Safire Tires Of Brands

William Safire, our supreme guardian of the English language, writing in New York Times Magazine said:

The time has come to unbrand the word brand.
The noun blazed on the scene a thousand years ago as a burning stick, and the meaning soon transferred to the mark left on the skin of a horse or a criminal by such a stick, or branding iron. That mark became the sign of infamy: Richard Hooker wrote in 1597 of an age marked ”with the brand of error and superstition,” and later, a firebrand became the symbol of an inflammatory rabble-rouser.
The burned-in mark, in the 19th century, began to signify ownership not just of an animal but also of liquids in wooden casks, like wine or ale. The brand-mark became a ”trademark,” and in the 20th century the designated item so labeled became a brand. In 1929, Fleischmann’s Yeast absorbed the coffee maker Chase & Sanborn and other companies to form Standard Brands (now a part of Kraft), in hopes that brand names would produce brand loyalty. A generation later, David Ogilvy, the advertising executive, was dubbed by the author Martin Mayer in 1958 as an ”apostle of the ‘brand image”’ who sought to persuade the consumer ”that brand A, technically identical with brand B, is somehow a better product.” Within two years, the novelist Kingsley Amis extended brand image from a product to a genre: ”mad scientists attended by scantily clad daughters” constitute ”the main brand-image of science fiction.”

Tom Peters, who took the whole brand called you thing to new heights in a 1997 Fast Company article, picked up on Safire’s piece in his blog (which is actually written by several other people). Here’s a comment I like from Trevor Gay on that post:

What worries me is ‘branding’ being turned into some complicated academic subject when, in reality, ‘branding’ is simply a distinctive element that makes an individual or a company stand out – in other words what they are recognised ‘for’ and ‘as’.
Keep it simple – don’t let academics make ‘branding’ a complex science.
Branding is not complicated.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. What William Safire said

    What William Safire said: ” The time has come to unbrand the word brand .” (via: AdPulp )

  2. Tom Asacker recently had this to say, “In my new book I work hard to make clear that ‘brand’ is a verb, not a noun. My hope is that businesspeople will embrace this new, pragmatic concept and invest their energy and money in the dynamic nature of their brand. The simpler days of brand as top of mind awareness are quickly coming to an end.”

  3. I agree with you David, branding (verb, noun or otherwise) is simple. It takes talent and hard work, but it is a simple process. Unfortunately, as long as giant ad agency conglomerates have giant fees to justify (and quarterly numbers to hit, or else), overcomplicating things in order to justify all the giant-ness will the order of the day. Overcomplicating was bad enough when I started in this business over 10 years ago, and it has only gotten worse.
    It will only get better when clients reject it by refusing to subsidize it, by scrutinizing agency staffing and procedures and by demanding smarter (and smaller) teams on their business. When that happens, we’ll all benefit. Except for those whose bonuses currently depend on hitting the numbers by spending the clients’ money on overcomplicated procedures, of course.