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Debbie Millman: The Complete History of Branding (Transcript)

Debbie Millman on Branding

Full text of Debbie Millman’s talk titled “The Complete History of Branding” where she discusses the history of branding from The Big Bang to the present.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: The Complete History of Branding by Debbie Millman


Thank you all for being here.

I want to start by reminding us of this: this is the Big Bang. So I really am giving you a complete history of branding, like complete. We’re going all the way back to the Big Bang.

13.8 billion years ago, we burst forth… the universe burst forth, universe that we know burst forth and created everything that exists as far as we know.

380,000 years ago, we had the first visible light… the first visible light that was created… started 380,000 years ago. Isn’t that attractive? Scientists determined this was the earliest time of visible light. I’ll show you how. Earliest time with visible light.

I wanted to sort of mix it up, move around a little bit, keep you interested, it’s all this science stuff.

So 50,000 years ago, as we’re getting closer and closer to right this moment… 50,000 years ago, our brains reorganized… was a genetic mutation, a spontaneous genetic mutation that resulted in the brain we currently have today. That scientists have called the Big Brain Bang. They also call it the Leap Forward because that is when our brains really took the shape that we currently have today. And we moved forward into becoming the modern species that we now are.

So this great leap forward was the result of all of the things that we do today that are considered cultural universals, the things that compel us to live, the things that compel us to behave the way that we do. That brain reorganization is a brain that is called the Triune Brain: three parts of the brain in one.

And that three-part brain is the reptilian brain, the part of the brain that sits right on top of the spinal cord and is responsible for all of our involuntary action: our eye blinking, our breathing, our heartbeat… all of those things are controlled by the reptilian brain.

And then the middle part of the brain is also called the mammalian brain or the limbic brain. That part of the brain is responsible for all of the feelings that we have of connectedness to each other, our feelings of love. All mammals rear their offspring live; we don’t hatch eggs; we don’t eat the eggs unless they’re chicken eggs or something like that.

And then the neocortex which is the part of the brain that all of us love: it’s all about abstract thinking and poetry and music.

So at that time 50,000 years ago, that Big Brain Bang, that Great Leap Forward resulted in what is called cultural universals. And that means that everybody no matter their orientation, no matter their gender, no matter their class, their race, all people engage with these behaviors.

Those cultural universals: our language, art, music, cooking and self decoration.

So very shortly after the Great Leap Forward, we started using these behaviors to create the world that we now currently live in.

First, we started to craft stone tools to make it easier for the hunters and the gatherers to bring back prey for us to be able to sustain ourselves.

Where it really gets interesting for us, as designers, is about 38,000 years ago. 38,000 years ago, the first drawings on the walls of the caves of Lascaux were drawn. And here we were, as a species, first documenting our reality. We were first documenting our memories, our behaviors, the things that we were engaged in.

And I find it somewhat interesting that we’ve gone now to the walls of Facebook… from the walls of Lascaux to the walls of Facebook. I think those are very deliberate words that have been used.

Two months ago, I got the opportunity to see what was crafted with some of those stone tools in an effort to create environments for us to live in to protect us from varying environments, varying weather. And those are the environments in Petra, Jordan, which were environments created right into the rocks, into the mountains in Jordan that allowed us to create essentially two and three-bedroom homes. And these exist… these are real, these are remnants of our history in becoming human.

10,000 years ago, we started, as a species, to array ourselves with makeup. Makeup was first used 10,000 years ago. But we weren’t using makeup for beautification and seductive purposes. We were actually using makeup to array ourselves, to be more pleasing to a higher power that we considered to be God.

Now it’s interesting that, we as a species, many of us agree that there is this higher power. What we don’t agree is who or what that higher power is.

And so shortly after we started to array ourselves with makeup, in an effort to be more pleasing to a higher power, we created symbols to signify what that relationship was. And those symbols after we were beautified became the first symbol to signify a belief, to signify a way of thinking.

At that time we manufactured meaning around something that we then agreed meant something. We are the only species on the planet that have manufactured meaning around a symbol, and then collectively all agreed on what that symbol means. And those were our first brands, our first attempt to manufacture meaning around something that did not empirically exist.

That fostered a mutual agreement that then beget a sense of belonging. Now we didn’t all agree that those symbols meant the same things, that those symbols were all inclusive, that they should be everybody’s symbols.

And so as a species, what did we start to do?

We started to fight. We started to fight. Our first wars were religious wars, because we couldn’t agree on the agreement that others had about what those symbols meant.

I often think that if we actually knew empirically how the universe began, we wouldn’t be fighting religious wars. So what’s interesting about this particular time was that we started to create flags.

The first flags were used on the battlefield, because there were no such thing as mass manufactured uniforms. We created uniforms way into the future.

10,000 years ago, we used flags to signify where on the battlefield we belonged. It was sort of like going to a basketball game and having the Clippers on one side and the Lakers on the other. That’s how we signified where we belonged.

We developed crests and shields to signify lineage. But the actual word brand doesn’t show up in our history, until about a thousand years ago.

A thousand years ago, the word bronde was used in the 1010 Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. And it literally means to mark or to destroy by fire.

Cattle ranchers then appropriated that word to use as a symbol of ownership on cattle. Y’all with me?

Going fast. 143 three years ago, modern brands were born. Brands became legally recognized in the United States on January 1, 1876. Anybody know what the first registered trademark in the United States was? That isn’t one of my former students.

Bass Ale. I think this is really quite magnificent about what this means about us as a species and about us as Americans, many of us that the first trademark brand in the United States was not an American brand and was an alcoholic beverage. So this is the first registered trademark in the United States.

And what’s interesting about Bass Ale is that emblem, that piece of iconography, is still their iconography to this day. And here is the first example of product placement, official product placement. I definitely got any money for this but you can see the Bass Ale here and then over there on the corner.

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