Brand Management

Brand Management is Ancient History

Written by Therese Padilla

Brand management, in its contemporary form, emerged from the combined efforts of D. Paul “Doc” Smelser, head of market research and Neil McElroy, author of a now famous internal memo on the need for “brand men” to focus on individual product lines within a diversified company. Both men worked for Procter & Gamble (P&G) in 1931.

But while McElroy — and to a lesser extent, Smelser — receive accolades for “founding” brand management, the discipline has been around a little longer than 90 years.

Brand management in ancient history

Branding originated as marks of ownership. The evolution of “branding” as a mark of trade tracks with the development of market and import/export economies in several ancient societies. Contemporary brand and product management strategies are descendants of historical techniques. Makers’ marks (i.e., trademarks), for instance, began as indicators of the who, when, where, and how of production and developed into indicators of status, quality, and value. Logos, sales pitches, standardized packaging, and product evolution all contribute to brand identity, and they all have roots in ancient history.

The origins of unique, personalized makers’ marks can be traced as far back as 3,000 B.C. to ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Standardized packaging developed in Greece and other Mediterranean societies as quality control measures for the transport of liquid products, such as wine and olive oil. Amphoras, identical in size and shape, were marked or sealed to indicate maker, wholesaler, contents, and other pertinent trade information. In preliterate, urban civilizations, tradespeople used early forms of signage with colors, symbols, decorations, or designs to indicate their offerings — advertising illustrations remain on the walls at Pompeii. Guilds in medieval Europe required distinct trademarks as a condition of membership. It was their way of keeping traders honest, but it also distinguished products by quality and availability.

China’s foray into branding and product management began — or arguably, stalled — in the ninth century A.D. with the discovery of the recipe for gunpowder. A contemporary product manager (PM) might wonder at the two- to three-hundred-year gap between the birth of “fire potion” and the invention of guns, but geographical and economic isolation kept China’s innovations in China, and gunpowder was not weaponized — or traded — for centuries after its discovery.

Branding and product management in the Industrial Age

The invention of the printing press made sharing information and forging a consistent brand identity easier. By the time the Industrial Revolution came along, newspaper and periodical advertisements were commonplace, and in the early 18th century, registered trademarks paved the way for the first intellectual property laws. Branding was once again a mark of ownership — this time of products, designs, words, and ideas. In the mid-18th century, fossil fuel power launched the Industrial Revolution, a period of extraordinary innovation. Previously unimagined products emerged from this age, including cars, household appliances, and the telephone.

Moving into the 20th century, a burgeoning advertising industry was poised to race alongside mass production methods like Ford’s assembly line. Other familiar brands soon made names for themselves (e.g., Heinz and Coca-Cola) by capitalizing on mass media with organized marketing campaigns. Illustrators, graphic artists, copywriters, and printers did big business creating and distributing ads to influence popular culture. The contemporary depiction of Santa Claus was first created by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola’s 1931 holiday campaign.

The “invention” of brand and product management

The new, official Santa Claus was not the only memorable brand management milestone of 1931. That was the year Neil McElroy of P&G penned his famous “brand men” memo — which, according to legend, is single-handedly responsible for the existence of brand and product management. History proves that false, but McElroy’s description of “brand men”  did define the role, for the first time, as total responsibility for a product line from development to sales and marketing to customer satisfaction. His “brand men” took internal “ownership” of the product line  — mirroring and amplifying the function of individual market traders from early civilization. Brand managers within the same company competed against one another for market share and corporate support.

The P&G memo also proposed formal market research — the brainchild of Doc Smelser — as a cornerstone of contemporary brand, and later product, management. Among other celebrated roles, McElroy mentored two young entrepreneurs — Bill Hewlett and David Packard — who further defined “brand men” as representatives for the customer within their new technology company. The brand manager  became, and remains, the standard bearer for a product line — nurturing it through design, development, production, and positioning to reflect customer expectations and deliver satisfaction.

Brand and product management are more than jobs. They’re professions with ancient roots and prevailing principles. To learn more about studying — and earning a meaningful certification in — the professional disciplines of product and brand management, visit

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About the author

Therese Padilla