1. The Management of Brands
Contemporary advertising is the management of brands. Commercial messages encourage consumers to buy a Coke, Pepsi, or Mountain Dew—not just any soft drink. They tell us to use our MasterCard, Visa, or Discover Card—not just any credit card—and to take our dream vacation in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or Cancun. Although it can be argued that the sum total of promotional messages does encourage soft drink consumption, the use of credit cards, and foreign vacations—each particular advertisement promotes a specific brand by claiming that one version of all the soft drinks, one credit card, and one place to visit is the best and most perfect. The promotion of such claims is the essence of modern advertising.
It has not always been this way. Before the second half of the 19th century, most goods were sold generically. Soap was soap, sugar was sugar, and oil was oil in the old general merchandise store. Even today in farmers' markets throughout the world, producers typically sell their products without any reference to brand names. To some degree, coffee is still coffee, salt remains salt, and beans are just beans. In a local market, however, the buyer usually knows the seller, and the commodity thus carries the implicit imprimatur of a known and (possibly) respected producer. For example, in the Thursday market in Usangi, Tanzania, the coffee beans are grown by Juma from Kilimani Village, whose good name certifies the quality of the beans. In a Paris street market, it is Pascal Dion's sea salt, raked in the Guérande marshes, that his brother Régis sells to the demanding shoppers. The late-summer runner beans in the Saturday morning farmers' market in Carrboro, North Carolina, are grown by Alex and his wife Lynne, whose seasonal organic produce can always be trusted. Thus, it is not correct to call the commodities these vendors sell generic because each is strongly associated in the minds of buyers with specific producers.
With the advent of factory and industrial production, this intimate relationship between goods and their producers faded. Producers became unknown to consumers, and intermediaries (eventually large corporations) offered themselves and their names as substitutes for personal certification of the quality of goods. Most of the earliest American brands—names like Heinz, Swift, and Kellogg—emerged in the late 1800s as companies imprinted their names (or names they invented) on the mass-produced commodities they sold.
For example, H. J. Heinz was an entrepreneur who marketed canned and bottled versions of the sorts of pickles, sauces, and relishes that Americans had formerly made at home. As his business grew from face-to-face selling, Heinz turned to advertising and marketing techniques to promote his products. He developed the idea of Heinz 57, meaning that his company produced fifty-seven varieties. Perhaps his best known advertising ploy was an enormous illuminated sign on the New York City site now occupied by the Flatiron Building. His sign was a favorite along the "Great White Way" of Broadway. The sign featured a huge green pickle and several product names that flashed in alternating sets of colored lights.
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