How Brands Were Born: A Brief History of Modern Marketing

The "Mad Men" era of the 1960s was a Cambrian explosion of brands -- from cigarettes to soap -- that have come to define modern marketing. Understanding how those marketing campaigns began helps to explain why branded products are so ubiquitous today.

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There was a time, going back at least 70 years, when all it took to be successful in business was to make a product of good quality. If you offered good coffee, whiskey or beer, people would come to your shop and buy it. And as long as you made sure that your product quality was superior to the competition, you were pretty much set. Well into the 1970s, a savvy consumer could distinguish between high-quality and shabby products quite easily.

And yet, as much as we like to complain about what we buy, it remains a fact that we live in a golden age for quality products. Today, it is much more rare to find cars that consistently break down or kiddie pools that leak. I challenge you to walk into any supermarket and find a product that is not of almost equal quality to the category leader in terms of functional performance. Nevertheless, the companies that were category leader in the early days often still are today. Some represent the "foundational brands," the companies that in the 1950s and 1960s epitomized the kind of smart marketing that is now ubiquitous. A handful of these marketing leaders are listed in the gallery below. And the reason they have survived the test of time comes down to the discipline of marketing and branding.

THE BIRTH OF MODERN BRANDS

The shift from simple products to brands has not been sudden or inevitable. You could argue that it grew out of the standardization of quality products for consumers in the middle of the 20th century, which required companies to find a new way to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

In the 1950s, consumer packaged goods companies like Procter and Gamble, General Foods and Unilever developed the discipline of brand management, or marketing as we know it today, when they noticed the quality levels of products being offered by competitors around them improve. A brand manager would be responsible for giving a product an identity that distinguished it from nearly indistinguishable competitors.

This required an understanding of the target consumer and what we call a "branded proposition" that offered not only functional but also emotional value. Over time, the emotional value would create a buffer against functional parity. As long as the brand was perceived to offer superior value to its competitors, the company offering the brand could charge a little more for its products. If this brand "bonus" was bigger than the cost of building a brand (the additional staff and often advertising costs), the company came out ahead.

The standardization of quality products forced companies to find new ways to distinguish themselves

In the 1950s and 1960s, brands like Tide, Kraft and Lipton excelled in marketing activities (see above gallery), setting the benchmarks for all brands today. This marked the start of almost 50 years of marketing where "winning" was determined by understanding the consumer better than your competitors and the getting the total "brand mix" right. The brand mix is more than the logo, or the price of a product. It's also the packaging, the promotions, and the advertising, all of which is guided by precisely worded positioning statements.

BUILDING AN 'ARTICULATE BRAND'

As my friend Simon Clift, former Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever likes to say, a brand is the contract between a company and consumers. A bundle of contracts, in fact. And the consumer is the judge and the jury. If he or she believes a company is in breach of that contract either by underperforming or misbehaving, the consumer will simply choose to enter a contract with another brand.

I say "misbehaving" because in fact the strongest brands have always exuded a clear sense of their core value. Dan Wieden, legendary ad-man and founder of advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy, puts it another way: Brands are verbs. Nike exhorts. IBM solves. Sony dreams.

Presented by

Marc de Swaan Arons is the co-founder and chairman of the global marketing consultancy EffectiveBrands.

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