In 2008, when I started the NMIMS campus in Bangalore, where we were not known, a well-intentioned remark from colleagues that left me perplexed was, “ Sir, we must do branding”.  I had always associated a brand with trust, respect, and credibility gained over time through years of painstaking performance. To me, a brand was a long -term outcome and not something that could be achieved by activities in the short-run.  One was also intrigued by the term branding being profusely used by designers and printers of visiting cards and stationery. 

Sometime later, I stumbled across the origin of the term branding to the practice of burning a mark onto something to designate ownership, which evolved to marks or stigmas put on criminals; and later to unique watermarks on paper in the early 1200s and trademarks in the 1900s. 

According to the American Marketing Association, this type of branding is defined as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” Since then, branding has come a long way and is on the cusp of another stage in its evolution. 

Evolution of Branding in the 20th century 

The advantages of economies of scale that led to mass production of goods necessitated manufacturers to get the trust of consumers vis-à-vis local manufacturers/sellers, and they started promoting their products, emphasising their quality as a differentiator from local/inferior goods, thereby offering a unique customer value proposition. The differentiation, in essence, paved the way for a brand and a product becoming synonymous- Godrej cupboard, Remington typewriter, Kodak camera, to name a few. 

When the potential for product differentiation dwindled, leading to commoditisation, companies switched over to invoking emotional attachments of loyalty, trust, the confidence of consumers and promoting the company as the brand, in other words, an ‘Emotional selling proposition’ - thus sales teams leveraged the strength of the brand instead of the product.   

The next evolution was the shift from brand names to the company/organisation that became the key factor for customer recognition. The brand image became the key driver, and advertising contributed to conferring on a brand a personality or character by imbuing the brand with specific associations or values.  In India, this was best exemplified by Tata Steel which ran an ad campaign in the 1990s that showcased its corporate philanthropy projects without a single mention of its primary business, but signed off with the line:  “We also make steel”.   

Thus, during the 20 th century, the fulcrum of branding evolved from product quality and ownership popularised through logos and symbols, the brand name itself, and the company/organisation. The brand image is communicated through symbolic values and even fantasy, triggering a famous statement of an ad guru: “ Every advertisement is part of the long-term investment in the personality of the brand”. 

Post-2000, the online revolution has enabled customers to directly interact with companies daily, (the likes of Amazon, Swiggy, Zomato, Myntra, who provide instant gratification), giving rise to the terminology, User Experience Design (UXD) with companies cultivating brand awareness and loyalty through individual customer experiences that aggregate and translate to brand loyalty. 

The next stage in brand evolution? 

It is a matter of time before the commoditisation of experiences leads to fatigue, necessitating new branding ideas and fulcrum shift. If the bedrock of marketing is ‘pulling customers’ wherein branding and advertising play a pivotal role, the challenge for brand managers is to identify new vistas of differentiation to enhance their brand image. In this context, the materialistic outlook dominated by business has generally ignored the environment, society, planet and sustainability as touchpoints. The 17 sustainability development goals (SDGs), ranging from eliminating poverty, hunger and disease; to renewable energy, water and sanitation to carbon neutrality to combat climate change, sustainable cities and communities etc. are not seen as ‘sexy’ and ‘attention grabbing’. 

Post pandemic in 2020, and with countries subscribing to adhere to Net Zero Emissions (NZE) by 2050/2070, the world has come to a pass wherein sustainability will be the dominant theme for the next half a century. A sustainable brand has  purpose that goes beyond making money and by integrating environmental, economic and social issues into its business operations, the brand would garner respect and trust.  This could be a veritable storehouse of ideas and a brand designer’s delight. However, this change will not be easy as the current consumption-oriented ethos is the antithesis of sustainability, whose objective is to minimise present consumption such that material resources of society are preserved for future generations. 

Moreover, advertising promotes the voice of commerce as the dominant way of expression in society. When it comes to luxury brand management, it is said that brand jealousy, brand love, and materialism affect customers’ motivation to buy luxury brands at premium prices. Thus, the underpinnings in the gamut of activities straddling brand management and advertising today are commerce, materialism, and emotions of fear, obsession, peer pressure, fame and so on. It will call for a sea change in the outlook of brand designers to usher in a revolution that goes against the grain of traditional branding and advertising ethos.  

A number of young textile entrepreneurs in India have taken the lead in this sphere; for example, (i) Mio Borsa has made vegan leather from Pu and pineapple stem extract, and combined sustainability with functional accessory designs(ii) InSom specialises in recycling waste/leftovers and surplus fabrics from organic fabrics and transform them to stylised garments (iii) B-label is a clothing line that uses the natural fibre hemp that repels ultraviolet rays and is carbon negative. An established FMCG major Procter & Gamble has focussed on the challenges of finite resources and growing consumption and is driving towards 100 per cent recyclable packaging, 100 per cent renewable energy and reducing energy and water consumption by 50 per cent. The millennials are more conscious of the earth, environment and planet and consequently, it makes good business sense for brands to get involved with sustainability because potential customers and employees want them to take a stand.  A brand can then be seen to be playing a role in effecting societal change and thereby garner respect and enhanced brand image. 

The mechanics of branding involves lateral thinking, and creativity and the end product has the power to attract fans, co-creators, and communities rather than merely buyers and users. Considering that branding brings vitality to inanimate objects, as a discipline, it is more appealing than the sheer commercialism widely associated with the word “marketing”. Every product can be linked in some way to the seventeen SDGs and just as ’Necessity is the mother of invention’, it is plausible that the need to make industry and the world sustainable will spur brand designers and managers to jump on the bandwagon of sustainability to display their creative skills for a cause that will concomitantly ensure manifold returns. Suppose the ‘Brand purpose’ for an organisation connotes the meaning behind its existence, an idealistic view of how it wants to be perceived. In that case, leveraging on sustainability is an ideal vehicle to demonstrate good intent. 

(The writer is Advisor - Miles School of Branding & Advertising, Bengaluru)