The word brand is much in the news these days. The frequent use isn’t particularly new, but it’s not letting up. It seems that brands are a bigger part of how we think of our world now. It wasn’t always this way, and, as the concept of brands has developed, our understanding of them and use of the concept, have changed as well.
It seems that the word and its attendant idea derive from the practice of cowboys searing their marks into the flanks of calves, on the 19th-century Texas plains. How else were they to identify their own property when their produce was largely undifferentiated? Young calves, after all, look very much alike as they run to hide in the brush.
In the case of the cowboys, the purpose was to identify the owner. It is likely that the products, the calves now grown into cows andsteers, were not qualitatively different from ranch to ranch. It is unlikely that buyers sought one brand in preference to another.
Quality, not quantity
So there has been a big shift in how the word brand is used. We know it is now intended to identify quality (or various discrete qualities) rather than quantity. How did this happen?
For a maker to identify his products with some mark is hardly new. It is usually said to have arisen with the start of the Industrial Revolution, in the 19th century, but I suspect the practice has been around as long as makers have organized their making in such a way as to increase their volume and sales. I have seen ancient Greek oil lamps, as identical as wheel-thrown objects can be, marked with a distinct stamp, or brand, showing they have all come from the same source. Stradivarius was signing his violinsthrough 1720. This might have been simple vanity, the way Sunday painters dutifully sign their work without hope of eventual appreciation, but I doubt it. A maker, serious about his business, might wish to claim ownership, or authorship, because that act wouldconfer extra value to the object produced. Not all makers are equal, so why not push for a marketing advantage?
Marketing as an entity
What is surprising is how many manufactured articles have been anonymous. The generalized notion that value can be generated by the identification of the maker is comparatively new. When a handful of western European nations took to transforming themselves into manufacturing economies, they sought captive markets for their wares. Hence the scramble for colonies. At that time, goods were often identified with their country of origin, not the individual maker. French lace. English blankets. And so on. They dominated their dominions as countries, not as corporations.
With the post-war collapse of the colonial structure, individual corporations have been forced to do their own marketing, and brand identification has proven to be a powerful tool in achieving this. I think what is most remarkable is just how successful this concept hasbeen. All travelers know they will find the same products to be available, regardless of where in the world they are.
It seems we are now in a new era of colonization, but this one is of brands. The world’s top brands remain overwhelmingly American, which is not surprising. America is the top country after all, by many standards. What is surprising, though, is after that how mixed the list becomes. Japan and Germany certainly dominate the auto industry. Italy and France top the luxury goods. Finland’s Nokia is the largest cell phone maker. And so on.
Developed countries retain some advantages, even though manufacturing may no longer be one of them, and I think that advantage is education. The dominant international brands establish the dominant international style. They set the aesthetic and visual standards. They do this with their own educated designers and marketers. Collectively, they are the alpha males, so to speak. Theirs is the visualDNA that gets passed along. Countries that do not have the same level of education, confidence and capitol structures embrace and follow this leadership. As well as consuming it, they imitate it with their own manufacturing and novice brands. They seem to be anxious not to be left out, and not to remain at the bottom of this pack’s social order. The foreign DNA is embraced, absorbed and replicated.
It’s a (mostly) peaceful takeover of the world. Neo colonization via brands. Who would have guessed?
Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University in Toronto, Ont., and former chair of its Industrial Design department.