Originally branding meant to “mark with a branding iron.”
Farmers would (and in some places still do) heat up a piece of iron until it glowed. On the end of the iron was symbol or mark which would be seared into their livestock.
This would have taken a lot of time and effort. There would have been furnaces to heart up. Animals herded and grappled with. Blood sweat and tears spilt - all to get that mark on that animal.
But even before then, strategic work would have been done. The question would have been answered as to why this effort would be worth while in the first place. A "strategy" would have been formed with a purpose above and beyond simply leaving a mark on an animal.
Credit: Jonas Koel on Unsplash
There were various reasons why folks marked their property and goods in this way and considering why this was the case is actually helpful to the modern business:
Protection: Branding animals was a way for farmers and ranchers to prove that the animals belonged to them. Even today, trades people often mark their tools with a symbol or their initials to prove ownership.
Authenticity: Branding was (and is!) used to prove that products were genuine and not counterfeit. Jewellers mark their products with stamps of authenticity to prove
Accountability: Branding could help hold people accountable for their actions, such as when a brand was associated with a particular product or service.
Promotion: By branding their products, artisans could promote their craft and showcase their skills. A well-known brand could signal to buyers that the animal was high-quality or came from a reputable source.
Familiarity: Branding helped people become familiar with different products, making it easier to recognise and choose them.
Warning: In some cases, branding also served as a warning of a particually aggressive animal. Prisoners were literally “branded” with hot irons or tattoos to warn others of their habits. Even today, symbols of chemicals are used to indicate that a product is dangerous or toxic.
Differentiation: Branding animals was also a way for farmers and ranchers to differentiate their livestock from those of their neighbours. By marking their animals with unique symbols, patterns or colours, they could (and can!) easily identify them and prevent theft or mix-ups with other herds.
Assurance: In medieval times, branding was used as a way to guarantee the quality of products, particularly metals and leather goods. Merchants would stamp their products with a unique mark or symbol, which signalled to buyers that the goods were of a certain quality or came from a reputable source.
Symbology: Branding can also serve as a powerful symbol of identity, status or loyalty. For example on country estates land owners would “brand” their buildings and goods. Dignitaries would carry signet rings and “brands” of authority around with them to show they belonged to particular tribes. Even today, many sports teams and organisations use branding to convey a sense of community and belonging among their fans and followers. Similarly, many luxury brands use branding to signal exclusivity and status among their consumers.
For all of these reasons the concepts of strategic branding prevail in modern business today. “Branding” can be used to provide value in any (if not all!) of the above conceptual territories.
My definition of branding for modern businesses today is that branding is “the management of meaning” and really thats not changed from ancient times. All of the above reasons carry behind them a strategic reason, a purpose, a design for why someone would deliberately mark an animal, product or “offering”.
The brand was not simply the mark on the animal itself. Rather it was the meaning of the mark. That was the "brand".
The process of branding was not simply the searing of the skin of animals. Rather it required thought into why this time consuming and energy expending activity should be done in the first place.
The trick for the modern business leader is to identify what the meaning they want to be attached to their offering. Then work out the best way for that meaning to be portrayed and authentically experienced.
So - which of the above reasons is most relevant to your business objectives? What is needed to be understood by your audiences? What’s your strategy going to be to leverage this in a way that is different from the competition and of high value to your ideal customer?
This needs to be done, of course in a genuine way. Not in simply what you say but in what you do, how you do it and why you do it. This needs to be able to be communicated, clearly - both within to your people and without to your customer. It also needs to be done in a way that every decision maker is aligned around - so that your brand, in effect, becomes a part of your culture.
So the question is - how are you managing your meaning? What is the reason behind your logo mark?
Asking this question is the real work behind "branding" today.