Written by Mike Hector.
Throughout the history of marketing and advertising, branding has remained an elemental component of any winning marketing and business strategy. Today, the most successful brands have not only stood the test of time, but remain iconic names and symbols that have in many cases lasted the better part of a century, or even longer.
In our latest blog, we will virtually step into the shoes of an advertising archaeologist and digitally dig up some artifacts of branding’s golden age. What lessons can be learned by examining branding from a historical point of view? What secrets can we unlock by delving into the past?
More importantly – how do we apply the best practices of then in order to benefit our strategies now?
Branding: a Brief History
If we trace the idea of branding to its origins, it literally refers to burning a mark on livestock with a hot iron. This was essential to imprint one’s trademark on items of property to distinguish ownership. It was a simple but effective way to identify whose cow belonged to who. Today, much to the animal’s appreciation, their hind-quarters are spared by the use of plastic ear-tags or even microchips.
If we go back even further to the middle ages, the act of watermarking was a similar method of ensuring the authenticity of anything ranging from currency, artwork, literature, and the quality of paper or parchment. It was also a significant deterrent for counterfeiters and is still widely used today to protect images, money, and other intellectual properties.
Now the key elements of branding begin to reveal themselves:
Gradually, these three components became associated with a promise of sorts. A mutual pledge or agreement between the seller and the purchaser; of a product’s consistency and reliability. As populations grew and civilization as a whole continued to advance, so too did the demand for goods and services.
The Golden Age of Advertising
Naturally, a war broke out between the countless competing brands, over the attention of an ever-growing and changing audience. As the decades passed, brands were forced to constantly adapt to sudden and constant social and technological shifts which bring us to now.
Today’s consumer is an entirely different creature than say, 70 years ago. The old tricks of the trade will no longer cut it. What was once a simple combination of snappy imagery and memorable catchphrases, has evolved into a much more complex and strategic process.
Since the advent of the internet, digital marketing, smartphones and other technological shifts, the audience we seek is a much more distracted and empowered population. In broad terms: The competitive landscape for advertisers has never been more cluttered.
A NY Times article from 2014 quotes a study by market research firm: Yankelovich, estimating that an average city-dweller from 30 years ago was exposed to 2,000 ad messages a day. The study went on to compare that number with the close to 5,000 advertisements today.
That is a huge amount of disruption to break through. What is also disconcerting is a recently published study by IAB Canada, which concluded that 1 in 6 Canadians (17%) had installed ad-blocking software or apps on their desktop computers. This can easily be perceived as a population that is growing exhausted with the constant bombardment from online advertisers.
In short, the game has changed. It has been entirely flipped on its head. Your brand must convey a memorable and lasting impression while providing the audience with a personal association or intellectual buy-in.
How can brands rise above all the clutter? How do we connect with our audiences, and forge relationships amid so much distraction?
Uncovering the Secrets of the Past
Here is where we can delve into the history of branding – by way of examining vintage advertising and determining the branding strategy behind the creative.
Below are six samples from three of the most well-known brands in the world. These examples were chosen specifically because they were so iconic and in each case their strategy was so far ahead of its time.
Coca-Cola invoked feelings of social and cultural unity using their product as the ambassador of sorts, thus bridging and challenging the ethnic and cultural gaps of the time. The notion of “I want to buy the world a Coke” – positioned the product as something we all share in common, intertwining Coca-Cola with a sense of overarching humanity.
McCann-Erickson’s iconic Hilltop told a profound story centered on people of all creeds and cultures, coming together, overlooking external differences and establishing a common ground. It goes without saying that this had an incredibly positive and memorable impact on the overall brand experience.
Coca-Cola: Journey (1980’s – 2016)
Today, Coca has not only acknowledged the importance of storytelling and engaging with their customers but have fully embraced the concept. With Journey, Coca-Cola has provided their audience with a digital media platform from which to share stories from across the globe using their brand as the bridge between. Much like the famous ‘Hilltop’ ad but this time turning their customers into their very own legion of storytellers and brand champions.
How can your organization accomplish through the strategic use of content, social media and endless digital platforms? By inviting the customer to create and share your story, you are not only building powerful marketing exposure, but you’re creating a community of loyal brand champions ready to share your product, service or cause.
Lego Print Advertising: 1979
Of all the heavy-hitting brand names out there, Lego stands out by way of their memorable, but consistent brand storytelling. For decades, Lego has centered their branding and creative message entirely around the end-user of their product: children.
In doing so, the mere mention of Lego becomes synonymous with creativity, limitless potential, and the ability to build anything. Their creative strategy was flawless and clearly ahead of its time.
Lego Print Advertising Today
Another significant attribute of Lego was that this particular toy originally created a fascinating paradigm shift during an era that was widely segregated into the “boy toy” and “girl toy” categories. Lego offered a gender inclusive product where the focus was simply creativity.
The shift was most certainly revolutionary for the time and it could be argued that girls may in fact use Lego more than boys. Today, the children who grew up playing with Lego, purchase it for their kids – recognizing a brand that still conveys the same key message – and has always been a positive part of their lives. Consider it: “Generational Brand Placement.”
Although Lego has experienced some minor growing pains in trying to adapt to shifts in the toy market, their winning formula has not really changed. These commemorative examples from German creative studio: Serviceplan (2011) clearly demonstrate that the core message remains.
Lego made their customers the center of attention, and as a result, they remain one of the most successful toy manufacturers on earth.
3 Levi Strauss Co.
Levi’s (the 1950’s)
Since 1850 Levi Strauss & Co. has been literally placing their brand on the rear ends of just about anyone who has ever worn a pair of jeans since.
The iconic depiction of a pair of jeans being ‘drawn and quartered’ between two workhorses conveyed a sense of durability and reliability that is still used to this day.
One hundred and sixty six years later – not much has changed about Levi’s core branding strategy. Their product and their iconic brand have become intertwined in the century and a half since the first pair of “red tabs” adorned a customer’s butt. The key to success here is consistency. When someone says “blue jeans”, Levi’s is typically top of mind.
What’s further, is that Levi’s has demonstrated an uncanny ability to keep their jeans relevant, trendy and desirable over the years, without any drastic changes to the original design. The Levi’s brand has become fortified today, as a mark of quality, tradition and the evolution of casual fashion.
In the past, a business could create advertisements and quickly obtain the attention of their audience. Advertisers would outline a product’s features and benefits and why the consumer should buy it. Today, an ad is simply an avenue in which a company communicates the brand story.
A business today must have a compelling brand position, and the way in which that story is told has the power to create a timeless foundation for future success. Coca-Cola, Lego, and Levi’s uncovered the power of a compelling brand position very early on. In return for their innovative thinking, they have become some of the world’s most powerful companies that continue toward a bright future.
Today, the messaging and the brand’s philosophy need to be unified and convey the company’s ideals, values and atmosphere without blatantly spelling it out for the audience. A quick logo and a snappy tagline are no longer enough. The audience will smell that a mile away.
Each and every business, brand or organization indeed has a voice. Now, more than ever that voice, and the message it carries need to earn the attention of customers. The key takeaway from these examples is that rather than simply selling a product or service through branding – they created an ongoing story which showcases the customer and in-turn rose above the clutter.
Successful brands have built entire communities and cultures surrounding them – most often through the simplest of methods. Involve your audience. Speak with them, rather than at them. Make the customer the main character of your brand-story and it will become the stuff of legend.