Back in the wild west, cattle ranchers used to mark their livestock with a branding iron in order to let other ranchers know that it belonged to them. They probably ignored this, drank moonshine and had a gun fight at noon because, you know, that’s all they did back then.

These days though, ‘branding’ as a term has a very different meaning. Instead of cows running around with burnt bottoms, we’ve got businesses throwing the word ‘brand’ at everything. People are desperate to create one, even though they don’t necessarily know what ‘one’ is.

But why, since the explosion of the internet and social media, has having a brand become more important than ever?

A brief history of branding

Branding really took off in the early 19th century, when the industrial revolution facilitated a rise in mass production and the exporting / importing of goods around the world. In attempts to stand apart from their competitors, companies would burn their names into the sides of the shipment crates (the word ‘brand’ actually derives from a Norse word meaning ‘burn’).

Over time, this approach evolved further, as businesses began to recognise the benefits of putting their logo or brand name across the products they sold. Not only did it act as a form of overseas advertising and ownership, but it became a symbol of quality.

Birth of the trademark

In 1870, it became possible to prevent any competitors from mimicking your product and logo, as you were now able to register a trademark. This was a key point in the history of branding, as it meant companies held authenticity and originality in a much higher regard than before.

Radio and television

In the early part of the 20th century, the introduction of radio and (a little later) TV to the masses, changed the ‘branding’ landscape forever. Whereas previous brand messages tended to be more functional (phrases such as ‘it’s good for you’), this new-wave media delivery allowed for more emotional messages.

So instead of selling on benefits, brands began to sell on ideologies. We hate to go back to the Cowboy analogy from earlier (we don’t), but here’s an example of ideology branding from the 1980s by Marlboro cigarettes:

The message was simple: buy our product and be as cool as these Cowboys.

Marlboro recognised that Cowboys were seen as an uber-masculine, cool symbol throughout the 1970s and 80s (probably owing a lot to Clint Eastwood) – so they decided to market their cigarettes as the ‘brand of choice’ by Cowboys.

The fact that 8/10 smokers are male, targeting this demographic so aggressively was obviously a calculated move.

Their message, ‘come to where the flavour is’, is selling an ideology rather than a benefit (probably because smoking doesn’t really have a benefit). The amount of guys that rushed out to buy Marlboros in order to look like The Man With No Name quite frankly terrifies us.

Social media killed the cowboys

By the mid ‘90s, corporations had been hammering home their brand through association, metaphor and even burnt popstars. The medium was becoming a little predictable and transparent. Consumers were ready for a change and, wouldn’t you know, that’s just what they got …

The internet started to gather momentum, and with it so did social media. This meant that people around the world were more connected than ever before. It meant people in England could chat with people in Texas, and realise that Marlboros don’t actually make you a Cowboy after all. Many hearts were broken.

It meant that people in Germany could tell people in France about their beer and sausages. It meant Italy could sell us their fashion labels, and Spain could show us how beautiful their islands are so we could all go holidaying there.

You get the idea.

How social media changed the branding landscape

The rise of multichannel marketing meant that social media became the new driving force behind branding. In fact, it revolutionised it to the point that we now have jobs with titles like ‘Social Media Brand Manager’.

Specifically on internet-based brands, Matt Shadel highlights a good point in his article on the history of branding,

“Social media brands like YouTube and Facebook rely on their users to help establish their value and how they are perceived by the public. Content sites like Amazon and Yelp depend on reviewers to provide their most persuasive content. Although internet-based companies give up some of the control of their brand image, the loyalty from an actively participating customer base is unparalleled.”

Matt highlights here that while social media takes away some control over brand reputation, the interactions and benefits far outweigh the negatives.

The amount of guys that rushed out to buy Marlboros in order to look like The Man With No Name quite frankly terrifies us. 

The other great thing about social media for branding is that it allows companies to capitalise on fleeting trends more. Whether there is an event, celebrity or new gadget going viral, social media allows for instant communication – meaning brands can leverage the commotion and hashtags in ways that’ll drive more traffic to their website.

Brand facts on social media

of Millennials expect brands to have a Facebook presence.

(Social Media Examiner)

of shoppers research online before purchasing in-store.


of all online activity is spent on social networks.

(Global Web Index)

Social media reconnaissance

Perhaps the most powerful tool that social media gives to businesses is knowledge. More and more people are sharing their lives on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – meaning that their hobbies, interests, and anything else close to their heart are for all to see. This has made target marketing a more accurate and efficient process for modern companies, as they can align their brand with such things.

Examples of the insights social media can give into your target market include:

  • What kind of TV shows, music and literature they like.
  • The kind of lifestyle they lead (health and fitness).
  • Where they like to shop (current favourite brands).

So, for example, if a company’s target demographic is 25-34 year olds, social media allows them to hone in on the subjects, influencers and lifestyle choices that appeal the most (on average) to this age group. It’s from here that brands can make an informed decision on what direction their marketing campaigns should take.

There is an art to performing this kind of research though – and a need to purchase some metrics software (which can be fairly expensive). But staying in touch with your customer’s interests is well worth the time and effort if your brand is to stay relevant.


There you have it. The wild west still exists, but more so online these days. Hopefully this article has got you thinking about how you can improve your own brand, and whether you’re using social media enough.

Ultimately, building a successful brand relies on many factors. It’s the people you hire, the content you produce, the content you share, your website design. Everything you do is an extension of your brand’s voice and, with such a large task list, we’d understand if you’re daunted by it all.

Fortunately we know some people who can help!


Author Jon

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