Embodied Branding: from an obscure past to an empowered future
If you are reading this you are probably aware of the power of branding all around us: well known household names, products we love or hate, ubiquitous images and ads everywhere we go. Perhaps you are also here for inspiration to polish or create yours, or someone else’s.
Nowadays, in it’s most basic definition brand refers to the name and sign that identifies a particular business, service or product. Your brand is a reflection of who you or your company is and what you believe in. This is visibly expressed by what you do and how you do it. In a more subtle way your brand is the felt perception of what your clients think/feel/remember when they hear your brand name. If we are to consider an embodied branding inquiry this concept becomes key as we will read below.
“Brand is the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.”
~ David Ogilvy
Let’s start at the beginning…
Where does the practice of branding originate from?
Old English brand, brond “fire, flame, destruction by fire; firebrand, piece of burning wood, torch,” and (poetic) “sword,” from Proto-Germanic *brandaz “a burning” (source also of Old Norse brandr, Old High German brant, Old Frisian brond “firebrand; blade of a sword,” German brand “fire”), from PIE root *gwher- “to heat, warm.”
Meaning “iron instrument for branding” is from 1828. Meaning “mark made by a hot iron” (1550s), especially on a cask, etc., to identify the maker or quality of its contents, broadened by 1827 to marks made in other ways, then to “a particular make of goods” (1854). Brand-name is from 1889; brand-loyalty from 1961. Old French brand, brant, Italian brando “sword” are from Germanic.
c. 1400, “to impress or burn a mark upon with a hot iron, cauterize; stigmatize,” originally of criminal marks or cauterized wounds, from brand (n.). Figuratively, often in a bad sense, “fix a character of infamy upon,” mid-15c., with the criminal marking in mind. As a means of marking ownership or quality of property, 1580s.
We often think of branding as a solely marketing tool with no soul and no integrity. And lets face it, as seen above, the etymology and meaning of branding certainly has a dark origin. It is a mark that has been inflicted upon, often with pain and fire.
“A mark indicating identity or ownership burned on the hide of an animal, or human skin, with a hot iron”
“A branding iron” or “A piece of burning or charred wood”
“To consider or label as disgraceful or infamous; stigmatize”
“To impress firmly; fix ineradicably”
Brand, image, reputation and identity go hand in hand. While making a mark to indicate ownership of one’s products or business seems harmless, from some of the above definitions, it is clear that branding also has a painful history that encompasses oppression, abuse, profit and violence. Where animal and human beings become a mere, ‘lifeless’ commodity.
Could this be why we might have reservations regarding the marketing of our products or services? Why it seems to be so difficult for us to naturally be publicly seen in all our uniqueness? Many clients I’ve worked with in a personal branding journey (including myself) struggle with their branding marketing because unconsciously deep down in our cellular body memory we feel the shame and pain of generations of markings and burnings.
Embodied reflection: What feelings come up when you read this? Where in your body do you feel tightness?
Branding history & our bodies
The first recorded artefacts used for branding were found in the Indus Valley 2250 BC: little square clay seals created by artisans to claim authorship of their pottery artefacts. They depicted animals, deities and imagery and each artisan had their own unique symbol. This practice then extended over to Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, where they were eventually attached to other objects, such as jars, baskets or other containers.
The act of branding farm animals comes from this period as well in Egypt (2500BC). It is also believed that the ancient Romans used branding as a way of enacting magic spells, which would protect their animals. Each symbol was unique to the owner. The practice of branding animals continues to this day.
For many centuries, human bodies were given the same treatment. The first records of Human Branding come from the Romans, who inflicted brands on runaway slaves and convicts. In Britain, in 1547, vagabonds and Gypsies were branded with a large ‘V’ and in the 17th century, Puritan settlers sentenced for adultery were branded with an ‘A’ letter on their chest.
“Human branding or stigmatising is the process by which a mark, usually a symbol or ornamental pattern, is burned into the skin of a living person, with the intention that the resulting scar makes it permanent. It uses the physical techniques of livestock branding on a human, either with consent, as a form of body modification, or under coercion, as a punishment or to identify an enslaved, oppressed, or otherwise controlled person.” (source: wikipedia)
Throughout the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the slaves were treated as livestock by their ‘owners’. Through this inhumane form of punishment, they were branded for life with hot irons, lashings and cuttings. It was a way to identify them in case they ran away.
“The European slave traders docked the slave ships on the shores where they would herd slaves aboard the ship by force, usually by using a bull-whip. Before boarding, European traders would examine their cargo, and literally brand the flesh of their human cargo with scorching hot iron tools. The slave traders did this to prove receipt or to designate their ownership of the slaves. Slaves could therefore receive more than one branding, depending on how many times they were sold.” (Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Forgo en Crime Against Humanity – Patricia M. Muhammad Esq)
Could this dark history be the reason why many people find that branding, marking or marketing themselves could bring a deep sense of embodied uneasiness?
Aware that we have stepped into unsettling memories, let’s recognise and name this dark, shameful barbaric custom that has branded people and animals as property. Sensing our bodies and our backs as we look back to the origins of slavery, human trade and the inhumane notion that human beings are property and can be claimed for life with a painful mark on their skin.
Pause. Breathe. Move.
Empowered Embodied Branding
While I sense the disgust, shame and evilness in my heart and body when I connect to the origin of this word, I also sense a need to shift this perspective to be able to face my work and offering in this world with decency and self-respect.
So… what if we were to transform this story?
A mark made with fire.
There are many ways, places and times branding was and is used voluntarily and positively. I choose to lean into the empowering rites of passages of many indigenous tribes that mark themselves for protection, courage and belonging. Men and Women branding themselves for beauty and power. So, not only used to punish or to mark shamefully but instead used as a celebration of the body’s journey: branding as art, wealth, passion, strength, courage and achievement.
I belong to me. I am here. This is me. This is what I offer, this is what I am. I have sovereignty in my body to decide where to leave my mark in the world. I am aware of the past and I can change my story. I feel empowered and safe to claim myself.
Building a business and personal branding in a conscious way, as something that is an authentic expression of our passion, talents and calling, requires a personal inward journey. An alchemical rite of passage from lead into gold, calling the resource of the fire to transform and renew our intentions and clarity.
In the next blog, we will journey into the fire of branding, our passion that is behind our offering or business endeavour and explore; that which lights us up and drives us to keep pursuing our visions, dreams and goals; that which is at the core of our business and brand.
Let’s take that journey together.
What is it that ignites you? What is it that you burn for?
image by mohamed nohassi @ unsplash.com