversation is addressing.

Our own contribution to sustainability brand strategy and creative communications is here


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Whether it’s insight from research, strategic brand thinking, a new brand name and logo design, messaging, online and offline content or website development, we deliver what makes iconic brands more valued.

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