A report has just come out from the Institute for Public Policy Research, a London think-tank, advocating new approaches to countering racism and negative views on immigration. The report says at one point that Britain should be “re-branded as an inclusive concept”.
Originally brand just referred to a piece of burning wood, a word that goes back to Old English. By the sixteenth century, it had begun to be applied to something that happens as a result of intense heat. One such was brand-new, in which the sense is of a thing pulled new and fresh from the furnace: think of a horseshoe taken hot and red from the smith’s fire. A closely-related idea is that of a mark created by touching something with a hot iron, as of a brand of ownership on an animal, a practice that almost certainly goes back further than recorded history.
It was also used for the branding of convicted criminals, another course of action that was once common. So brand could have a strong negative sense of a mark of disgrace or a stigma (originally a Greek word that just means a brand). It’s part of our linguistic conservatism that we can still speak of somebody being “branded a common criminal” centuries after the literal branding of criminals ended.
Though merchants had similarly been using hot irons to mark casks and wooden cases for many years, it was only in the early part of the nineteenth century that brand took on the sense of a mark that identified a particular sort of goods. And it was not until near the end of that century that the idea of brands as identifiers with a reputation and a tradable value really began to take off. Indeed, it was only with the increase in consumer marketing in the past fifty years that terms such as own brand, brand leader, and brand manager started to appear (though Brand X, as a derogatory term for an anonymous competing product that’s considered inferior, dates from as long ago as 1934).
Now the word has moved further, to a sense of applying a single identity to a whole country. It’s a mark of our ability to compartmentalise our use of language that we can employ brand negatively to refer to criminals, and also neutrally or positively for products or nations.