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Ch 2: Brief History of Brands and Branding

A brief history of brands and branding

The roots of branding–defined loosely as using symbols to represent products–can be traced to ancient times. Merchants in Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome used pictures and symbols to communicate with customers who could not read. Shop signs displaying shoes, eyeglasses, or other tangible products conveyed information about the merchandise available in those stores.

The word brand derives from brandr, the Norse word for fire. It means to burn the mark of the producer onto the product they made. (For more, see [Log-in required])

Another ancient application of branding was using a heated iron to burn permanent marks into the skin of animals (and human slaves). This form of branding is often associated with the cattle brands of the U.S., where letters, numbers, pictures, and shapes are used in various combinations to indicate ownership. (For more, see

Brands in the modern sense began to develop in the U.S. in the mid-to-late 1800s, fueled by the rise of mass media-assisted advertising and merchandising, and the emergence of middle-class, literate customers with the economic means to purchase products by choice rather than out of necessity.

  • Advances in printing technology led to larger newspapers and specialized magazines, published daily, weekly, or monthly, with content that appealed to readers of diverse backgrounds and educational levels.
  • Developments in transportation made it possible for products and periodicals to be delivered to national audiences in a timely manner.
  • Many Americans moved from rural to urban settings, forming a significant audience for products and promotional messages.
  • Retailing responded to population changes as seen in the growth of elegant department stores (such as Macy’s and Lord & Taylor in New York and Marshall Field in Chicago) as well as low-price stores like Woolworth’s and mail-order retailers like Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward.
  • Advertising started to emerge as a recognized profession. Early agencies simply helped facilitate placing customer-written messages in local and national publications, but by the 1850s agencies began offering services to their clients including copywriting, artwork, and developing campaign messages.

As Juliann Sivulka, author and assistant professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of South Carolina, points out, “Before the 1880s the names of most manufacturers had been virtually unknown to the people who bought their products.” (Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes, 48) The ability to reach mass audiences made it desirable, and eventually made it a necessity, for manufacturers to give their products distinctive, memorable packaging.

According to Sivulka, tobacco companies were among the first to use brand names–by using hot irons to burn the manufacturer’s name or symbol onto wooden boxes used to ship the product.

Early brand success example: Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound

Patent medicines were combinations of a lot of alcohol and a few other ingredients like herbs, roots, or narcotics such as cocaine or morphine. Each was supposed to have health-inducing properties, although many were useless and some were harmful. Despite this fact, Americans in the latter part of the 1800s were fervent purchasers of these products. Furthermore, publications made a lot of money selling advertising space to promote various patent medicines.

Many patent medicines were labeled with the name of their creator, but few were as memorable as Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. Starting in the 1840s, Mrs. Pinkham, a Massachusetts woman, bottled a combination of roots, herbs, and 18 percent alcohol as a remedy for “female complaints.” Her sons created an advertising breakthrough in the 1880s, when they began running ads and printing “trade cards” (a cross between a print ad and a modern business card) that featured a line illustration of their mother (see example at

Mrs. Pinkham died in 1883, but her image was integral to the product’s labeling and advertising for several decades after her death. More than a century later, the brand name “Lydia Pinkham” (and the product, with a modified set of ingredients) survive as a memorable representative of a vanished industry.

The success of the Lydia Pinkham’s brand demonstrates how a company built trust in its product by giving the product a personality–the face and voice of a woman who understands other womens’ problems, even when doctors don’t or won’t. The brand voice of Lydia Pinkham’s was part of every advertising message. On trade cards, in ads, and in pamphlets on health-related topics, Lydia’s portrait was accompanied by the personal message “Yours in health.” In promotional materials, Lydia invited readers to share their experiences and to send her letters–with a guarantee (fulfilled by the company long after Mrs. Pinkham’s death) that the letter would be seen only by women and would be personally answered by a woman.

Another early branding/packaging success: Quaker Oats

In the 1880s, packaged raw oats were a familiar breakfast food in some U.S. households. Many others, however, viewed them as a selection to be made only if you were too ill to consume more hearty foods, or if you had immigrated from Scotland, where hot oats was a popular breakfast choice.

Henry Parson Crowell developed an advertising campaign that used every medium available at the time (including newspaper and magazines ads, streetcar signs, cooking demonstrations, “prizes,” and more). In every instance of product promotion, he applied the company’s trademark character to the packaging: the Quaker Oats man (see Crowell also added a recipe to the back of the box. National advertising conveyed the health benefits of the product and also described the ease of preparations. Overall, the brand personality was friendly, useful, and desirable. As an 1897 ad explained (quoted in Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes), “The Easy Food, Easy to Buy, Easy to Cook, Easy to Digest: Quaker White Oats.”

More early brand examples

Other manufacturers and marketers of the late 1800s recognized the importance of using brand names and distinctive packaging to help their products stand out to potential buyers. Many of these early distinctive brands focused on the name of the manufacturer (for example, Campbell soups, Heinz ketchup, Levi’s denim pants) but others used more symbolic approaches. Log Cabin syrup started using small, tin log cabin shaped containers in 1897 to package their product, which combined expensive maple syrup with other less expensive ingredients. The distinctive packaging attracted shoppers, and quickly conveyed the product name in an unmistakable way. (See vintage container at and 100th anniversary 1987 container at

In 1870, the U.S. enacted laws protecting trademarks (patent and copyright protections were already part of the U.S. Constitution), giving further support to the names and symbols being used to entice shoppers. Consumers knew they could rely on receiving quality products when they saw brand names and other brand symbols emblazoned on the packaging. Even if brand name goods were more expensive, many buyers developed strong preferences for these goods and the values they represented.

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