Marketers and critics alike have assumed that branding began in the West with the Industrial Revolution. But a pioneering new study in the February 2008 issue of Current Anthropology finds that attachment to brands far predates modern capitalism, and indeed modern Western society. Hence author David Wengrow explains: “… combined use of seals and standardized packaging played a central role in the emergence of the world’s first large-scale economies. Comparative analysis of more recent branding practices suggests that these functions may necessarily be intertwined, since the enchanting properties of branded commodities are grounded in guarantees of quality, which in turn are based—paradoxically—upon the disenchantment of production.”
He thus challenges the widespread assumption that branding did not become an important force in social and economic life until the Industrial Revolution. Wengrow presents compelling evidence that labels on ancient containers, which have long been assumed to be simple identifiers, as well as practices surrounding the production and distribution of commodities, actually functioned as branding strategies. Furthermore, these strategies have deep cultural origins and cognitive foundations, beginning in the civilizations of Egypt and Iraq thousands of years ago.
Branding became necessary when large-scale economies started mass-producing commodities such as alcoholic drinks, cosmetics and textiles. Ancient societies not only imposed strict forms of quality control over these commodities, but as today they needed to convey value to the consumer. Wengrow finds that commodities in any complex, large society needs to pass through a “nexus of authenticity.”
Through history, these have taken the form of “the bodies of the ancestral dead, the gods, heads of state, secular business gurus, media celebrities, or that core fetish of post-modernity, the body of the sovereign consumer citizen in the act of self-fashioning.” Although capitalism and branding find in each other a perfect complement, they have distinct origins. Wengrow shows that branding has for millennia filled a deep-seated need for us humans to find value in the goods that we consume.
Egyptian perfume bottle. Could product branding have begun in ancient Egypt? (Credit: iStockphoto)
Current Anthropology Volume 49, Number 1, February 2008 © 2008 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.0011-3204/2008/4901-0001 DOI: 10.1086/523676
Prehistories of Commodity Branding