Words are my field. Hence the visceral reaction to market-speak, all synergies and stakeholders and verbing nouns. Today I am musing on the word “branding,” as in “branding exercise,” “re-branding,” &c. I appreciate the importance of image, of visibility, of memorability. The importance of reputation. And perhaps it is a sign of an outmoded fastidiousness that I prefer all these latter ways of putting it. But we might want to remember that words, no matter how newly-minted they seem, have roots. Take “branding.” It literally means, to make a mark on something with a hot iron. Something like a cow, or a sign board, or a person. This mark denotes ownership. These are my cattle, this is my property. Historically such marks were also inflicted as punishment, as when people convicted of crimes were branded to let others know their status. Such warning brands could also be seen to denote a type of ownership, as they literally embody the right of the authorities to define, to name, to permanently mark, those who present a threat to propterty.
The word “brand” came, with time, to represent a mark of ownership itself, rather than the physical process of burning flesh or wood. Brands are proprietarial; they indicate ownership. They also signify authenticity to consumers: this is the real thing, the genuine article. So while the literal iron brand was transformed into a more metaphoric type of marker, it still signifies ownership.
Branding, then, historically and in the present day, is the act of claiming exclusive ownership to something of monetary value. A “brand name” product is a signed, authentic product, usually more expensive but also safer to invest in. Consumers have favourite brands, and trusted brands. Brands are known for this, or for that.
To bring us back to where we started: branding is fundamentally different from reputation. The latter is social, predicated on communication and common interest. Branding, on the other hand, is about protecting ownership. It is about property, and the marketplace. No matter how widely disseminated, it remains private. It reconfigures members of the community as consumers. And it requires, it creates, a product.
Question: who “owns” a university?