The History of Marketing, Part 1: Branding

Today, with the emphasis on this or that fancy new marketing technique, trick, or software, we have forgotten the fundamental purpose marketing plays in an economy. Marketing exists to solve a problem for both seller and buy. A seller wants to convince a buyer to purchase his or her product, and a buyer wants security that a product will work to meet their needs. In this series, we will explore the history of marketing, including branding, consumer mass marketing, market segmentation, and the attention economy, we can better understand how devise our marketing strategies to meet the needs of our customers.

First Steps of Marketing: Branding

Early economies did not have marketing. If one thinks about an early hunter-gatherer or agricultural society, marketing was not needed for a few reasons:

  1. There was not much trade going on in the first place. Subsistence economies, by definition, have little surplus for trade.
  2. There was a lack of specialization, which also meant that with a small number of goods being produced, everyone would have about the same knowledge as everyone else about the quality of goods being sold. If you fished out of a lake, your neighbors likely fished the same fish. Not only did they not need to trade, but they would already know whether your fish was good or not.
  3. Even when larger trade networks were created, whether in Meso-America, the Nile or Indus River valley, goods were traded as commodities. As long as you could tell whether a good was legitimate or not, there was little point in convincing someone to buy your salt or sea shells rather than someone else’s.

The last point, however, is crucial to the development of the first type of marketing- branding. Branding, at its simplest level, is proving that a product is 1. Legitimate and 2. High-quality. This comes into play when a society begins to urbanize and personal, face-to-face ties are replaced by membership in a polity. Goods are transported over large distances through multiple intermediaries until arriving to the consumer. And crucially, multiple types of similar goods come onto the market, making it difficult for the consumer to differentiate before they buy.

The Roman Empire was not the first or only society where this dynamic emerged, but it is one of the best documented. A prime example of early branding can be seen in the life and business of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, a wealthy merchant from Pompeii known for his production of garum, a type of fermented fish sauce.

Aulus Umbricius Scaurus: A Case Study in Ancient Branding

Photo: Claus Ableiter, CC 3.0

Aulus Umbricius Scaurus’ success as a garum producer exemplifies how branding was utilized in ancient times. His name and reputation for quality were key to his business model. Scaurus’ urcei, or small transport vessels, bearing his manufacturer’s mark and labels, have been uncovered at various sites across the Mediterranean. This widespread distribution of branded goods indicates a well-established network and a strong brand presence.

Scaurus’ products, such as liquamen and garum, were recognized for their quality. The labels on his products often included terms like “flos” (flower), signifying premium quality, which helped differentiate his goods in a competitive market. His branding efforts were not limited to his products but extended to his retail operations. Scaurus owned a main shop and controlled several others managed by family members, slaves, or freedmen, all promoting the consistent quality of his brand.

The effectiveness of Scaurus’ branding is also evidenced by the physical remnants of his business. The large floor mosaic in his house near Porta Marina featured urcei with inscriptions praising the quality of his garum and liquamen. This mosaic served as an advertisement, showcasing his wealth and the high standards of his products to all visitors, effectively reinforcing his brand’s reputation.

Additionally, the reach of Scaurus’ products, found as far away as modern France, and his engagement in importing and exporting highlight the extensive influence and recognition of his brand. His mark even appeared on jars of garum from southern Spain, suggesting he also imported high-quality products to maintain his brand’s standards locally.

Implications for Branding Today

The legacy of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus demonstrates that the principles of branding—ensuring legitimacy and quality—are not modern inventions but have been fundamental to successful commerce for centuries. For branding to be successful, there must be a cost to fake the product. In Scaurus’ case, it is likely that two things protected him from counterfeits. First, it seems to have been difficult to reproduce and falsify the quality of garum he produced. The ingredients and processing were sufficiently difficult that it would be hard to imitated.

But unlike today, the taste of one’s customers would be the only protection the “owner” of the brand would have as protection. Although Romans did have the concept of intangible ownership, they did not have the idea of copyright- the ownership of actual ideas or works. It is likely that the buyer of false goods, not the owner of the brand, would likely be the plaintiff of a civil action against an unscrupulous seller. This potential legal sanction from the buyer to a counterfeiter is the second source of security of an ancient brand. We will explore the implications of the later development of copyright in later posts, but for now, let us reflect on what lessons marketers can take from ancient branding:

Branding Is About Reputation

Many marketers worry excessively about things such as having a slick trademark, or the right font, or a fashionable logo.

Branding isn’t about that. As we can see, branding is an exercise in reputation. It marks a product as being a member of a superior group. I don’t care how well-designed your logo is, your brand has no meaning if your customers are not familiar with the product.

Whether you look at Scaurus’ fish sauce or the M of the McDonald’s golden arches, or the Starbucks mermaid, you know you are getting a reliable, trustworthy service.

Who are you going to buy from in the market? Lucius, who is selling some fish sauce out of an old stall he got from who-knows-where? Or Scaurus, who everyone knows has the best quality in the Mediterranean.

So before worrying about your brand, first establish a world-class experience. Make sure your brand actually means something.

Stay tuned for our next post- where we dive into the beginning of mass marketing.

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