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Relationship Marketing 101: The Dawn of Branding

Welcome to Relationship Marketing 101, a new monthly series that examines the evolution of marketing — from radio ads to social media — and the lessons this history shares. In this installment, we’ll explore branding’s origins and discuss how marketing behemoths like Coca-Cola learned to connect with customers.

The history of branding dates back thousands of years, though the term didn’t have its current context until the 1500s. According to Skyword, Stone Age cave paintings depict early humans branding animals with paint and tar. That method soon gave way to burning ownership marks onto cattle, while artisans in ancient China, Egypt, and Rome added brands to hand-crafted creations. This practice created a sense of loyalty between the crafter and owner; artists marked their products so that customers knew they were buying quality work.

By the sixteenth century, what began as a technique of claiming literal ownership had evolved into a form of artistic expression and representation. It wouldn’t be long until new inventions tied this concept with modern advertising to create the marketing force that we’re familiar with today.

The Industrial Revolution Bred Innovations in Manufacturing and Advertising

The Industrial Revolution, which occurred from 1760 to around 1840 in Europe and the United States, changed life as everyone knew it. With the invention of machines, artisans suddenly began mechanizing many centuries-old manual processes. Chemical manufacturing, steam and waterpower, and the rise of the textile industry were all hallmarks of this period.

Another hallmark of the Industrial Revolution is advertising. Advancements in printing press technology allowed businesses to print text and images quickly and cheaply. This development opened new avenues for companies looking to spread the word about their products, and modern advertising was born. After centuries of primitive branding efforts, companies had a fast, affordable way to share their brands far and wide.

In 1841, Volney B. Palmer opened the first American advertising agency in Philadelphia, the modern-day home of cheesesteaks, disappointing sports teams, and Gritty. By 1900, these agencies were commonplace and considered a crucial part of brands’ success. While newspapers were a common channel at the turn of the century, radio advertising soon became a favored medium.

During this period, companies started thinking in earnest about their relationships with customers and how ads fostered that relationship. Early marketing pros realized that because women were doing most household shopping, ads should target this demographic. In this radio ad from the 1920s, a male narrator describes how a cutting-edge hairdryer could enhance the average woman’s life:

Yes, the themes are outdated and sexist — beauty brands certainly wouldn’t make “pleasing your man” and “having more time for housework” cornerstones of their modern ad campaigns — but the ad shows how advertisers forged connections with their female customers. Even when advertising was largely product-focused, the result is comparable to today’s relationship marketing campaigns that garner an emotional response to build lasting connections between the consumers and the brand.

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Coca-Cola and Mascots Set the Stage for Modern Branding

At 134 years old, Coca-Cola is one of the most enduring and iconic brands in the world. For decades, Coke was viewed almost like an “old friend,” with one WWII-era ad literally adopting the phrase. Coca-Cola positioned the beverage as something familiar, comforting, and reminiscent of home. It’s no wonder that it resonated with buyers during the periods of turmoil that punctuated the late 1800s through the 1940s.

One of Coca-Cola’s most lasting contributions to the branding landscape first appeared in a 1922 French ad: the first-ever Coca-Cola polar bear. Its appearance reflected a new trend in which companies used mascots to anthropomorphize their products. Creations like the Quaker Oats man (1877), Mr. Peanut (1916 – 2020, RIP), Rice Krispies’ elf trio, and the Jolly Green Giant (both 1928) turned corporations into individuals with faces, feelings, and personalities, making products more memorable and relatable for consumers.

Companies quickly realized that mascots often take hold in the public consciousness, sometimes becoming more famous than the products themselves. While these cuddly, sofa-loving bears didn’t become prominent in corporate branding in 1922, today, they take up an entire section of Coca-Cola’s online storefront. Just for polar bear merchandise. Today’s companies can leverage mascots as both branded advertisements and independent revenue channels that drive interest in t-shirts, toys, and much more.

These mascots’ real power is they don’t belong solely to the company — they represent an evolving relationship with fans. The Coca-Cola bears started as cute branded images, but they inspired environmental sentiments that helped raise millions for conservation efforts. Modern campaigns are not immune to this phenomenon, much like how Gritty went from one city’s hockey mascot to a global symbol of revolution following mass protests. Mascots are perfect examples of how brands sell more than products — they also sell connections.

The Evolution of Branding

Branding has seen several evolutions throughout human history. In its earliest days, it represented ownership. Over time, it became a symbol of product quality. Today, the best examples of branding highlight a connection between a company and consumer, much like Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign that incorporated consumer names into its branding. Sometimes these lessons are ones that successful companies learn to take literally.

Check back next month to learn more in our second installment of Relationship Marketing 101!

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