Use of the word brand as both a noun and a verb has massively increased in frequency since the end of C19, and particularly over the past thirty 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.
The word brand or brond is to be found in Old English, and also in other Germanic languages, such as Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, and Old Norse. 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 Old English epic poem Beowulf, the word signifies burning or destruction by fire. The modern uses of brand derive from the mark made by burning flesh with a hot iron. This was not only a way of marking the ownership of livestock (particularly cattle), but also a punishment for criminals, so that brand often conveys “the idea of disgrace; a stigma, a mark of infamy.” In Britain the last criminal sentence of branding was handed down at the Old Bailey in 1789, but branding continued to be used on slaves in the US until 1865, and the tattooing of concentration camp inmates has been referred to as branding.
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 trademark, whether made by burning or otherwise. (Applied to trademarks 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 trademarks upon them.” As a verb, to brand means: “To mark indelibly, as a proof of ownership, as a sign of quality, or for any other purpose”; and, “To apply a trademark 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 recognized in the 1883 Trade Marks Act, which gave specific protection to brands as marks that were “printed, impressed, or woven” into goods. However, it was quickly recognized that there was little practical difference between a trademark and a brand, both serving as indications of origin; and the word brand was dropped from that Act as constituting simply a subspecies of trademark. 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 word its present ubiquity. While brands were originally used to differentiate goods in an era of mass production, it became clear that these brands could develop meanings and associations that could be of value and could be both managed and developed. While brands and branding are being used and developed from eC20 on, it is only since the 1950s that they have become a major focus of interest. Beginning in the 1920s but gathering speed in the postwar era comes a slew of compounds: brand-image (1958), brand-name (1922), brand leader (1967), brand extension (1966), brand awareness (1950), and brand identity (1927).
Brands are now an integral part of balance sheets. Perhaps the most famous brand in the world is Apple. 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 it 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, now a brand is itself the product of this industry. Companies exist that specialize in creating brands and brand strategies, in order to enhance brand building or brand positioning. A multitude of books 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 Brand and Innovation Law. However, it would be wrong to think that brands are created and used solely by businesses to promote their own products. Characterization as a brand is often an attribution made by others to describe the characteristics of a person or thing: for example, an individual may be described as having a particular brand of humor; and some people may parlay these personal attributes into a valuable brand.
In contemporary society, the words brand and branding are used not only in the context of commerce. They are also increasingly deployed to explain political and social concerns, such as the “brand of jihadism” promulgated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/IS) (BBC, June 30, 2014). In an article titled, “How to fight the Islamic State’s ‘brand appeal,’” one analyst described IS as “one of the world’s most powerful brands” (Washington Post, 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 that consists, among other things, of its use of product placement, social media, and a nurturing of “celebrity warriors” such as Jihadi John (Independent, March 9, 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, February 10, 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 of Homeland Security titled “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: Branding, Leadership Culture and Lethal Attraction” concluded that the “organizational legitimacy” of ISIS has been achieved through “a unique combination of the strong leadership style, strategic branding, and consistent message,” summarized in the report as “ISIL Sells Success.”
The increasing significance of the words brand, branding, and to brand marks how fully we have become a consumer society. In the case of IS, a social and political movement that might once have been explained by its ideological appeal to a particular class or other social group on the basis of its political program, perhaps supported through use of propaganda, has been reconceptualized as a brand manager that attracts followers (presumably, consumers) through its brand appeal. Small wonder that when one brand analyst (Sophie Devonshire, on BBC Today, May 28, 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.”