Branding, in its simplest form, is a set of expectations and associations that people have of an entity whether that is a product, service, company or individual. These expectations can be actively manipulated by the brand owner, or conversely they can be accidental and completely out of the control of the company or individual. As Calvin Coolidge rightly said, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Brands have been around for a very long time and the word “brand” belies the more brutal, painful and often sadistic nature of its past application. Branding of old was used as a means of punishment, religious initiation and for the purposes of marking property in the form of slaves and those without rights or representation.
Branding has existed since antiquity. The Romans branded their slaves with the letters FUG (for fugitivus). The Transatlantic slave trade branded the people they captured. The Anglo Saxons used the practice extensively for people they considered undesirable, like vagabonds or thieves. In more recent times intellectual prisoners and opponents of Stalinist Russia were branded before being put on the trains to the Gulags in Siberia.
Today a brand is a lot less draconian. It has become a term to encompass the symbol, name, design or term of a company or product. In the same way that branding was used to determine ownership of cattle so too branding differentiates between a crowded market of products and services.
Such brands, logos and marques are guarded fiercely through the framework of trademarks, copyright and patents. Even the mere hint that a brand is being impinged upon is enough for the lawyers to be issuing subpoena. While many modern mobile devices look very similar the underlying functionality can elude to a particular brand. So swiping the screen of a smartphone from left to right is distinctly associated with the Apple iPhone brand.
In many cases the power of the brand eclipses the product itself. A brand without a product can survive, but a product without a brand is nothing. A famous case in the UK of brand suicide was when Gerald Ratner described his brand and products as essentially tacky and crap. This resulted in the near ruin of the jewellery group. Literally overnight the company lost £500 million in value on the stock market.
While the mode, style and methods of branding may differ from industry to industry the basic principles of sending out a clear message on what your company stands for always applies.
Jonathan Fox writes guest articles on topics for Branding Agencies in London.