Why we brand: Debbie Millman breaks down 30,000 years of human history

c2 team
Why we brand: Debbie Millman breaks down 30,000 years of human history

“Branding is now a profound manifestation of the human spirit.”


To predict the future of advertising, we need to understand how we got here. For Debbie Millman, acclaimed brand consultant, award-winning designer and host of the popular and long-running Design Matters podcast, the story begins tens of thousands of years ago with the cave drawings of Lascaux, France. The second our ancestors used stone tools to create a visual language, they set the precedent for modern storytelling.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we went from writing on the walls of Lascaux to writing on the walls of Facebook,” Debbie says.

It would be another 30,000 years before people began to brand products in the modern sense. The evolution of our relationship with companies since the late 19th century is a telling reflection of how our values as a society have changed in the era of commerce.


The big bang of branding

Wave 1 (1875 to 1920): Brands represent quality

For the first time, brands use labels to make people familiar with their goods. Those who can afford to gravitate towards these consistent, high-quality goods. It works, and consumers start to view labels as an indicator of premium products.

Fun fact: The first brand registered in the U.S. was Bass Ale. “It says a lot about humanity and Americans that the first registered brand was a beer company.”


Wave 2 (1920 to 1965): Brands become anthropomorphized

Short on ideas for new products, copycat brands challenge the status quo, and the battle for customer attention heats up. Companies set themselves apart by using characters to project a sense of humanity onto their products, and consumers invite Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker into their homes.


Wave 3 (1965 to 1985): Brands as self-expression

Suddenly, labels say as much about us as they do about the products we buy. Companies tap into our human craving for cachet, and branding becomes a signifier of our values. Brand-driven tribalism is born.

Fun fact: The Marlboro Man used to be a woman. Marlboro launched nearly 100 years ago in the U.K., targeting their filtered cigarettes at women and failing miserably. Fast-forward to the 1950s, when they doubled down on the cowboy thing, catapulting the Marlboro Man into the branding stratosphere, making it one of the most famous company icons of all time.


Wave 4 (1985 to 2005): Brands become experiences

Cachet is no longer enough. Consumers expect an emotional transformation by sheer virtue of joining a brand’s tribe. Experiential marketing takes off and companies like Apple and Starbucks build empires by immersing customers in experiences that reflect their brand values.


Wave 5 (2005 to present): Brands as connectors

Brands today don’t exist just to sell but to unite people with the aim of changing things. The discipline of branding has changed more in the past two years than it has in the previous 10,000. Movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Je Suis Charlie blow up overnight.

“We didn’t fall in love with the tech, we fell in love with the feeling of connection we get through that technology,” says Debbie.


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