Branding insights from Anthropology

Anthropology- the study of what makes us human.

This discipline, often rarely mentioned outside of the university campus, is not as far removed from the commercial world of marketing and branding as one might initially think. In fact, in this short post I aim to draw on the work of a handful of influential anthropologists to gain new insights into the nature of the brand.

Nothing new

Whilst the idea of the brand may appear to go hand in hand with the advent of global capitalism, certain anthropologists argue otherwise. In Bevan and Wengrow’s recent book on Cultures of Commodity Branding the rise of the brand is traced all the way back to 4000 BC in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Surviving fragments of clay-seals used on storage containers (see below) indicate that by using impressionable seals to lock in the freshness of their produce, the design used on the seal came to be associated with a specific trader and in this way the first brands were born.

Clay-seals from Mesopotamia dating back to 4000BC

Brand = symbol = the stuff of culture

For the anthropologist culture plays a huge role in what it means to be a human being. For many theorists including the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, culture is composed of symbols which provide the means to understand the world around us. As an example Levi-Strauss describes the role of the shaman during childbirth amongst the Cuna of South America. As the shaman chants the well-known Cuna songs, the woman giving birth is able to identify her pains and anxiety with the Cuna myths she can hear, attaching her incomprehensible pain to shared, meaningful symbols.

Whilst today brands are not childbirth aids, the deeper point – that previously hard to articulate feelings can be made meaningful and understood through symbols- still stands. The brand as a symbol, such as a family stood on a sunny beach, stands in for the whole range of emotions associated with one’s holidays that are impossible to simply write down.

The flexible nature of a brand

Whilst Levi-Strauss has shown how a brand can function as a way to gather a whole mixture of emotions around a single point, other anthropologists have emphasized that the brand is in fact not as stable a symbol as one might think. Looking at brands themselves, Lury in her book Brands: The Logos of the Global Economy explains in detail how a brand has the potential to become otherwise. Following in the footsteps of recent work in the domain of linguistics which has sought to highlight language’s inability to express what we truly mean, L ury points out that whilst the brand designer may intend to embody a specific meaning, the consumer can often subvert and rework a brand’s meaning. For example, “buckfast tonic wine,” a drink made by Benedictine monks in Devon has gone from being a locally produced specialty to being associated with binge drinking in Scotland.

In the age of the Internet this re-working of the brand by the consumer is taken to the extreme especially in the case of viral marketing. Whilst a video posted online by the producer themselves may indeed serve to carry their message, the subsequent endless YouTube remixes and remakes serve to draw out the “otherwise” of the brand.

Brands are not passive

Within anthropology itself there is a sub-discipline known as material culture which focuses on the study of things such as art objects, tools, clothes and just about anything else made by humans. Drawing upon studies of the Triobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea who spend months crafting headboards to place at the end of their boats which they use to sail to and from islands for trade purposes, material culture theorist Alfred Gell argues that we should view these boat head objects as possessing an active force or agency in the world. Upon sighting one such highly decorated board, the group of islanders to whom the boat is travelling towards are said to fall under the headboard’s power of enchantment. The more the traders can “dazzle” and enchant the islanders, the more likely a successful trade will occur.

Triobriand headboard

In a similar manner to these boards, brands can also be said to embody Gell’s technology of enchantment wherein the more eye-catching and memorable the brand, the more likely the consumer is to purchase the producer’s goods or services. In this way, perhaps it is best to imagine the current landscape of brands and humans not as one of inert objects and active subjects but as an intricate network of brands and consumers who are all capable of actively influencing and shaping the lives of one another.

In conclusion then, anthropology has a lot to offer for brand and marketing experts everywhere. Whether this be through noting the flexible nature of the brand, its ability to function as part of a culture’s repertoire of symbols or to actively participate in the lives of everyday interactions, the brand is certainly an object worthy of further study by brand designers, marketers and anthropologists.

Fabian Trotman Drake

References/Further reading:

Bevan & Wengrow, Cultures of Commodity Branding

Buckfast drinker taken from

Clay seal image taken from

Gell, A., “The Technology of Enchantment”

Levi-Strauss, C., “The Effectiveness of Symbols”

Lury, C., Brands: The Logos of the Global Economy

Triobriand boat image taken from