For much of my life, if you said the word brand to me, I would think of
cattle, those poor bovine bastards burned by that red-hot iron.
When I got older, I became aware of brand names. Kleenex was one of my favorites. I remember thinking that I should own stock in the company that made Kleenex because I was such a faithful user (allergies — by the time we figured out it was the dogs, my folks reasoned, "Well, you'll be going to college soon.") But I was also struck by how fully Kleenex had become what one calls "tissue." No one said, "Grab me a tissue, will ya?" (except for Eddie Murphy in his classic Michael Jackson routine); everyone said, "Grab me a Kleenex, will ya?"
Nowadays when I think of the word brand, I think about the transitive verb brand, which is something Editorial Emergency does for our clients' products and services (see "The Pitch: Politics, Branding and You"). And lately I've been wondering just how that symbol on a cow's flank came to mean "selling the sizzle" of one's product. Yes, to brand something is to place one's stamp on it, which applies to both the cow and the Kleenex, but when, exactly, did we start thinking of Kleenex that way?
And now, a bit of etymology. From our dear friends at Merriam-Webster Online:
Main Entry: brand
Etymology: Middle English, torch, sword, from Old English; akin to Old English bærnan to burn
1 a : a charred piece of wood b : FIREBRAND 1 c : something (as lightning) that resembles a firebrand
2 : SWORD
3 a (1) : a mark made by burning with a hot iron to attest manufacture or quality or to designate ownership (2) : a printed mark made for similar purposes : TRADEMARK b (1) : a mark put on criminals with a hot iron (2) : a mark of disgrace : STIGMA
4 a : a class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer : MAKE b : a characteristic or distinctive kind c : BRAND NAME 2
5 : a tool used to produce a brand
(Say it with me now: "bærnan.") This pentagon of meaning is interesting because three and a half of its five points relate to the cow (and criminal); only #4 speaks exclusively to the Kleenex. In fact, Americans have been branding the hoofed among us at least since 1493, when livestock was first brought to the Western Hemisphere by Columbus on his second voyage (1493-96). By contrast, we've only been branding our products since the 19th century. To quote the Wikipedia entry on consumer branding:
"Brands in the field of marketing
I've been wondering just how that symbol on a cow's flank came to mean "selling the sizzle" of one's product.originated in the 19th century with the advent of packaged goods. Industrialization moved the production of many household items, such as soap, from local communities to centralized factories. When shipping their items, the factories would literally brand their logo or insignia on the barrels used, which is where the term comes from."
Noting that "Campbell Soup, Aunt Jemima and Quaker Oats were among the first products to be 'branded,' in an effort to increase the consumer's familiarity with their products" and thus compete with the trusted locally produced soups, syrups and oats, the Wikipedia scribe offers this tidbit:
"Around 1900, James Walter Thompson" [that's J. Walter Thompson to you, punk] published a house ad explaining trademark advertising. This was an early commercial explanation of what we now know as branding. Companies soon adopted slogans, mascots and jingles, which began to appear on radio and early television. By the 1940s, manufacturers began to recognize the way in which consumers were developing relationships with their brands in a social/psychological/anthropological sense."
Moreover, in the definition of the transitive verb brand, the cow comes in first and the Kleenex is nowhere to be found:
Main Entry: brand
Function: transitive verb
1 : to mark with a brand
2 : to mark with disapproval : STIGMATIZE
3 : to impress indelibly
Unless, of course, you consider #3 more broadly. That definition is actually at the heart of effective consumer branding. We're not particularly interested in branding a lesson on anyone's mind (nor, while we're at it, do we have any desire to brand someone a coward, though that does have a certain dramatic appeal); but we are bound and determined "to impress indelibly." Editorial Emergency's mission is to ensure that our clients' products and services make an indelible impression on consumers — an impression so indelible that it approximates an emotional relationship between the impressed and the impressive.
I hope one day that the association of the word brand with hapless cows, criminals and cowards will have receded in our collective consciousness, and that the answer to the question of what we think about when we think about brands will be Campbell Soup and Aunt Jemima and Quaker Oats. The very thought makes me well up — grab me a Kleenex, will ya?