Journal of Historical Research in Marketing
Emerald Article: A history of the concept of branding: practice and theory
Wilson Bastos, Sidney J. Levy
To cite this document: Wilson Bastos, Sidney J. Levy, (2012),"A history of the concept of branding: practice and theory", Journal
of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 4 Iss: 3 pp. 347 - 368
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A history of the concept of
branding: practice and theory
Wilson Bastos and Sidney J. Levy
Marketing Department, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA
Purpose – This inquiry aims to contribute to the literature on the historical developments that have
inﬂuenced the origin, uses, and meanings of branding.
Design/methodology/approach – In this qualitative work an historical methodology was followed
and, according to Howell and Prevenier’s guidelines, a wide variety of sources were selected of the data
presented. Moreover, this study draws on three important perspectives – that of the practitioner, the
scholar, and the consumer – in order to offer a thorough view of the relevant issues concerning the
evolution of branding.
Findings – The investigation suggests that various forces (e.g., the media, economic developments
during the Second World War, marketing research and theorizing) have enacted a comprehensive
transformation in the concept of branding. First, the paper offers evidence of the link between
ﬁre/burning and the origin of branding. Second, it shows that, in its early days, branding was
characterized as a phenomenon with limited applicability. Third, the paper demonstrates how that
phenomenon was transformed into a multidimensional, multifunctional, and malleable entity. Last, it
presents recent evidence from both business and academia that shows the current, complex status of
the concept of branding.
Originality/value – The paper is novel in its large perspective and integrative narrative, and the
unusual exposure of its various conceptual issues and links. It should be of interest to marketing
historians, brand managers, and scholars of branding.
Keywords Branding history, Evolution, Brand image, Brand research, Brand management
Paper type General review
Cassio: Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the
immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!
(Shakespeare, Othello, IIiii).
Despite the central role branding plays in marketing (Price, 2010), major academic
marketing activity and thought have neglected the branding phenomenon and the way
it entered the discourse of marketing theory and research. This paper is an essay on the
evolution of branding. A general theme present in this investigation is the evolution of
the brand from a simple entity with limited application and whose creation,
interpretation, and control are mostly enacted by one actor (i.e. its creator), to the brand
as a complex entity that is multi-dimensional and multi-functional, and that receives
inﬂuences from a variety of actors (e.g. the brand manager, the consumer, the media,
the marketing researcher, technology).
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The authors would like to thank the Brand Research Laboratory of the University of Innsbruck
for its support, and the journal’s Editor and reviewers for their helpful contributions.
A history of
Journal of Historical Research in
Vol. 4 No. 3, 2012
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
The principal aims of this research are to:
.explain the origins of branding;
.investigate the forces behind its evolution and examine its core meanings
throughout time; and
.discuss its current and future signiﬁcance to both business and research.
To those ends, we use an historical methodology accounting for the changes in
branding over time, the contexts in which those changes occurred, the forces driving
them, and the consequences that followed. Given the importance of high-quality data
sources in historical research, we follow Howell and Prevenier’s (2001) guidelines in the
selection of sources of data that we present in this work. Speciﬁcally, Howell and
Prevenier (2001, p. 79) establish that historical researchers should consider whether
“the source was intentionally or unintentionally created; whether it presents data of a
social bookkeeping kind that have a certain reliability because they report patterns of
social action;” and whether there exists a variety of high-quality sources of data that
converge on the focal arguments.
In accordance with the above guidelines, we present historical arguments supported
by data derived from books, advertisements, newspapers (e.g. The Wall Street
Journal ), the internet (e.g. the American Historical Association web site), classical
literature, institutional reports (e.g. Nielsen Corporation), course syllabus (from 1930),
mythological accounts, the arts (e.g. the play Euripides, the novel The Scarlet Letter),
and published and unpublished scientiﬁc works. In selecting this wide pool of sources,
we had in mind Witkowski and Jones’ (2006, p. 76) assertion that, in historical research,
“collecting different sources, both within and across categories, is highly desirable.” It
is worth mentioning that this array of data sources often enabled us to replicate our
ﬁndings and, consequently, to continually check the credibility and accuracy of our
interpretations (Low and Fullerton, 1994).
Our analysis and interpretation of the data follow an approach that, in Fullerton’s
(1988, p. 109) words, is a “process of synthesis through which the researcher interprets
the evidence to provide a coherent re-creation of what actually happened in the past.”
In reporting our interpretation of those events, we adopt a creative and critical tone. We
report our analysis using traditional historical narrative in which linkages are made
both chronologically and topically. That is, we follow a temporal sequence of events
and use the major occurrences as the turning points. Witkowski and Jones (2006, p. 77)
call this approach “context-driven periodization” and explain it as one “where the
chronology is punctuated by the occurrence of some external event or events.”
Notably, most of the historical evolution of branding discussed herein comes from
three perspectives – that of the practitioner, the scholar, and the consumer. While, as
we show, these three groups of actors have played key roles in the evolution of
branding, it is surprising that most of the existing research on brands has “focused
almost exclusively on the consumer side of the equation in order to determine what
makes an effective brand from the perspective of the consumer” (Moore and Reid, 2008,
Thus, the present paper aims at adding to our knowledge on branding’s historical
developments and on the principal forces behind those developments by using a
multi-perspective approach. By doing so, it intends to extend works such as Moore and
Reid (2008), Mercer (2010), and Schwarzkopf (2009).
The remainder of this paper is organized as follows: First, we discuss the interplay
between sign and symbol to illustrate the meanings embedded in the concept of
branding. Second, we explain how burning was an essential factor in the origin of
branding. Third, we explore the early phases and the signiﬁcant events that led to the
development of modern branding, and the role that the concept of brand image played
in that process. Fourth, we show how branding’s advanced state now translates into its
broad applicability in both research and business. Next, we discuss how branding has
become a tool that equips the brand manager with ﬂexibility, excitement, magic, and
elegance. Last, we outline three topics that will likely prove inﬂuential in the future of
The brand is both a sign and a symbol
At the root of all branding activity is the human desire to be someone of consequence,
to create a personal and social identity, to present oneself as both like other people
(e.g. to belong) and unlike other people (e.g. to stand out), and to have a good
reputation. Sign and symbol are essential ingredients of this branding phenomenon. As
a form of marking, branding is richly ramiﬁed by application to oneself, to other
people, and to property; it takes both material and metaphorical forms; and is perceived
either positively or negatively.
Although the common understanding of branding as the naming of a product is
essentially a simple one, the applications of this idea and the thinking about it have
evolved in dramatic ways. To appreciate that evolution requires awareness of the
difference between a sign and a symbol. Jung (1964, p. 20) refers to “familiar
trademarks, names of ... badges, or insignia,” saying, “Such things are not symbols.
They are signs and they do no more than denote the objects to which they are attached.
What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily
life, yet that possesses speciﬁc connotations in addition to the conventional and
obvious meaning.” In a similar vein, Mercer (2010, p. 18) explains that a trademark
(i.e. a sign) “is the tangible item of intellectual property – the logo, name, design, or
image – on which the brand rests. But brands also incorporate intangibles such as
identity, associations, and personality.”
Branding starts as a sign, a way of denoting that an object is what it is and then
becomes a form of naming something (e.g. a steer, a slave, a prisoner, a detergent). But
immediately, denotation is not enough and connotations arise. Being named an animal,
a slave, a prisoner, or a product are not merely denotative terms; they also imply other
ideas. The brand on an animal or a person promptly becomes a symbol of ownership
and reputation. Branding is usually done by using some kind of mark placed either
directly on the object or indirectly on a label (e.g. a slip, a ﬂap, a patch) that is afﬁxed to
the object. In addition to signifying ownership and the status of the one branded, a
mark might be a positive sign of distinction. It is important to note the interweaving of
the positive and negative meanings of branding that will be shown in this essay.
Marking as stigma
Marking has a long, familiar history and widespread connotation of inferiority and
stigma. This negative view endures, often ﬁnding overt expression or existing as an
undercurrent to social views of branding when it is criticized as baleful, insidious, and
manipulative. The brander is often regarded as superior to the branded. For example,
A history of
marked animals and slaves are dominatedbytheirowners. Prisoners are
depersonalized by being identiﬁed with numbers. Servants are standardized and
attributed the conforming meanings of their position by being dressed in uniforms. A
classic instance of the use of a mark to convey social disapproval is depicted in the
novel, The Scarlet Letter, in which Hester is required to wear an A for adultery.
Similarly, the mark that the Bible says God placed on Cain is often interpreted as his
being cursed for killing his brother, Abel. The curse detached Cain from farming the
land and made him an outcast, an exile, a wanderer. On the positive side, however,
when Cain protests that God’s mark will get him killed, God says it will protect him by
serving as a warning. The use of signs to warn off predators is in fact a common form
of security. Rook (1987), for instance, discusses hex signs (i.e. violators will be cursed)
and the modern practice of placing markers on property to label it as under protection.
Another example of negative branding is shown in Euripides’ play, Phaedra (c. 428
BCE). Hippolytus, the young man, is sent away by his father. The son laments being
“Lashed out of Athens, an exile” (in Moore’s (1998) modern translation). In an earlier
and much admired translation, Murray (1904a) sees not a lash but a brand:
Lo, I am driven with a caitiff’s brandForth from great Athens!
Murray’s (1904a) use of the word brand may actually be more appropriate than
Moore’s (1998) use of the word lash. The former uses “caitiff’s brand” in the
metaphorical sense of being designated a bad person. Like Cain, Hippolytus is being
branded by being driven into exile. In modern times cultural groups have also been
branded as undesirable. The Nazis marked Jews with depersonalizing numbers; more
recently the French stigmatized Gypsies by driving them out of France. The sailor, as a
kind of wanderer with “a girl in every port”, was frequently tattooed, marking him as
footloose, sexy, and promiscuous.
Marking of the skin
To understand the deep roots of the purposes and meanings of branding, as well as its
notably positive aspects, we observe that marking the skin has a long history of
serving various cosmetic, medicinal, social, psychological, political, and cultural
purposes. Both men and women have used a variety of substances to enhance their
appearances. For example, “A dark-colored powder made of crushed antimony, burnt
almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite and chrysocolla” called kohl was
especially popular for coloring around the eyes in ancient Egypt and other societies
(4VOO, 2010). Tattooing, which comes from the Polynesian tatau, is used in Borneo to
signify rites of passage, and changes from one status to another – e.g. coming of age or
becoming a father. Variations of such activities are found among African tribes in the
form of elongation of the neck and enlarging the ears and the lips.
In summary, the foregoing discussion aims at enlarging our comprehension of the
origins of the many meanings embedded in the concept of branding. These meanings
can be negative and positive; they can also have major consequences; they involve
branding others and branding oneself; they have strong roots in human motives for
power, conquest, and domination as well as in many other forms of self-expression
that are practical, social, and aesthetic. Next, we advance a discussion on the origin of
the term “brand” and on brand’s incorporation of meanings from its originator (i.e. ﬁre,
Burning is the core nature of branding
The question arises: why is this marking called branding? To begin our explanation, we
will draw on another example of Murray’s (1904b) use of “brand”. Speciﬁcally, we
consider his translation of Euripides’ play, The Bacchae. Murray refers to Dionysus’s
mother as “the brand” and as “Lightning’s Bride” because she was struck by a lightning
bolt from Zeus to acknowledge that he had impregnated her and caused the birth of
Dionysus. Another translation says simply that she gave birth due to the
“lightning-bearing ﬁre.” That is, “ﬁring up” is a metaphor for giving life. The myth of
Prometheus stealing ﬁre from the gods illustrates how important a gift it was to mankind.
Centuries ago, the practical aspect of identifying ownership was mainly its
application to animals and slaves. In 2700 BCE the Egyptians branded oxen with
hieroglyphics. Likewise, the ancient Greeks and Romans marked livestock and slaves.
Basic to the aggressive act of marking animals and slaves was the use of ﬁre. A
ﬂaming sword symbolized the power of God and the protection of the gates of heaven.
Another evidence of the link between burning and brand are the German expressions
es brennte (it is burning) and der Brand (the ﬁre, the burning). Moreover, root
deﬁnitions of the words brand and branding include such elements as a ﬂaming torch
and a hot iron. Echoing these views, Moore and Reid (2008) write that evidence for the
link between burning and branding is found in the Icelandic synonyms’ “oom” and
“brond”, which mean “burning” or “ﬁre.”
The literal idea of branding as a form of burning is an especially powerful one.
Interestingly, the Swiss psychoanalyst, Pﬁster (1915) raised the question, “Ist die
Brandstiftung ein archaischer Sublimierungsversuch?” (“Is Arson an Archaic Attempt
at Sublimation?”). Sublimation implies a positive function, a channeling of libidinous or
aggressive energies into constructive purposes, unlike arson which is a misbegotten
version. But Pﬁster’s question is an important one as it points to the role of passionate
motivation that gives branding its powerful signiﬁcance in people’s everyday lives.
Worthy of note is an early paper by Levy (1948) titled Fire! in which he writes:
The normal individual derives pleasure in watching ﬁre due to sexual and cutaneous
satisfactions. In those deviate persons who ﬁnd that setting ﬁres in reality or fantasy is
necessary as an outlet for their impulsivity or gratiﬁcation...relationships are found with
aggression, attention-getting behavior, insecurity feelings, anxiety, homosexuality, an
unresolved oedipal conﬂict, and urethral-erotic ﬁxation (Levy, 1948, p. 7).
Traditionally, unacceptable ﬁgures were denounced and burned at the stake
´– and efﬁgies are burned in modern rituals, as with Burning Man
(Kozinets and Sherry, 2004) and the Danish Sankt Hans at Midsummer’s Night.
At the same time, ﬁre is warm and comforting, it cooks food and gives life, it lights
the way and characterizes people who care strongly about their ideas and feelings. The
ﬁrebrand is a piece of burning wood, and is also an agitator – someone who creates
unrest or strife as in aggressively promoting a cause. A version in the Koran that refers
to ﬁrebrand reads, “When Musa (Moses) said to his family: Surely I see ﬁre; I will bring
to you from it some news, or I will bring to you therefrom a burning ﬁrebrand so that
you may warm yourselves.” From the ﬁre, he brings information and comfort.
In everyday life, an object may be new for a while, but before that it is popularly
said to be brand new, or as one may say, it is “hot off the griddle” or “hot off the
presses”. It is as if it were still quivering with the heat and excitement of its creation
and freshness of information. Many expressions also use ﬁre and burning to
A history of
communicate character and force. When we are inspired we are ﬁred up, we have a
ﬁery temper, we may be aﬂame or burn with desire and passion, we are burned by bad
experiences, we are ﬁred from a job, and we ﬁre away with questions.
As derived from burning, branding carries the large potential for searing, singeing,
scarring, being stimulating, arousing, compelling, fascinating, overpowering, aversive,
and, ultimately, destroying or consuming. The strength of branding is reﬂected in the
assertiveness of the word “brandish” which means:
.to wave or ﬂourish (e.g. a weapon) menacingly; and
.to display ostentatiously.
Thus it is that marketers proudly ﬂaunt their names and logos and other means of
creating their brands and consumers wear shirts with Izod alligators pictured on them
or carry expensive Gucci purses with the letters GG emblazoned on them.
In sum, the core idea of branding coming from ﬁre carries intensity of meaning. It
generates feelings of partisanship and opposition, of power and excitement. Because it
announces identity and has the potential for beauty, devotion, and distinction, it draws
conformity or arouses criticism and resistance against its domination.
The early days of modern branding
The major developments inﬂuencing modern branding derived from two fronts –
theorizing and research, and its role in business. This section investigates the more
recent evolution of brands, taking account of:
.the early disregard, especially among academics, to the branding phenomenon;
.relevant contributions made by business actors.
Branding – theory and research
In this section, various examples are presented to demonstrate the scenario of relative
neglect and narrow views that, until recently, characterized branding in the academic
Early writings about marketing are described in a delightful account by Shaw
(1995) in his presentation of Lessons from the Past: Early Marketing Textbooks from
the 16th to 18th Centuries. The author summarizes four books:
(1) The Marchants Avizo by John Brown (1589);
(2) An Essay on Drapery by William Scott (1635);
(3) The Complete Tradesman by N.H. Merchant (1684); and
(4) The Complete English Tradesman by Daniel Defoe (1726).
He points out that these works were mainly about facts, data, and practical actions; as
a result, they offered no discussion of branding as such. In those books the main
marketing advice was to behave in a virtuous way that would please God, and the chief
recommendation was to protect one’s reputation by paying his/her bills. Thus, whereas
the early literature discussed the importance of creating and keeping a positive repute,
it did not recognize that doing so was a version of branding, that is, a way of affecting
the perception of the offering beyond its function.
Despite its early roots, long history, and power, the concept of branding did not
emerge as a central part of thinking in marketing until well into the twentieth century.
Precisely, Stern (2006) suggests that the term “brand” entered marketing in 1922, as a
compound expression (i.e. brand name) meaning a trade or proprietary name. Butler
(1914) is among the early studies. He was especially sensitive to branding as a source of
conﬂict among manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, who competed to position
themselves as the dominant brand of consumer choice. Relatedly, Butler (1914, p. 189)
The use of private brands by retailers is a very real obstacle to the manufacturer of nationally
advertised good who wishes to obtain the widest possible distribution.
In another early work, Cherington (1920, p. 150) saw branding as a rising phenomenon
effectuated by both salesmanship and advertising, and referred to its uses as
“aggressive sales methods”. He recognized the importance of advertising and the use of
trademarks and labels, and saw quality as an essential accompaniment to branding. He
also noted that “the appeal to the public to buy...by brand has become so general as to
be in many lines of merchandise the characteristic rather than the exceptional method
of sale” (Cherington, 1920, p. 153).
In 1927, Maynard, Weidler, and Beckman published Principles of Marketing with a
fairly extensive chapter on “Brands and brand policies,” indicating the rising
importance of the role of branding. These early authors were typically focused on
marketing as the distribution of merchandise from producer to consumer. A review of
the Maynard et al. (1927) volume by Daubman (1928, p. 181) praised it, but commented
that “the two most important forces in this [marketing] ﬁeld, advertising and
salesmanship, have been neglected”. On the other hand, Clark (1927) also published a
Principles of Marketing in which he said that:
Advertising and branding are important means of selling the standardized products of
individual producers. Advertising, or other selling effort, tends to establish in the minds of
prospective customers an idea of character and quality (p. 403).
Despite the existence of these early works, theory and research lagged considerably.
Narrow views on the concept of branding are present, for instance, in Converse (1927)
and Brown (1925). In Selling Policies, Converse (1927, p. 396), a noted professor at the
University of Illinois, asserts almost casually that “Consumer advertising of individual
brands can be done only when the goods are identiﬁed or when the advertiser sells
directly to the consumers”. In a similar, narrow tone, Edmund Brown (1925, p. 3) of the
University of North Carolina deﬁnes marketing as “the process of transferring goods
through commercial channels from producer to consumer.” Brown (1925, p. 422) sees
the brand as merely denotative. He writes:
The term brand is often used as synonymous with trade-mark, although it does not always
have the same signiﬁcance. The trade-mark implies an exclusive property right. The brand,
on the other hand, may be merely a label describing a particular variety and grade of goods.
Yet more revealing than these undeveloped conceptualizations is the complete neglect
of attention to branding. For example, professor Roland Vaile’s copy of the book Selling
Policies stored an item of ephemera – a syllabus for a 1930 marketing course titled, B.A.
6 7 su. The textbooks listed on the syllabus are Selling Policies,Risk and Risk-bearing
by Hardy, and Problems in Sales Management by Tosdal. The main topics included:
A history of
.review of classiﬁcation of commodities and of markets;
.cost of marketing;
.is the cost of distribution too high?;
.causes and results of hand to mouth buying;
.can the small merchant compete with the large store?; and
.resale price maintenance.
Notably, this early course outline makes no reference to branding.
The narrow view and neglect of the concept of branding were, however, not
restricted to earlier works. More recent examples are Bartels’ Marketing Theory and
Metatheory (Bartels, 1970) and The History of Marketing Thought (Bartels, 1988). His
work is detailed and thorough but, other than brief mention of Levy’s writing (p. 265), it
ignores the topic of branding.
Branding – business practice
Before the widespread adoption of branding as a business practice, brands were little
associated with the sale of retail goods because many products distributed for
consumers’ consumption were sold as staples in bulk. Commonly, the one general store
in town carried commodities such as sacks of coffee beans, slabs of cheese, and barrels
of pickles without naming their speciﬁc sources. In the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, however, products came increasingly to be packaged, labeled, and
promoted, thus adding the identity of the source to the utility of the product. The
names of their producers became regarded as sources of added value. Producers such
as Folger (1872), Kraft (1903), and Vlasic (1942) showed pride in their brands by
putting their names on their coffee, cheese, and pickles, respectively.
Characteristically, before the Second World War, the major brands pioneered and
conquered their product ﬁelds so strongly as to be almost generic (Carpenter and
Nakamoto, 1989). When Lionel trains made miniature billboards to accompany their
sets, they used top brands such as Lifebuoy soap, Black Jack gum, Ipana toothpaste,
Vitalis hair oil, Shredded Wheat, Uneeda biscuits, Sunkist, and Coca-Cola. In this
period, major forces that inﬂuenced branding developments were the growth of
nationwide magazines and radio, and the need for advertising agencies to both create
advertisements and make plans and purchases of media. Moore and Reid (2008)
highlight the importance of the media in this process by saying:
This [the evolution of branding] is largely a phenomenon that could have only occurred
starting at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, due to the media
(TV, radio, print advertising, e-marketing, etc.) (Moore and Reid, 2008, p. 429).
In the 1930s, psychological theories, insights, and methods began to enrich marketing
thinking and research. Simultaneously, marketing research started to show signs of
growth as managers of competing brands sought to understand the increasing
segmentation of the mass market. In 1939, for instance, Ernest Dichter carried out
qualitative analyses of Ivory Soap and Plymouth cars. In trying to account for
segmentation, demographic information was not always sufﬁcient or satisfying.
Sometimes, for example, there were no signiﬁcant differences between two user groups
in their age, sex, and income distributions, so those characteristics did not appear to
account for their different marketing behaviors.
In summary, this section illustrated that whereas marketing as an academic
discipline remained narrowly focused; devoting much of its effort to logistics and
distribution, business led the developments in the early days of the concept of
branding. We will explore next how a new concept (i.e. brand image) and the thinking
that emerged from it assisted managers in dealing with the issue, discussed above,
regarding the lack of differentiation in the market.
The brand image
Brand image: a major advancement in branding
The Second World War had a great impact on the competitive situation in the
marketplace. With the productive resources created for the war effort, the
accumulation of capital, and the pent-up consumer demand, the late 1940s and the
1950s produced an outpouring of goods and a surge in buying that was termed a
“Consumer Revolution”. That phenomenon led to intensive competition and
proliferation of brands. In this scenario, minor brands and new brands came forth to
challenge the top names. For example, McDonalds and Burger King fought for the
hamburger market, Pepsi-Cola competed more vigorously with Coca-Cola, and Ipana
faded before the growth of Colgate and Crest. Modern times also saw big names in
coffee such as Maxwell House (“Good to the last drop”) and B/G (“The bottomless cup”)
destroyed by the onslaught of a new style coffee-house brand – Starbucks.
Gardner and Levy (1955), in The Product and the Brand, pointed out that consumers
were confronted with making choices among brands, often in instances when they could
not discern differences among the products. That was especially the case when the
brands made the same claims of superiority. They noted, for example, that competing
brands of detergents made the following similar claims (Gardner and Levy, 1955, p. 34):
No detergent under the sun gets clothes whiter, brighter.Washes more kinds of clothes whiter
and brighter.Beats the sun for getting clothes whiter and brighter.
Given this lack of distinction, the authors called for “greater awareness of the social
and psychological nature of products – whether brands, media, companies,
institutional ﬁgures, services, industries, or ideas” (Gardner and Levy, 1955, p. 34).
They crystallized the insight that consumers are guided by their brand image, that is, a
“governing product and brand personality that is uniﬁed and coherently meaningful”
(Gardner and Levy, 1955, p. 39). They also advised marketing managers to think of the
elements of the marketing mix “as a contribution to the complex symbol that is the
brand image – as part of the long-term investment in the reputation of the brand”
(Gardner and Levy, 1955, p. 39). Levy (1959) followed with the inﬂuential Symbols for
Sale, which offers a fuller explication of the symbolic nature of products and brands.
That work is often quoted for holding that “People buy things not only for what they
can do, but also for what they mean” (Gardner and Levy, 1955, p. 118) – a statement
that, obvious as it may be, served as a spur to new directions of research. In addition to
the focus on what managers did to create their brands, Gardner and Levy’s work
turned attention to how consumers perceived those brands. The Gardner and Levy
article led the Harvard Business Review issue and caused a sensation in the business
world. Schwarzkopf (2008) describes the situation:
A history of
It was not before the mid-1950s however and the arrival of David Ogilvy on Madison Avenue
that the idea of the brand image became a common staple within the global advertising
industry (Fox, 1984; Millman, 1988; Tungate, 2000; Haygood, 2007). The British immigrant to
the US, Ogilvy, had read about the notion that a brand held holistic and personal
characteristics in a Harvard Business Review article by Sidney Levy and Burleigh Gardner in
March 1955 (Gardner and Levy, 1955). The article under the title “The Product and the
Brand” was a revelation for Ogilvy and the rest of the advertising world because it made
explicit what many of the more innovative agencies, such as Lord & Thomas, J. Walter
Thompson or W. S. Crawford’s had practiced for at least three decades. This practice was
summarized by Ogilvy in his agency’s creative credo: “Every advertisement is part of the
long-term investment in the personality of the brand” (Schwarzkopf, 2008).
The last sentence was a paraphrase from the article which was widely cited and
continued to be anthologized in various later collections such as Britt (1983), Busch
(1964), Sandage and Fryburger (1969), and Sturdivant (1971).
There was mixed acceptance of these ideas. For example, although the monumental
Oxford English Dictionary recognized the term in 1959, it raised a disdainful eyebrow
at it, putting it in quotes and claiming, “In the jargon of the P.R. trade, there is as yet no
‘brand image’ for the Prime Minister of Japan.” Of course, they were wrong, as the
Prime Minister of Japan inevitably had a brand image.
Resistance to the idea of branding persists among managers who dislike being
associated with marketing despite having to market their goods. Seabrook (2010, p. 66)
for example writes that:
In its packaging, the [Dyson] company did not rely on a striking logo or a “brand image,”
such as, say, the red squiggly tail of the Dirt Devil. Instead Dyson offered a brand story ...
Dyson is in the paradoxical position of being the chief marketer of an anti-marketing
philosophy, and the name behind a brand that pretends to having nothing to do with
Despite such resistance and many misunderstandings, the Gardner and Levy article
had tremendous inﬂuence on marketing practice and research by launching the term
“brand image”, which became widely used. As such, it is now prevalent in English and
in other languages. For example, French: image de marque; Japanese:
; Spanish: imagen de marca; Mandarin: ; Portuguese:
imagem de marca. It is interesting to note that is written in a phonetic
syllabary, pronounced roughly: “bu-ran-do i-mei-ji,” as a loan-word from the English,
whereas the Chinese characters sensitively reﬂect the meanings of mouths (tastes,
preferences, and morals), badge or sign (often made by heating metal), a shape, and the
representation of an idea.
One of the primary expressions of the growth in branding was the search for a great
logo. Successful early designs distinguished Mercedes-Benz, Playboy, CBS, Air
Canada, Westinghouse, and the Bell Telephone Company. Among the greatest are
Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Nike, Apple, and Starbucks. In addition to logos is the use of
related ﬁgures, special elements of the line, visualizations, and sounds that represent
the brand, speak of its character, and add to its unique appeal. Nike enlists the top
athletes of the day; and there are Ronald McDonald and Budweiser’s Clydesdale
horses. Other noteworthy examples are Coco Chanel’s classic “little black dress” that
endures along with her Chanel No. 5 perfume, Coca-Cola’s legend of the pharmacist
who invented its secret recipe, and the music from Thus Spake Zarathustra that
announces the ﬁlm, 2001: The Space Odyssey – all of which add excitement to their
identities and create passionate adherents.
The maturation of branding: it is now a symbol, an emotion, a partner
Since the 1950s, the study of brands and branding grew gradually. The comprehensive
compendium Marketing Theory: Distinguished Contributions (Brown and Fisk, 1984)
gave slight attention to the subject beyond brand loyalty. A natural outgrowth of
awareness of branding is the literature that questioned what constituted brand loyalty,
whether it meant anything other than the measurement of repeat purchase and how to
create and sustain it. Paralleling the research in brand loyalty was that in brand
imagery. The latter remained inﬂuential and ﬂourishing due to the works of Levy and
many others. Several of Levy’s articles about brands were collected in Brands,
Consumers, Symbols, and Research (Levy, 1999).
In the second half of the twentieth century, the branding concept expanded in terms
of both application and thinking. Early ideas continued to be echoed but in a manner
that clearly showed the advancements of the concept. Meenaghan (1995, p. 27) sums up
that, “At a more emotional/symbolic level a prime function of advertising is to achieve
for a brand a particular personality or character in the perception of its market. This is
achieved by imbuing the brand with speciﬁc associations or values. A particular
feature of all great brands is their association with speciﬁc values, both functional and
symbolic.” Both function and fantasy are important; an idea that reﬂects postmodern
thinking (Firat and Venkatesh, 1995). As Gardner and Levy (1955, p. 35) said, “a public
image, a character or personality...may be more important for the overall status [and
sales] of the brand” than are many facts about the product. Echoing that point, the
Social Research, Inc. study of automobiles reported in Newman’s (1957), Motivation
Research and Marketing Management, claims that autos were psychologically
signiﬁcant as extensions of the self (anticipating Belk, 1988). Also, if brands are seen as
having personalities comparable anthropomorphically to those of people, it follows
that people can have relationships with them. Fournier (1998) elaborated this idea in a
signiﬁcant addition to the literature on relationship marketing (Berry, 1983).
The dramatic shift in the importance of branding to the consumer, and the awareness
of such a shift by managers and marketing researchers were expressed in several ways.
The Gardner and Levy (1955) article about brand image focused attention on the
consumers’ perceptions; and was reinforced by Levy’s Symbols for Sale (Levy, 1959) and
Interpreting Consumer Mythology (Levy, 1981). These articles also fostered interest in
qualitative research and served as a thread to the rise of Consumer Culture Theory (CCT)
as an area of study. Levy’s article with Philip Kotler (Kotler and Levy, 1969) describes the
broadening of marketing’s application to all organizations and individuals, and thus
highlights the widespread contemporary use of branding, as reported below. Levy’s
contribution was recognized by the establishment of the Sidney J. Levy CCT Award,
which is given at the annual CCT conference, and by the Harris (2007) article, “Sidney
Levy: challenging the philosophical assumptions of marketing”. Importantly, the study of
consumers as a discipline gained major impetus in 1970 by the creation of the Association
for Consumer Research, and in 1974 by the creation of the Journal of Consumer Research.
The concept of branding and related ideas were subsequently stimulated
particularly by the writings of Aaker (1991, 1995, 2004) and Keller (1993, 1998), who
focused on brand equity and brand strategy management. The ubiquity of the concept
A history of
is evident in the creation of thousands of brand manager jobs (Glassdoor.com, 2010).
Also, most business schools now teach courses about brand management.
With awareness and necessity came specialization and new services. Thousands of
brand consultants now offer guidance to achieving the great goal of a strong image,
emphasizing the concept anew and encouraging fresh awareness of the idea. For
example, Mercer Management Consulting notes common managerial failings and
urges, “The new branding. Overcoming the aforementioned misconceptions calls for a
new approach to brand strategy” (Almquist and Roberts, 2009). Relatedly, the web site
Brandimage.com (2010) claims, “We Give Life to Brands,” and “Design is the Best Way
to Build Brands. We believe design is one of the most powerful tools for brands to
create strong relationships with their customers.”
In sum, in a short period (i.e. the last 55 years) the functions and thoughts related to
branding evolved from ownership and reputation to brand image, symbolic values,
fantasy, and relationship partner. Notably, it was in the twentieth century that brand,
an entity that until then had mostly been acted on by its immediate creators, became
more democratic and absorbed inputs from a large array of actors. This relatively
recent development of the concept naturally also widened its applicability in both
business and research – a topic discussed next.
The outcomes of brand’s evolution
The growth of the ﬁeld of brand management and the common use of the term have
disseminated the idea that everything and everyone has a brand image. Given the
historical focus in the present work, the following illustrations of the current status of
branding provide concrete evidence of the transformations that the concept has
In the applied arena, brands are now attached to commodities: As Fredrix (2010)
explains, “Baby-carrot farmers are launching a campaign that pitches the little, orange,
crunchy snacks as daring, fun and naughty – just like junk food...The goal is to get
people to think of baby carrots as a brand they can get excited about.” Places also have
brand images: In a report about the current challenges faced by the state of Arizona as a
result of its immigration law, McClay (2010, p. A10) quoted the head of China Mist
Brands saying, “People were oddly unaware that it was going to cause more problems
for the state’s brand.” Besides commodities and places, abstract and intangible entities
such as political parties are also managed as a brand: Senator Jim DeMint complained
that “appropriations for parochial projects...undermined our brand as Republicans and
our entire anti-big government agenda” (Moore, 2010, p. A11). While the early branding
of people as slaves possessed negative connotations, its more recent connotations and
purposes are positive and complex. Wall Street Journal reporter Opdyke (2010, p. D5)
says “my travels help brand me an Asia expert, which helps my company build [that]
readership.” In a similar vein, this inquiry found instances of branding attached to
spheres such as the military, schools, museums, churches, and religion itself.
Interest in the concept of branding and its pervasive application has led to a growing
body of contemporary research. To achieve an understanding of the current literature
on branding, we categorized a sample of papers drawn from the Journal of Consumer
Research, the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Marketing Research, and
presentations at the 2010 conference of the Association for Consumer Research.
The inquiry resulted in a list of eight major topics under which current research
topics can be categorized:
(1) learning and consumer prior knowledge;
(2) branding and the human senses;
(3) culture and national identity;
(6) commitment, loyalty, and brand relationships;
(7) self-view, social-view, and personality; and
(8) the brand and the ﬁrm.
This variety in research topics highlights the complexity and applicability that the
evolution of branding has afforded the concept.
Overall, the branding literature tells us that brands have become learning and
communication devices through which we deﬁne and convey aspects of our selves
(Schulz and Stout, 2010), of our national identity (Dong and Tian, 2009), and of the
groups we desire to be associated with and those we wish to be disassociated from
(Han et al., 2010; White and Dahl, 2007). Brands have been anthropomorphized
(Aggarwal and McGill, 2010) and, as such, they can have sincere or exciting
personalities (Aaker et al., 2004; Swaminathan et al., 2009), which can be malleable or
ﬁxed (Yorkston et al., 2010). Those personality traits inﬂuence not only brand choice
but also how consumers judge brands’ actions related to social causes (Torelli et al.,
2010). Brands also give birth to other entities called brand extensions. Their
personiﬁcations make brands worth developing committed and loyal relationships
(Raju et al., 2009). Based on particular characteristics, those relationships can be
categorized as exchange or communal (Aggarwal, 2004). In some cases the relationship
becomes such a regular part of life that the brands become invisible or unnoticeable –
they simply exist in the background (Coupland, 2005). Brand-relationships can develop
in children as young as seven years old (Chaplin and John, 2005) and, as in human
relationships, the parties are free to break away as soon as the connection becomes
unproﬁtable (Fournier and Alvarez, 2010). However, younger consumers tend to switch
brands more often than do their older counterparts (Commuri, 2009;
Lambert-Pandraud and Laurent, 2010).
In short, our search through recent instances of business uses and scientiﬁc
programs in branding provides evidence for the current ubiquitous status of branding.
At its origin, the brand was an entity with few and speciﬁc uses (i.e. inﬂexibility).
Currently, brands are characterized by multi-dimensionality and malleability. They
allow the astute brand manager to artistically create and recreate. They reach all
human senses and incorporate anthropomorphic traits. In sum, as discussed next, the
business and academic communities have turned brands into an invaluable tool that, in
some aspects, outshines the concept of marketing itself.
A history of
Management works at branding
The contemporary use of the notion of branding is equated with achieving and
managing an identity and has in many contexts supplanted the word marketing,
perhaps as a way of avoiding the more stigmatic aspects of the latter word. The core
assertiveness of the brand concept, its connection to symbolism, fantasy, and design,
the vitality it adds to inanimate objects, and the distinction and sophistication it adds
to live ones make it more appealing than the sheer commercialism widely associated
with the word “marketing”. Nowadays, branding offers the malleability, the freedom,
and the potential to play with meanings – a valuable asset in liberatory post-modern
times (Firat and Venkatesh, 1995). This malleability was reﬂected in the words of a
fashion commentator who said, “As hip designers cozy up to century-old heritage
clothing, those timeless brands are recognizing their coolness – and warming to high
fashion.” Stern’s (2006) discussion of the vast number of metaphors currently used to
make sense of brands (e.g. brand identity, brand reputation, brand image, brand
personality) is a testament to brand’s ﬂexibility and complexity.
Branding is exciting and alluring, it is a challenge to creativity; its burning, ﬁery
heart suggests its power to draw devotees, fans, co-creators, and communities rather
than merely buyers and users. It implies the union of technology and aesthetics, the
integration of the pragmatism of engineering and the elevation and elegance of art,
addressed to the sociology and psychology of the intended audiences. A brand
manager is more glamorous – that is, able to cast a magic spell – than a marketing
A tool for the manager seeking to give life to that magic was offered by Levy (1974).
He suggested that the ideal marketing goal is represented by a
Functional-Psychosocial-Aesthetic pyramid (FPAP) (see Figure 1) that integrates the
purpose of the object (Functions) with its human audience (People) and its impact on
the senses (Art).
This appreciation of branding is especially notable among sellers of luxury, who are
required to adopt extraordinary approaches to distinguishing the products and
justifying high prices (Kapferer and Bastien, 2009). In The Wall Street Journal’s luxury
magazine, for instance, Levine (2010) writes about the career of Ine
`s de la Fressange
and her success in reviving the failed Roger Vivier brand. Diego Della Valle hired La
Fressange “to blow life into its embers” (an apt metaphor for the necessary heating). La
I choose the ﬂowers and I interview and hire all the saleswomen. I wanted every Vivier store
to smell the same way, so I created an amber-scented candle that’s in all of them. Basically,
everything that leaves Vivier passes before my eyes. There are very few recipes for great
brands, but one of them is to be vigilant about every single detail (Levine, 2010, p. 30).
As La Fressange realizes, full scale attention to branding means creating imagery that
affects all the senses. Branding reﬂects the reality of the core product, its facts and
features, its functions and beneﬁts, as well as the surrounding aura of its aesthetic, its
music, its texture, its visualization, and its fantasy-like existence in the culture as it
relates to societal and customer mythology. Ultimately a brand is an opus, a complex
design, a mosaic, a symphony, an evolving cultural construction that beneﬁts from a
knowledgeable and perceptive director, and that ﬁres the imagination. The most
successful and iconic brands go beyond the ordinary elements (the four essences of
earth, air, ﬁre, and water), to become quintessential, and transcendentally so. Applee
is the epitome of such an FPAP brand, achieving its status as the world’s most eminent
brand through its integration of innovative technology, high quality design, and
The future of branding
According to the American Historical Association (2008), a major reason for studying
history is its relevance to the present and future. Speciﬁcally, “The past causes the
present, and so the future.” Thus, based on our investigation of the history of branding,
we discuss three topics as fundamental for practitioners and students of branding.
Can technology pose a threat to brands?
Veblen (1899) explained the role of conspicuous consumption and branding in society
by pointing out that, with the growth of population, the individual could no longer
trust that others would recognize the status imbued in the goods he/she consumed. In
order to ensure such recognition, goods needed to be branded with a mark that would
function as “the signature of one’s pecuniary strength” (Veblen, 1899, p. 54). Even
though branded goods have for centuries been a major instrument with which people
communicate status and other meanings, recent technological advances have created
instruments that become suitable alternatives in that regard.
In a recent report titled, Global Faces and Networked Places, the Nielsen Corporation
(2009, p. 1) documents that:Social Networking has been the global consumer
phenomenon of 2008. Two-thirds of the world’s Internet population visits a social
network or blogging site and the sector now accounts for almost 10 percent of all
Internet time.Consistent with that point, Facebook now has over 500 million members
who each month spend about 700 billion minutes on the web site and upload over 30
billion pictures to it (Wortham, 2010). Besides pictures, technology has enabled regular
Ideal Brand Pyramid
A history of
individuals to easily display their lives on video. Youtube, for example, reports that in
May 2010, 14.6 billion videos were watched on its web site (comScore, 2010).
The implication of these instruments (e.g. pictures, videos, blogs, scraps, tweets) is
that, compared to branded goods and services, they provide easy, inexpensive, quick,
and broad-reaching ways of conveying meanings, values, and views to one’s social
circle and beyond. The scenario previously characterized by difﬁculties in successfully
representing one’s status through leisure and consumption (Veblen, 1899) has been
modiﬁed with the technological advances witnessed in the last few decades. Ritzer
(2001, p. 215) captures this idea in his statement that, “with the mass media and
especially the Internet we need not leave our living rooms to observe what other people
are consuming.” In 1963, Levy saw marketing as “a process of providing customers
with parts of a potential mosaic from which they, as artists of their own lifestyles, can
pick and choose to develop the composition that for the time may seem the best” (Levy,
1963, p. 150). Brands are an integral part of that composition, but technology has added
new components. Whereas brands’ well-established status in society may partially
shield them from threats such as those posed by technology, the brand manager’s
imagination is more than ever called on in order to ﬁnd new ways that brands can exert
their function as a carrier of meaning; or perhaps new functions of brands altogether.
Brands and the human senses
In a recent online article, Danziger (2010) reports that:
A whiff of ﬂowers may keep you from overindulging at supper. Smelling something
inconsistent with what’s on your plate dampens your appetite, research shows. In another
study by Wansink, people who were served plain oatmeal scented with apple and cinnamon
ate more than those given oatmeal that smelled like macaroni and cheese. OK, no need for
unappetizing combinations, but some slight sensory confusion – a fresh bouquet or a scented
candle – might help you limit portions.
This excerpt captures the richness present in the relation between subtle senses and
consumers’ decisions. Recent research has started to consider those relations by
evaluating the effect of bodily sensations on brand evaluation (Labroo and Nielsen,
2010), the inﬂuence of visual complexity on brand attention (Pieters et al., 2010), and
the implication of phonetic sound repetitions on brand evaluation and choice (Argo
et al., 2010). Perhaps, a promising area of branding research and business investment is
one devoted to a better understanding of our basic senses. Parallel to research focusing
on higher-order needs (e.g. belong, self-actualization) research effort could also seek
answers to issues such as: Humans have an acute ability to assess the outside world
through sight and hearing, but not through smell. We, however, excel in recording and
remembering smells for long periods of time (Mystery of the Senses, 2007). With that
said, does the sense through which a brand message is encoded inﬂuence consumers’
recall, liking, and successful understanding of speciﬁc aspects of the brand message?
Are there certain brand personalities that beneﬁt from being encoded through speciﬁc
senses? What implications does the age-related decline of certain senses have on brand
evaluation and choice? Since ﬂavor perception is comprised of an olfaction and a
gustation component (Dalton et al., 2000), is the preponderance of one over the other in
a ﬂavor-related brand beneﬁcial to certain brands? Given the large body of knowledge
in the marketing and psychology literatures on subliminal priming through vision
(e.g. Chartrand et al., 2008; Karremans et al., 2006; Trappey, 1996), how can marketing
scholars, practitioners, and consumers beneﬁt from increased research in subliminal
priming through hearing, for example? A research agenda that attends to all our senses
(versus one that is highly focused on sight and hearing) is likely to provide us with a
more complete and nuanced picture of the relation between brands and consumers.
Brand: the backbone of marketing; the concern of all company departments
The brand is an interdisciplinary creation. As the Ideal Brand Pyramid implies (Levy,
1974), the successful manager requires input from all the contributing arts and sciences
and the ability to integrate them into a cohesive and distinctive entity.
Professor Price (2010) claimed that, “We [members of the marketing discipline]
bring brands to the discussion, which no other discipline does. Brand is a fundamental
question in Marketing.” Whereas those are widely-accepted and celebrated statements
within the academic community, marketing practitioners who take a more inclusive
approach might be in a more advantageous position. Precisely, marketing practitioners
are in the forefront of any effort to turn mere signs and logos into meaning-loaded
brands. Low and Fullerton (1994, p. 173) mentioned that, “Brand managers are central
coordinators of all marketing activities for their brand and are responsible for
developing and implementing the marketing plan.” Kotler (1988) has, however, warned
that the focused attention of the brand manager in one brand is likely to create a
professional that is production, instead of consumer-focused. This is a particularly
dangerous strategy in postmodern times when “it is not to brands that consumers will
be loyal, but to images and symbols, especially to images and symbols that they
produce while they consume. Because these symbols keep shifting, consumer loyalties
cannot be ﬁxed” (Firat and Venkatesh, 1995, p. 251). Firat and Venkatesh (1995, p. 251)
added that, “The consumer ﬁnds his/her liberatory potential in subverting the market
rather than being seduced by it.” Therefore, successful ﬁrms will likely be those that
involve not only the brand manager but individuals with expertise in the creation,
development, and management of the images and symbols to which consumers become
and remain attached, as they become the brands they create themselves.
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About the authors
Wilson Bastos is a Doctoral Student of Marketing at the University of Arizona. He is a co-author
of the article “Beyond brands: happy adolescents see the good in people”, published in the
Journal of Positive Psychology in 2010. His research focuses on branding, consumer happiness,
and consumer interpersonal relationships. Wilson Bastos is the corresponding author and can be
contacted at: Wneto@email.arizona.edu
A history of
Professor Sidney J. Levy is the Coca-Cola Distinguished Professor of Marketing at the Eller
College of Management of the University of Arizona, and the Charles H. Kellstadt Professor
Emeritus at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. He earned his PhD
degree from the University of Chicago. In his relationship with Social Research, Inc. he consulted
on marketing research projects for organizations such as the Postal System, Census Bureau,
Kraft, and J. Walter Thompson. Professor Levy’s research has been published in several journals
(e.g., Journal of Consumer Research,Journal of Marketing,Journal of Public Policy and Marketing,
Journal of Consumer Psychology,Advertising and Consumer Psychology, and Psychology and
Marketing) and books (e.g., Marketplace Behavior, Brands, Consumers, Symbols, and Research,
Handbook of Consumer Behavior,Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods in Marketing, and
Marketing, Society, and Conﬂict).
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