Use of the word brand as both a noun and a verb has massively increased in frequency since the end of 19c, and particularly over the past 30 years. The derived noun branding has seen an even more meteoric rise in frequency of use over a similar period. Although brand has had, and still has, a number of meanings, it appears incontrovertible that its present ubiquity derives from its place in the language of marketing and consumption that pervades contemporary society.
The word brand or brond is to be found in Old English, and is also present in Common Germanic, Old Frisian, and Middle Dutch, as well as Old Norse. The word may be both a noun and a verb. As a noun, the general meaning of brand is the act, means or result of burning; some of its uses within this general category are now more or less archaic or obsolete. In the 7c poem Beowulf the word was used to signify burning or destruction by fire. Brand has also encompassed such meanings as a ‘piece of wood that is burning’, ‘torches of Cupid or the Furies’ and ‘Jove’s or God’s brand’. It has also been used to describe a ‘species of blight on plants’, because an affected plant seems burned, although this meaning is no longer current. Other meanings, now obsolete, are ‘the blade of a sword’ and ‘the fire on the hearth’.
In contemporary discourse, the word brand continues to be employed in a variety of senses related to ‘burning’. One of these is ‘the mark made by burning with a hot iron’. Within this field of meaning, brand can mean ‘a mark or sign’, sometimes used in a general sense but often ‘conveying the idea of disgrace, stigma or the mark of infamy’. In Britain the last criminal sentence of branding was handed down at the Old Bailey in 1789. Typically such punishment was reserved for those convicted of manslaughter and for those pleading benefit of clergy in order to escape punishment (since an indelible brand ensured that the latter would not be able to do so a second time). In fiction, Milady de Winter in Dumas’ Three Musketeers was branded with a ‘fleur de lis’, a mark not only of criminal conviction but also of her betrayal.
Brand has other related meanings. It can signify a ‘mark of ownership impressed on cattle’ and other animals by the use of a hot iron, as well as the instrument for making such a mark. Branding of animals continues in many countries. However, while still called a brand these identifying marks are no longer necessarily made with a hot iron; branding may be achieved by the use of freeze branding using a cold iron, or even paint branding in the case of sheep. Until Abolition in the 1860s, many US slaves carried a brand as a mark of ownership and identification. The practice of tattooing concentration camp prisoners has also been referred to as branding. In the case of such concentration camp tattoos and the brands placed on slaves, brands may also be said to carry a connotation of disgrace, stigma and infamy, alongside ownership and identification.
The remaining, now more pervasive meanings of brand given in the OED relate to the process of production and marketing. A brand may be: ‘a trade mark, whether made by burning or otherwise (applied to trade-marks on casks of wine or liquors, timber, metals, and any description of goods except textile fabrics)’; and ‘a particular sort or class of goods as indicated by the trade mark upon them.’ As a verb in this field, according to the OED to brand means: ‘to indelibly mark not just as proof of ownership but also as a sign of quality’; and, ‘to apply a trade mark or brand to (a product); to promote (a product or service) on the basis of a brand name or design.’
The first meaning of a brand given here, as both noun and verb, was already recognised in the 1883 Trade Marks Act, which gave specific protection to brands as marks which were ‘woven, stamped or burnt’ into goods. However, it was quickly recognised that there was little practical difference between a trade mark and a brand, both serving as indications of origin; and the word brand was dropped from that Act as constituting simply a subspecies of trade mark. Indeed, unlike a registered trademark, there is no legal definition of a brand, either in the US or in the UK, even though the words trademark and brand are used interchangeably, including by the judiciary.
But it is the second meaning of brand, both as noun and verb, which gives the wordits present ubiquity. As used today, brand often conveys meanings which may go far beyond any role as an indicator of source or which have any direct relationship to ‘goods’ on which a mark is placed. A clear example is the Apple brand. The Apple word and apple symbol were first used on computers; but Apple now claims that its brand is about “lifestyle; imagination; liberty regained; innovation; passion; hopes, dreams and aspirations; and power-to-the-people through technology.” These wider meanings have no obvious reference to computers, and have allowed what is called the brand to be transferred to other products apart from computers, most recently a watch. The resulting brand-transferability may give a brand enormous value, quite beyond any particular material goods on which is placed: the Apple ‘brand’, for example, is now the most valuable in the world and has brand equity of approximately 250 billion dollars.
An enormous branding industry has grown up to create, maintain and enhance the value of brands. Whereas brands originally identified a product, it is now fair to say that a brand is itself the product of this industry. Companies exist which specialise in creating brands and brand strategies, in order to enhance brand building or brand positioning. There are a multitude of books which explain how to brand, with titles such as Designing Brand Identity or The Science and Art of Branding; and there is a Museum of Brands in London, as well as an Institute of Brands. However, it would be wrong to think that brands are created and used solely by entrepreneurs to promote their own products. Characterisation as a brand is often an attribution made by others to describe the essential characteristics of a person or thing: for example, an individual may be described as having a particular brand of humour; and some people may parlay these personal attributions into creating a valuable brand. The value of ‘Brand Beckham’, for instance, worth many millions of pounds, is said to draw on the football player’s ‘sporting prowess and genuine nice guy image’ as well as his willingness to ‘strip off’(Independent, 1/6/2015). His brand, that is his name or his image, is used to endorse a wide variety of products from fragrances to underpants.
In contemporary society, the words brand and branding are used not only in the context of commerce. They are also increasingly deployed to explain important political and social phenomena. One prominent example is how these words have been used in relation to the rise and popularity of the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL/IS) and its ‘brand of jihadism’ (BBC, 30/6/2014). In an article in the Washington Post entitled, “How to fight the Islamic State’s brand appeal”, one analyst has described IS as “representing one of the world’s most powerful brands ”, its power being claimed to lie in its ability to attract supporters through a “narrative ” of “suffering” Muslims fighting “corrupt governments ” (May 12, 2015). While it is unclear from such an account whether IS deliberately sought to become a brand, others have ascribed a conscious branding strategy to the group, a strategy which consists among other things of its use of product placement, social media and a nurturing of “celebrity warriors ” such as Jihadi John (Independent, 9/3/2015). It has also been claimed that the IS “black flag” brand has been placed on merchandise including watches and t-shirts, as well as more importantly on UN food parcels, as a way of imposing the IS “brand across the region”. (Int’l Business Times, 10/2/2015). Still other commentators have likened IS to a franchise, in which loosely affiliated groups adopt the IS brand to enhance their own legitimacy, much like the franchising undertaken by well-known fast food chains. Indeed, a recent study for the US Department for Homeland Security entitled “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: Branding, Leadership Culture and Lethal Attraction” concluded that the “organisational legitimacy” of ISIS has been achieved through “a unique combination of strong leadership style, strategic branding, and a consistent message”, summarised in the report as “ISIL Sells Success”.
How far use of the words brand, branding and to brand has increased in significance is a marker of how far we have become a consumer society. In the case of IS, a social and political movement which might once have been explained by its ideological appeal to a particular class or other social group on the basis of its political programme, perhaps supported through use of propaganda, has been reconceptualised as a brand manager which attracts followers (presumably, consumers) through its brand appeal. Small wonder that when one brand analyst (Sophie Devonshire, on BBC Today, 28/5/2015) was asked to discuss the likelihood of FIFA changing its ways as a result of withdrawal of brand sponsorship, she concluded that anything was possible, as “brands have the power to change the world.”