Branding – An Unscientific Survey

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – February 21, 2003

This edition of the SAP Design Guild focuses on software branding. In this article, however, I demonstrate that there is much more to branding than just software branding. First I take a look at the meaning and origins of branding. In the remainder of the article, I identify a number of branding-like activities in the animal kingdom, of people, and of companies. Perhaps you will be astonished what can all be subsumed under the term "branding."


Digging a Little in Definitions...

I start my excursion into the branding field with a closer look at what the terms "brand" and "branding" mean.

Asking Dictionaries and Thesauri

When I consulted several dictionaries and thesauri, I found quite a number of definitions for both the noun and the verb "brand." To sum up, originally a brand is a "a piece of wood that has been burned or is burning" and also an "identifying mark on skin, made by burning," whereas to brand means "to burn with a branding iron to indicate ownership of animals." So, we have two ingredients, one is "fire," from which the original word is derived, and the other is "identification," which has led to the many meanings which the word has been given in the meantime, such as kind (character, class, sort, type, ...), trade mark (hallmark, logo, emblem, ...), and stigma. The verb "to brand" typically indicates the respective action, for example, to create a trade mark.

Glossary Definitions

Branding glossaries, such as the Jaffe Associates, Inc. or Houghton Mifflin glossaries, emphasize the aspect of differentiation as crucial for a brand and its success. In addition, the "individual, firm, product, or service" to be branded is associated with a representation, which may be a "name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature."

While "name" or "symbol" are usually associated with linguistic and visual representations, the phrase "any other feature," inspired me to look for a broader definition and application of the term "branding." I invite you to follow me on this investigation.


The Original Branding – Branding with Fire

The original branding activity is branding with fire. Farmers have branded their cattle for hundreds if not thousands of years to claim ownership. These branding marks consist of symbols or characters and typically look like simple emblems. Figure 1 shows an example of a horse brand mark. Sadly for the cattle owners, branding marks could never prevent some rustlers from "rebranding" stolen cattle.

Brand of a riding horse

Figure 1: Brand of the Schleswig-Holstein (Germany) riding horse

Nevertheless, such a physical mark is a lasting one. This is especially valid if the brand has a negative impact and is used as a stigma. The Bible tells that God branded Cain for killing his brother. Humans also used branding for stigmatizing people who had broken social conventions or laws. For example, in the middle ages and, in some cases even only a few centuries ago, adulterers, drinkers, and prostitutes were marked with a brand. Think of the Marquise de Sade's Justine or Hawthorne's Hester Prynne as examples from literature. In a similar vein, about 60 years ago Jews were required to wear a Star of David as an indicator of being a marginalized group of German society.

Now that I have defined branding and looked at its origins, I am ready for a tour d'horizon through three areas: the animal kingdom, people, and companies. I will look out for well known and less well known "branding" activities – without, however, attempting to be complete.


Branding in the Animal Kingdom

Visual Branding

Visual branding is the most common kind of branding. So, there is no reason to assume that the animal kingdom would not have instances of this as well. The best known visual branding among animals is probably gender differentiation, called sexual dimorphism. In some animals, the difference is stunning, in others nearly unnoticeable – at least to humans. Some animals "dress in new clothes" only in the courtship period. An example of this is the stickleback (Gastrosteus aculeatius), a small and common European fish, the male of which turns blue and red during courtship (see figure 2).

Sticklebacks when spawning

Figure 2: Sticklebacks when spawning, the male is to the left (photo from

Among the most beautiful examples of visual branding are some birds, especially paradise birds and some butterflies. Below you find examples of each kind with clearly visible gender differences.

King birds of paradise      Blue butterflies

Figure 3a-b: King birds of paradise (left; painting by Daniel Elliot) and blue butterflies (from exhibiting sexual dimorphism

Acoustic Branding

Now let's broaden our concept of branding and look into other "territories" and possible branding activities. For many animals, the sense of hearing is the second most relevant sense. Thus, this sense is used for branding-like activities as well. Birds provide their prospective partners, rivals, and last but not least, us with their songs. These songs have a number of functions; they serve to mark the bird's territory and keep rivals out, but are also directed at potential partners during courtship and breeding. The balling of stags or barking of dogs are further examples of animals claiming territory by using sound.

Nightingale      Magpie

Figure 4a-b: The nightingale (left) is one of the most talented singers among European birds. The magpie to the right is just the opposite – nevertheless its cry is very characteristic and differentiates it well from other birds (from and

Acoustic branding is, however, not restricted to birds and mammals. Think of the many species of insects, such as crickets and grasshoppers, that make a lot of noise (to our ears), especially at night. Or think of the frogs in spring and their croaking. Sometimes this croaking may not let us sleep and even be the reason for neighborhood quarrels if there are ponds in residential areas.

 Wart biter cricket        Frog  

Figure 5a-b: Crickets (wart biter, decticus verrucivorous; left) and frogs (right) are examples of "acoustic branders" among insects and amphibian (left image from; right image from Gavin Banns, UK,

Branding with Scent

Next we turn to the sense of smell. It is obvious that these senses are also used for branding in the animal kingdom if they are dominant. Think of your dog, or your neighbor's dog if you don't own one. It is constantly lifting its leg, marking its territory and thus warning other dogs, "Beware of entering this place."


Figure 6: This dog is still looking for a place for performing its typical activity of marking its territory (from Fritz von Beust, Switzerland,

Night moths, such as the emperor moth (Saturna pavonia), find their partners using chemicals (pheromones) which can be detected even over distances of several kilometers. Ants use pheromones for communication and identification.

Emperor moth

Figure 7: The emperor moth (male species in the back; from Walter Schön,


People and Branding

Our second longer stop on this branding excursion is people. We ask how branding can be defined in terms of people and social relations. Only recently, I encountered the term "personal branding," and found out that there are already several books available on this topic. This interest in promoting oneself in a professional manner may be more a US phenomenon than a European one. Nevertheless, humans have always had the desire to "stand" out in the crowd and to present themselves as "unique." In the following section, I pick a number of examples of how a "personal brand" can be created and nurtured.

Cover of a book on personal branding

Figure 9: One of the many books on personal branding (© Peter Montoya & Tim Vandehey)

Visual and Symbolic Branding

The way we look and dress is surely the most obvious and visible way of how we present our uniqueness to the world – even if like millions of other people in this world, we follow certain trends in fashion, makeup, and hairstyle. Interestingly, the issue of body decoration leads us to the origins of branding: Not only are clothing and make-up used for this purpose but also scarifications, that is branding by creating a scar. For example, many of us in the Western world received pockmarks from a vaccination instrument. Usually, we would regard these marks as a necessary evil, not as decoration. So some of us might wonder at the fact that in other regions of the world scars are an important means of expressing ones individuality. In Africa and Asia, native tribes used and still use scars as decoration and created an art out of it.

Woman with decorative scars

Figure 10: Woman from Eritrea with decorative scars (from Das Fotoarchiv, Essen,

These days, tattoos, scarifications, and even decorative branding marks burnt with a hot iron as is done with cattle have become popular in the industrial world, too, especially among youths.

Decorative brand

Figure 11: A decorative brand for humans made with a branding iron

Our outstanding "trademark" is, however, our face and the way it changes during our lifetime. It is the first part of the body people look at when they meet other people (there are other locations where especially men look at but I skip this embarrassing issue here).

Drawing of the author's face    Another drawing of the author's face    A third drawing of the author's face

Figure 12: Our face is our most outstanding "trade mark" – here are three different views of the author's face from three different people

Now let's turn to symbols as differentiators. Sometimes it seems as if a single number, our age, were the most important aspect of who we are. This number may be a bonus but also a stigma. No wonder that some people try to keep this number secret or lie about it. Another symbol is even more important in daily life: our name. It is a symbol that is given to us by our parents, and most of us will have it our whole lives. The name is our "identifier." Often, however, it is often not unique and other symbols, such as our date of birth or social security number are needed to resolve the identification problem. Most people also have nicknames, which can be regarded as a "personal label" for them.

People use symbolic representations of themselves to make other people aware of who they are, even long after their physical deaths. For example, if you visit a mediaeval church, you may find some curious marks on the stones the church is made of. These are the marks of stone cutters who built the church. We can only guess why they made those marks. Probably, they hoped that future generations would recognize them as builders of the church. They did not, however, have much interest in making their brand marks known worldwide as modern enterprises do. They reckoned on time, not on space.

Stone cutter marks      Stone cutter mark 19th century

Figure 13a-b: Mediaeval stone cutter marks on a door tower at ruin Hohengeroldseck (Germany, left; from; a stone cutter's mark from the 19th century (Alsace, right; from

The mediaeval craftsmen's marks can be regarded as a durable signature. Today's signatures are typically our names written on a piece of paper, and thus less durable but hopefully easier to decipher. This written signature is our personal logo in many situations, serving as identification as well as authorization. People who cannot write have to scribble three crosses or depend on a handshake instead, both of which are less distinctive.

Napoleon's signature

Figure 14: Napoleon's signature (© GMD)

Acoustic Branding

We found several instances of acoustic branding in the animal kingdom. For example, most birds sing to impress rivals as well as their hens. Some males imitate this behavior and sing below the window of their beloved woman – at least in literature and in some dramas. This habit, however, seems to have died out in the age of CD players and radios.

Male singing for his beloved woman

Figure 15: Male singing for his beloved woman (Herbert Johnson Harvey, The Troubadour, The University of Michigan Museum of Art )

For singers, especially professionals, their voice is their brand. It is the reason why millions of fans buy records, scream during concerts, and even lose consciousness. A severe problem for a singer is losing his or her voice because of strain, injury, or disease. The prepubecent Dutch singer Heintje was very popular in Germany in the seventies but nearly lost his audience after his voice deepended. The audience would not accept a change to his "brand," that is, his "grown-up" voice.

Branding with Scent

Branding with scent is not restricted to the animal kingdom; it affects humans as well. Think about the perfumes that humans use. This branding serves to distinguish a certain individual and often also to attract potential partners. Humans naturally emit pheromones, which play an important role in sexual attraction. There are, however, many natural odors, such as sweat, that are not appreciated, and we spend a lot of money to mask them . I will come back to that point below.

Personal Characteristics, Habits and Idiosyncrasies Are "Personal Branding"

Apart from physical characteristics, people "brand" themselves by exhibiting certain characteristics, peculiarities, habits, or even fads and whims. Some people have more of these, others have less. Sometimes these oddities are hard to notice, sometimes conspicuous, and sometimes even disturbing. A lot of people even nurture their peculiarities, hoping to make themselves more "distinct" from the masses. Sometimes we even say that "this is someone's brand."

Standing out of the crowd

Figure 16: Standing out of the crowd... (photo by the author, modified)

Uniforms serve for just the opposite purpose. They aim at leveling individual differences between people. On the other hand, uniforms also allow the recognition of differences by clearly indicating and enforcing a ranking hierarchy.

Admiral ranks on the star fleet

Figure 17: Admiral ranks on the star fleet in the Star Trek TV series (from, modified)

Personal Style of Artists

One of the more conspicuous cases of a "personal" brand is the specific style that artists, such as painters, composers, or writers develop during their life span. Their style is characteristic of them and thus their "brand" – it sets them apart from other artists. Sadly, in many cases this "brand" is recognized and "accepted" by the public only after the artist's death, something that commercial brand designers would surely want to avoid.

It is interesting to realize how deeply we connect an artist to a specific style of painting or writing. When I visit a museum to study the work of a painter, I am often puzzled when confronted with earlier works. Here, the painter was still struggling to find his or her personal style and was imitating fellow artists. Many artists work hard to develop their own style. Some painters even define sophisticated rules for creating their paintings – the Austrian Painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser did so, for example. These rules remind me of the elaborate branding rules that many companies, including SAP, have established. Both rule sets assure consistency, be it of works of art or a corporate brand.

Spiral painting by Friedensreich Hundertwasser

Figure 18: Typical spiral painting by Friedensreich Hundertwasser – a personal style that he pursued from 1953 on (from KunstHausWien,

Family Resemblance – A Kind of "Family Branding"

Members of a family typically exhibit some resemblance to each other. Often we say then that someone looks like a typical "Miller" or "Smith." Thus, there is not only a "personal" brand but also something like a "family brand." Most people seem to recognize such resemblance and regard it as important. Put differently, you might rightfully say that the members of a family exhibit some sort of "coherent" or "consistent" design.

Bee Gees as kids

Figure 19: This early photo of the Gibb brothers (later known as the Bee Gees) definitely shows a "family resemblance" (from


Companies and Branding

Finally, we arrive in the world of "real" branding. We already learned that companies use branding to make themselves and their products "stand out" against the competition. In addition, branding activities also aim at establishing an emotional and personal relationship between companies and products on the one side and customers on the other side. Customers (like me) who buy a computer with a certain "fruit" brand logo know that they pay more for regarding themselves as members of an "elite." Thus, branding has a lot to do with graphic design, typography, formulation of texts, etc. – this is where the advertising industry comes in. But knowing human behaviors, emotions, desires and needs, strengths and weaknesses – and sometimes even primitive instincts – is at least as important. Some of the examples below show where branding gets us on just these human aspects.

Branding with Scent

Humans not only make use of the sense of smell, they are are also "victims" of of it when branding aims at attracting people to certain products: Soaps, detergents, and many kinds of food have a unique smell that makes them desirable. With respect to food, it's not only the smell but also the taste of products that attracts people. These days, even our pets are lured by this kind of branding, as the many labs for designing pet food demonstrate.

Cats in a pet food laboratory

Figure 20: Cats in a pet food laboratory playing (from Pet Food Manufacturers' Association,

Acoustic Branding

We live in a "media" world with television and radio as an important ingredient of our lives. Especially, radio advertising depends on the acoustic channel, offering spoken and sung language, music, and noises of all kind. TV advertising also uses the acoustic channel but to a lesser degree, depending on the characteristics and viewing habits of the audience. Today, most companies have their own jingles and songs that are repeated over and over on the radio or TV. People often automatically associate these sounds with the respective company. This works even if a company uses well known pop songs that were originally not written for the company. For example, when a young blind woman visited my family and we listened to music on the radio, she was able to name the company using that song for commercials for nearly every song. Branding had successfully created an association between songs and products.

Tactile Branding

Many products have a distinctive "feel" that makes them unique by their choice of special raw materials, surface structures, and shapes. Such a product looks attractive and makes us want to touch or grasp it. Online shops are definitely at a disadvantage here; this also is true for products, the sale of which relies on taste and smell.

The term "look and feel" of software suggests that there is even a tactile component involved in software. However, the term "feel" relates to user interactions and does not really mean "tactile" experiences, such as those described above.

Family Resemblance – A Kind of "Family Branding"

Interestingly, the manufacturing industry has taken the human interest in or even desire for consistency and coherence – we touched upon under the label of "family resemblance" – into account. Car makers, for example, strive to make the models of their car fleet look similar to each other so that they are immediately recognized as, for example, a Volkswagen, Toyota, or Chevrolet. Figure 21 demonstrates this for the current Peugeot car fleet. Often there are, however, "synchronization" problems because the cars of a fleet have different development cycles; so you typically find a mixture of outdated and current designs within one fleet. The car makers, nevertheless, try hard to conceal this inconsistency with appropriate decoration, such as fender trims, chrome or rubber strips, or fancy wheels. Decorative accessories can be updated faster than the cars themselves.

Peugeot 2002 car fleet

Figure 21: The Peugeot 2002 car fleet as an example of family resemblance within the auto industry (from

You will also find that the cars of a certain era resemble each other. The differences between them are often much smaller than the differences between versions of the same car at different points in time. This came first to my attention, when I visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI, long ago. Figure 22 shows cars from the beginning of the 20th century and from about ten to twenty years later. The differences between the two photos are striking. Figure 23 displays the Mercedes 170 H and the original Volkswagen Beetle. Both were developed in the 1930es by the same car designer Ferdinand Porsche and thus look very similar.

Cars from about 1900      Cars from about 1920

Figure 22a-b: Cars from the beginning of the 20th century and from the 1920es each look very much the same (from and

Mercedes 170 H      Volkswagen prototype

Figure 23a-b: The Mercedes 170 H (left) resembles the prototype of the Volkswagen Beetle (right) because it was designed by the same person and in the same era (from and G. Waloszek)

Recently, the concept of family resemblance has even entered the software market. This trend started with the Apple Human Interface Guidelines, which set out to ensure a consistent look of all applications on the Macintosh computer platform; other platforms, such as Windows followed. Since the introduction of the "Enjoy" look for the R/3 system, SAP set out to provide its software products with a unique look that sets them apart from other companies' applications even within the confines of a certain computer platform. Meanwhile, with the introduction of Web-based software and multiple technologies at SAP, the issue of "family resemblance" of SAP software has become even more prominent and challenging. The more so because companies themselves want to "brand" the software they use according to their company rules. This edition of the SAP Design Guild reflects many of the issues involved in software branding.

Family resemblance of SAP software

Figure 24: Family resemblance of SAP software – R/3 application (left) vs. Internet Application Component (IAC, right)

The Brand Life Cycle – or Cycles...

Like humans, a brand can age: a company logo may look old-fashioned after ten or twenty years of use, a slogan may no longer attract interest or may use outdated language. As a consequence, many brands undergo a lot of "cosmetic surgery" during their life span – often this evolution goes unnoticed because the single changes are so subtle. Unlike humans, brands can be rejuvenated. Logos, for example, can be adapted to current design trends, typically simplified these days. This constant adaptation is not restricted to logos but includes the product as well as its packaging and presentation. Figures 25a-e present different versions of the Persil package and logo; note that the UK logo changed only subtly over time, whereas the German logo has a more "modern" style today.

Historic Persil packages in the UK       Contemporary Persil package in the UK

Figure 25a-b: The Persil package in history and today in the UK (© Lever Fabergé Limited, UK; from

Persil packages in Germany

Figure 25c: The Persil package for different products in Germany (© 2003, Henkel Wasch- und Reinigungsmittel GmbH; from

UK Persil logo      German Persil logo

Figure 25d-e: The current Persil logo in the UK and in Germany (© Lever Fabergé Limited, UK and © 2003, Henkel Wasch- und Reinigungsmittel GmbH)

In addition, also unlike humans, brand emblems and branded products can be artificially aged – "retrofitted" is the current jargon for this – if the current trends require this. Think of Volkswagen's New Beetle, or Chrysler's PT Cruiser as successful examples of retrofitted product designs with high brand value. Most retrofitted products, however, are still recognizable as recent products because they combine old and modern design elements.

VW Beetle from the 1950s      Volkswagen New Beetle

Figure 26a-b: An example of retrofit product design – the authentic Volkswagen Beetle from the 50s (left) and the New Beetle (right; © Volkswagen AG)


Final Word

What does this all tell us in our branding efforts for SAP software products? It tells us that branding as such is not a new thing; it is widespread and affects more than seeing and hearing. And it's surprising that it took so long for branding to become important in the software world. But this insight is only an afterthought...


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