The Physics of Brand: The Evolution of Branding

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Editor’s Note: The following story is excerpted from Chapter 1 of The Physics of Brand. In this new book, the authors use concepts of physics to describe how brands and people move through time and space, helping readers understand the forces behind the brands that matter.

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Brand Is Everything, Brand Is Nothing

What Is a Brand?

Brands are complex because they are both real and figments of our imagination. Brands were invented to replace face-to-face transactions between the customer and craftsperson. Transactions evolved from “I’ll give you this goat for that pig” to “Can I really trust this jug of Roman wine?”

The original brands were primarily people and their family surnames: Farmer, Butcher, Baker, Candler, Miller, Shoemaker, Carpenter, Miner, Smith, and Gold. These names were passed on for generations, along with the craft skills these names promoted. These people were neighbors, so selling shoddy goods was risky, particularly when many of them drank a lot of beer and carried weapons.

The expansion of factories and trains turned the craft system on its head. These modern inventions rapidly widened the distance between producer and customer. When the producer is in another state or country, it’s harder to get your money back or exact justice if the product harms you. This modern production system needed a way to establish trust. Enter, stage right, modern branding.

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People have always needed containers for trust. We are genetically wired to weigh risks two-to-one over rewards. Brands evolved to become containers of trust. Then brands vaulted forward in the late 1800s when the United Kingdom and France gave makers of goods the legal rights to own a brand name in order to protect people from fraud. Today, these intellectual property rights to brands have become containers of great value for corporations.

Historically, the economy “lit it up” as factories, railroads, and the printing press accelerated human-to-human transactional bonds.

The late 1800s to mid-1900s were a time of great invention, and brands largely sold themselves. Everyone wanted the new wonders of indoor plumbing, central heating and cooling, electric light, phones, automobiles, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, laundry soap, and all the inventions of a modern age.

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In the United States after World War II, in order to prevent future economic crises and promote trade, there was a pragmatic effort by government, finance, and industry to create a society of manufacturers and consumers. Over time, puritan thrift had to compete with the ethic of conspicuous consumption. This change was made real at most fairgrounds where, after World War II, Machinery Hill was overrun by corndogs and carnival rides.

Returning World War II marketers rebranded “customers” as “consumers,” and adopted military terminology such as identifying “target” markets and market “penetration.” Mass media fueled brand growth in a consumption-driven culture. This depersonalization of brands was at odds with the original purpose of brands filling the void in the lost relationship between buyer and seller. Over time, Johnson the grocer, Dayton at the local clothier, and Frank at the hardware store were replaced by big-box retailers stuffed floor to ceiling with an abundance of brand choices, loud promotions, and minimal staff.

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Mass advertising accelerated “consumer” brands after World War II, and soon, as substantial product invention subsided, the ad agency Mad Men started to promote nuanced differences between brands. Producers and advertisers began to focus on small improvements and aspirational aspects of products, such as whiter teeth, fresher breath, or smoother hair. There was an overt effort to focus on human anxieties, and the volume of commercial messages increased.

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Over time the noise grew, first through the introduction of cable TV, and now through the pre-Cambrian explosion of content marketing on the Internet. Older people are often confused and upset by this changing media landscape, while younger people are opting out of traditional media altogether and blocking online ads. Meanwhile, we’re all just a Google search away from brutal product reviews and shopping guides.

Whether it was the booze or the height of the office towers, the Mad Men of Madison Avenue eventually degraded the trust between brands and people. They spoke down to the women, who make 80 percent of household purchases, at a time when highly educated women took to the streets demanding equal rights. These same women helped fuel the consumer and environmental protection movements running parallel to their efforts. No wonder trust in brands has suffered a slow, sad decline. Some reports, coming right out of the advertising agency Y&R, report a 50 percent drop in trust in the past decade.

Part of this drop in trust can be traced back to how advertising agencies made money in the Mad Men era. Agencies used to get a 15 percent commission (some countries call this a kickback) from the mass media for all the TV, radio, and magazine ads they bought. Ad agencies, publishers, and broadcasters worked together to convince brand owners to advertise more, even though nobody knew—or does know—exactly how mass brand advertising works. In many cases, it’s difficult to know whether brand advertising works at all. Because mass-media advertising was so profitable, ad agencies called this work “above the line” and convinced clients that mass-media brand advertising was the best way to build brands. This system did not focus on customers, and inefficiency was actually rewarded, and this party never stopped.

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“Below the line” expenses included market research, in-store merchandising and sampling, staff training, special events, sponsorships, press initiatives, sales promotion, point-of-sale displays, design, and direct marketing. If they were around at that time, websites, blogging, social media, and pay-per-click ads would also be considered below the line.

Our models and research indicates that below-the-line activities are generally more effective than mass-media advertising. This insight is a signpost identifying the end of an era. A new age is being born. Marketing theorists pontificate about “good, better, best” and how “consumers” only desire a choice between two meaningful options. As the ghosts of cable TV fade in memory, the fragmentation of mass media and the invention of the Internet have splintered the structure holding mass brand advertising at the top of the marketing mix. Online ratings and the wisdom of the crowd are superseding brand messages. The world is becoming more transparent and the message more difficult to control. Woe be to those brands with too many one-star reviews on Amazon, Yelp, or Glassdoor.

There are still times when traditional mass advertising can be worth the tremendous expense involved. When a brand like Apple has a dramatic high-margin innovation that requires rapid adoption nationally or globally—think iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch—mass advertising can be used offensively. In contrast, defensive brand advertising is often used by widely distributed legacy brands serving people with old media habits. Think of Viagra, Charles Schwab, and Olive Garden. Mass-media advertising can also be used tactically for offers and events, or to make direct sales.

The concept of a brand is changing as well. The word brand was once reserved for national names like Ivory Soap, Coca-Cola, Miller Lite, and Life Cereal. Now, we see brands as retailers (Amazon, Etsy, and Costco), celebrities (Jimmy Fallon, Reese Witherspoon, and PewDiePie), institutions (Harvard, Wikipedia, and the United Nations), and even communities (Ireland, Reddit, and the Roquefort area of France).

And, as if this wasn’t enough, we now have a “personal brand” movement finding traction in a growing population of independent or freelance individuals. These individuals are projected to make up 34 percent of the United States workforce by 2020.


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People have a deep need to belong and brands signal commonalities worth sharing, attracting like-minded people. Brands segment ;us into categories just as people use brands to sort themselves into categories. Brands are used to attract potential mates and business partners; global brands are transcending cultural barriers, becoming symbols of an interconnected world. In a world of choice, needs have become wants. People use brands for status, belonging, stimulation, and diversion. Life is filled with existential angst and great difficulties. Brands provide an escape or diversion from reality.

We have moved from friends and family interacting with the baker, the butcher, and the carpenter to the retailer, brand owner, and the employee. And now, through the Internet, we see a movement pulling us back to the butcher, baker, and carpenter—a world in which we can have a trusting relationship with real people through Internet platforms. At the same time we have a societal need for brands that can use economies of scale to provide good deals to the individual and profit to the producer …

A Brand-Defining Moment

Brand, Defined

Brands have already removed the human-to-human interaction from commerce. The power struggle between retailer and manufacturer in the 1990s has now been turbocharged with Amazon, using “brick and mortar” as their showroom and offering instant photo scan and one-click ordering for instant gratification. Even before the Internet, retailers and channel partners had started becoming the faces of brands.

Many people have forgotten the original purpose of a brand. A brand is a container of trust. We may be able to blame our society’s prolific and sometimes confusing interpretations of the word brand, leading to a gaggle of brand definitions. As we scoured the definitions, there were a handful we pulled to help frame the discussion. Here are some definitions of brand to consider:

“A person has a soul. A product has a brand.”

– Jennifer Kinon, designer, educator, and cofounder of OCD (Original Champions of Design)

This is a simple way to get the idea of a brand and why we (as humans) have invented this concept. When done well, you can sense the soul of a brand when you experience it.

“Brand is a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer.”

– Paul Feldwick

Where they reside is not a definition really, but it is important because we will be talking about the human brain, memory, and how sensory experiences impact memory.

“A brand is essentially a container for a customer’s complete experience with the product and company.”

– Sergio Zyman, author of The End of Advertising as We Know It

The idea of a container and the experience (used here to represent historical interactions versus specific designed experiences) makes this definition closest to how we are framing the discussion. This also points to the central nature of customer experience.

“Brands are what they do, not what they say.”

– Nick Bell, Nick Bell Design

We admire the focus on how brands behave (truth is in behaviors) versus how they communicate. But in order to know if the behavior is truthful, we need to hear what a brand communicates. If what a brand says and does is in alignment, then we have a more authentic brand.

A brand is “The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.”

– David Ogilvy, from OGILVY ON ADVERTISING

There are many more definitions. We counted over twenty-five at the time of this writing. The battle for brand supremacy happens in books such as this, so to add ours to this list we figured it better be worthy.

Our definition:

A brand is a vessel for meaning and trust, fueled by experiences.

A brand is an extension of you. Just as you collect meaning, understanding, and attributes over time, so does a brand. Leaders in your life influence you dramatically, and the same goes for a brand. The people who are closest to you know you best and are often most honest with you, and the same goes for a brand. When you buy a new wardrobe and shave the appropriate body parts you feel better, and the same goes for a brand.

Brands exist to ensure trust, deliver meaning, and provide economic and social value over physical and social distance. What’s been lost in much of modern branding is the human part of the equation.

Read more in The Physics of Brand by Aaron Keller, Renée Marino and Dan Wallace, now available in MyDesignShop.


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