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What do the bakers of Ancient Pompeii have to do with brand?

Lindsay Says

Brand economically benefits both the customer and the business owner, and the bakers of Ancient Pompeii knew this well.

What does “brand” mean?

I’m a word geek. I love understanding the origin of words, and the journey each word made to its current form in the English language. I find that when I’m feeling vague about an idea or concept, it’s often because I don’t understand the word deeply enough. And the way I can understand a word deeply is by looking at its origin.

The word “brand” comes from an Old Norse word brandr, which means “to burn.” At least as early as the Roman Empire, throughout the guilds of the Middle Ages, and continuing today, people have burned marks onto the products they were selling. This served a couple of different and notable purposes:

  1. To identify what belongs to you.
    During prehistoric times, hunters and cattle herders would burn unique marks onto their cattle to signify ownership. This served the very basic purpose of differentiating one cow from another: “This cow is mine, not yours.” In the same way that I write my kids’ names on all of their jackets and gloves at the beginning of the school year, this act of marking functions sheerly as a way to keep my stuff from yours.
  2. To take responsibility and full ownership for your products.
    One of the oldest known uses of branding is with bread in ancient Pompeii. Recovered from the ruins of Pompeii, an amazingly-well preserved loaf of bread gives us a peek into how these bakeries used the principles of brand. Bakers would mark each loaf of bread to signify not just the bakery that created it, but also its use, price, or intended recipient.

How does brand reduce risk and empower customers?

When it comes to branding bread, notice how brand serves both the business and the customer of that business. For the baker, marking each loaf with a clear brand is like saying, “I stand by the quality of this product.” For the customer, if she purchases something she likes, she knows where to find it again. If she doesn’t like it, she knows exactly what to avoid next time.   

The same is true for our branding today. If I take an Advil (with its distinctive orange coating and flavor, and the Advil logo stamped on each pill) and it makes me feel better, I’ll know to seek it out again. If it’s mixed in with other pills in my cupboard, I’ll be able to tell it apart from others so that I don’t risk taking the wrong one.

For the customer, branding reduces their risk; it empowers them. Branding has given them information – visual, logical, emotional and sensory – to help them evaluate whether it is the right decision to buy this particular brand.

This is where brand becomes what is it today: an economic tool for both the business and the customer. Over time, there was a transition from “I own this so please don’t try to claim it as yours” to “I own this and you know how good I am at this stuff. If you want it, you have to pay more for it.” Brand helps make the exchange of value more compelling for both parties.

Branding Today vs. Ancient Branding

When comparing branding in modern times to the more simplistic branding of ancient times, there are a couple of major differences:

  1. The sphere of influence is vastly different.
    Because the communication technology involved with branding bread was a simple stamp, the only people affected were those within a small geographic region who saw the bread with their physical eyes. With today’s technology connecting us worldwide in real time, a brand’s sphere of influence has the potential to be drastically larger. Getting your name out there on a global level is easier, cheaper and more instantaneous than ever before.
  2. Your brand real estate is larger and more multi-dimensional.
    Today, a baker has much more than just a stamp on her bread – there’s the beautifully designed packaging, the corrugated box it’s shipped in, Facebook and Instagram photos and ads, a website, the entire customer service experience, and more. Expressing a brand involves a distinct tonality, voice and visual identity system, carried out consistently across every aspect of the business.

Brand is brand.

Despite these technical differences, when it comes to branding, we ultimately count on the same basic principle that the bakers of Pompeii knew well. Sure, the methods we use to get the word out are different, and yes, we work on a much larger scale. 

But every company, in order to succeed, must get the fundamentals right: whether you’re selling bread, cattle, a sports car or an app, your brand positioning still needs to be at the critical intersection of what your customer wants and what you are uniquely good at.

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