Updated: Sep 26
Branding has evolved significantly since the first-ever brand registered in the United States almost 150 years ago (Bass & Co. Beer). Back then, a brand represented a promise and it continues to do so, however with many additional, complex layers of psychology stacked high. As humans, we have developed the unique ability to create meaning from the seemingly meaningless world around us and this is exactly what Debbie Millman (a foremost expert on branding) believes branding to be: branding is simply manufactured meaning. Brands, and the associations we have with brands, come from human brains. They don’t exist in the natural world. And strong design is the communication of that manufactured meaning.
So how have brands evolved from the very first registered brand on January 1, 1876, allowing a brand to exist as its own legal entity? It’s time to turn to the work of acclaimed branding expert, Debbie Millman, who is an authority in the history of branding and how it’s evolving in the age of social networking. She is the Co-Founder of Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She’s authored several books on branding and she’s also acted as the President of the design division at Sterling Brands where she has worked on the redesign of over 200 global brands. Millman has identified five waves of brand evolution from 1875 to today, and Millman believes there’s been a radical shift specifically in the last three years, which I will speak to as well.
Wave #1: 1875 - 1920 (RECOGNITION ERA)
Radio was the primary marketing medium
Brand names were tied to an individual, such as “Mr. Kellogg”
Brands represented consistency, familiarity and trust
Brands provided a quality guarantee and an expected level of product safety
Coca Cola and Campbell's soup were the leaders at this time
Wave #2: 1920 - 1965 (COPYCAT ERA)
Black and white televisions were introduced
Anthropomorphic stage of brands - using human characteristics to create a level of connection between consumers and brands because there was no difference in the product itself
Lots of “copycat” products were born to try to achieve the successes of the original products - characters introduced as a way to differentiate from exact same products and forge a relationship with consumers
Uncle Ben and Betty Crocker are examples of linking a (fictitious - sorry they're not real!) human form to a product in order to establish an emotional connection with consumers to sell more product
Wave #3: 1965 - 1985 (STATUS ERA)
Colour televisions were introduced
Brands became self expressive statements (they “mean something” about the person who uses the brand)
A brand could provide status
Who you wanted to appear to others as - branding turned into belonging
Levi's, Nike, Volkswagen, Marlboro are all examples of brands that became self expressive statements during this time
Wave #4: 1985 - 2000 (EXPERIENTIAL ERA)
Televisions were integrated into most family homes by this time
Cell phones came to market
Brands in this wave of evolution can be categorized as creating an emotional experience for the consumer that enabled the consumer feel different from everyone else
Disney, Starbucks and Apple are all examples of brands that were experiential during this time
Wave #5: 2000 - 2017 (CONNECTION ERA)
Up until this point brands have been controlled from the top down, by the corporations who have shaped them and pushed them down to consumers
2001-2004 - “iPod isolation” occurred where the user now had complete control over the product and can customize it - having complete control over their entertainment (some experts were fearful that we were in our own bubbles) - increasing isolation (our brains are happiest when we’re resonating with other humans)
Then social networking came along and changed the digital world forever, as it both democratized brands so that they existed in the hands of the people instead of only by companies and facilitated connections through the isolation of devices
Social networking through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, SnapChat, etc. exploded as a way to connect with others - connection was (and remains) king
The psychological aspects of social networking are absolutely fascinating. Why do we connect online and what motivates our desires to connect?
Based on the networking theories of Charles Kadushin, the psychological foundations of social networks are derived from two basic human motivations: to feel safe and to reach out.
Online social networks that are dense (a high number of ties within a network, relative to all those that are possible) are seen as highly safe networks because they provide social support and a sense of trust for the individual connected in this network
Furthermore, reaching out helps our overwhelming emotional need to feel connected
We are the only species on the planet who demonstrates this connection to others (manufactured meaning) through symbols and brands - clothing brands, wedding bands, tattoos, nike shoes
Given the choice, a baby will choose the connection to their mother over food (we feel happiest when we have secure attachment to others) and marketers are working to capitalize on this psychological phenomenon
We’re not exactly addicted to our phones; instead we’re addicted to the feelings of connection we experience with the help of our phones
We’re living in an information era where we have ample opportunity (some would say too much opportunity) to connect with one another, however the quality and authenticity of these connections are often lacking. In a time when network-savvy individuals have the capability and the desire to connect, marketers have the perfect opportunity to “be human” (or recruit humans with lots of existing connections - more on that in a second) and reach out consumers through social platforms.
"Limbic Brand" - a neuromarketing-oriented approach to branding, referring to the limbic part of our brain (the part that controls basic emotions and drives)
So the question then becomes: How do marketers leverage this knowledge of our motivations to connect online for selling products and services to connection-hungry consumers in the information age?
...And that leads us to today. What I’m calling the ‘Influencer Era’.
Wave #6: 2017 - Now (INFLUENCER ERA)
Millman argues that branding has changed in the last three years (since 2017) than ever before in history - branding has become democratized - Millman: “Brands can be created by anyone and can be shared by everyone.”
Brands are now created BY the people FOR the people
This has helped usher in the idea that brands can be movements: ie: Black Lives Matter, #metoo - Millman describes this phenomenon like this: “Branding is now a profound manifestation of the human spirit.” - further humanity through branding - the things we make and mark
I will add on that today’s world of connected brands that are for the people by the people, the world of the influencer plays such a huge role in marketing. Influencers on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, for example, are turned to by loyal followers for product and service recommendations. According to the Digital Marketing Institute online, 70% of teens trust influencers more than traditional celebrities. Why does it work so well? Trust. Trust is the backbone of all strong brands and followers often see their lives paralleled in the lives of these individuals’. Like traditional marketing muses dreamed up by marketing departments, not every single customer will be exactly like the muse they’ve created, but every customer desires or wants to be like the muse in some way. I believe this is the same phenomenon happening with influencers online. Not every follower is exactly like each of the influencers they follow (how could they be?), but every follower sees a part of themselves represented within the influencer. This forges connection, which leads to trust, which could lead to strong feelings of association with the products and services they promote.
Furthermore, the Digital Marketing Institute states that 86% of women use social media for purchasing advice with nearly half having purchased a product directly as a result of an influencer. Just a few years ago, influencer marketing was not nearly as powerful or pervasive as it is today. Now, more than three-quarters of women are (willingly! And often!) turning to a marketing channel to make purchasing decisions and they’re being powerfully swayed.
With each new wave in their evolution, brands have accumulated the worth and meaning thrust upon them in each of the previous eras. Brands are more complex and meaningful today than ever before in history as each of us aim to live out our individuality in the brand choices we make, whether we realize it or not. (After all, deciding not to choose one brand over another - or choosing no brand at all - is just as much of a choice.)
What will the future of branding look like in 2020 and beyond? How will our devices and social networks, both online and offline, continue to shift our understanding of, and interaction with, brands? Well, we’ll soon find out...
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