Product genesis has been an issue for as long as humans have traded with neighboring communities. It was important — and still is — for consumers to know the origin of their products. As far back as ancient Rome and as recently as the 20th century, bakers pressed logos into the dough so their bread would be immediately recognizable. Going even further back in time to the Indus Valley Civilization of 2250 BCE, Harappan craftsmen created stone and bronze seals that they sold to merchants to label their wares.
In their study The Birth of Brand: 4000 Years of Branding History, Karl Moor and Susan Reid of McGill University state that brands from all periods in history have the goal of conveying information about product origin and quality, and eventually evolved to include imagery or symbolism as opposed to simple concepts such as quality and origin.
They caution, however, that prior to the 20th century, we can only call these labeled products “proto-brands.” Nowadays, of course, we’re so accustomed to the concept of brands that imagining a world without them is almost unthinkable. Brands have to invoke imagery; that’s why we associate Coca-Cola with fizzy drinks even though there are none present in its logo.
Old London Bridge, which was in existence for 622 years until 1831, was as much a market as a bridge. Its merchants had signs outside their shops, usually made of wood or metal, that displayed to a mostly illiterate population what goods were being sold. Although most people can read today, we still use symbols to identify products.
In fact, with the proliferation of products available to consumers in the 20th century, which began during the Industrial Revolution, brand recognition has been paramount to companies’ success. In many cases, logos, slogans, and even colors have defined brands and brought them a competitive advantage. Companies also routinely re-brand when their priorities change or they wish to appeal to different demographic.
It’s not only the demographics that companies wish to appeal to these days. When American credit-card provider Mastercard decided to rebrand, it was more than a way to appeal to new customers. While their iconic red and yellow circles remained, they began favouring all lowercase letters and a streamlined sans-serif font. The reasoning behind the decision was that they wanted their logo to be as easy on the eye online as it is on their actual cards and on the decals found on shop windows across the world.
In the exclusively digital realm, there are perhaps even more reasons and opportunities to rebrand. Most internet shoppers capitalize on the fact that the internet offers instant comparison between products, allowing customers to choose the cheapest prices. Changes in software also provide natural breaks for a company to rebrand. In the highlycompetitive industry of online gaming, the best new bingo sites very consciously choose their colors and symbols, maybe more so than in industries where there’s less competition. Yellow, for example, is generally thought to be a happy color, whereas orange and red convey friendliness and excitement, respectively, making them ideal for casual gamers.
Vevo, a video hosting service that focuses on music videos and serves as a joint initiative between Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group, has also recently undergone a rebranding. Founded at the end of 2009, the company had as their logo the company name in red italics on a white background. As of 2016, they opted for hardened edges instead of their rounded ones and a white-on-black color motif. The shift from red to black is not an accident. Colors can play a big role in the way people react to brands. Red is usually seen as exciting, youthful, and novel, whereas black conveys a sense of professionalism and reliability. The noticeable change in the company’s logo could suggest to some that, after eight years on the market, they are no longer the upstart trying to attract viewers, but rather that they have become an institution in the online music industry.
But this sort of subtle change is nothing new. Although brands didn’t properly exist until the 20th century, as Moor and Reid point out, we’re the first humans to realize the power of marketing. One of their finds includes seals with the fertility goddess Shiva, suggesting that, even before we had writing, sex sold. Whether it’s the addition of Shiva to ancient seals or tweaks to fonts of new websites, it remains a truth that companies will always brand and rebrand themselves in order to corner the market.