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I was watching a documentary about the Ulfberht swords from Scandinavia, and one thing caught my attention: it mentioned that these swords were made over a range of time and location that was broad enough that they couldn't have been made by the same craftsman. That "Ulfberht" name, even if it started as a craftsman's mark, became simply a name for a sword of that particular style, design and quality. Effectively, it became a brand.

That made me wonder: when was the first appearance of "brand names" for products? (For the purposes of this discussion, we can define a "brand name" as an abstract label associated with a particular product and/or production facility, but not with any particular person or simple descriptor. So, not a "Da Vinci painting" or "Italian marble," but something equivalent to a "Nike shoe," where designers can come and go but the name retains its continuity.)

Were there product lines, like swords or dresses or furniture, in Ancient Rome that were known by name, independent of their maker? In China, or Medieval Europe? When did a product first become detached from its maker in the minds of the consumers?

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Nice question, but where would you place Ford, Gucci, Ferrari etc? –  Rajib Dec 11 '13 at 9:06
I would argue that those are still brands, at least for the purposes of this question, because they aren't actually made BY those people. The person began the organization and then named it after themselves, but no one labors under the misunderstanding that Henry Ford personally made their car, the way "a Da Vinci painting" implies that it was personally painted by Da Vinci. –  Nerrolken Dec 12 '13 at 17:38
Do you care whether the answer is a brand that still exists? E.g. Ulfberht doesn't, Champagne does. –  DVK Dec 23 '13 at 14:24

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Damascus steel, I think, should qualify: it's a product which was recognized by name regardless of the actual manufacturer. It is now defunct in the sense that the technology has been lost.

Many other interesting products qualify, from wines (Burgundy and Champagne) to cheeses (Swiss and Dutch). These are active in the sense that one cannot sell a wine and call it "Burgundy" unless it satisfies certain strict conditions.

Other product names became generic (e.g., china).

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Were any of those products made by a specific organization, though? Being named after a location makes it sound less like saying "a Lexus car" and more like saying "an Italian car." More of a description than an actual brand. Or was Damascus steel only made by a certain foundry or workshop? Either way, a very interesting and helpful answer! –  Nerrolken Dec 12 '13 at 17:41
@AlexanderWinn: any product was invented by someone, but the names of the ancient inventors have been lost. Regardless of what these names look like, they are certainly brands in the sense that they have certain recognizable desirable properties which distinguish them from alternatives. –  sds Dec 12 '13 at 17:47

The modern share-capital corporation only arises in the 1600's, with the Dutch East India company I believe. Prior to then, by definition, everything is a proprietorship or a partnership.

Earlier adoption of any concept similar to a share-capital corporation I believe to be impossible, as the accounting and bookkeeping concepts had not yet been developed to support its paperwork.

Further, I believe that the definition of brand given by OP must be strengthened slightly in order to be meaningful; namely of being protected under law, and not just a manufacturing technique. Under this my belief is the Ulfberht would not qualify, though perhaps someone else can do the research to settle this point..

Therefore I believe the logo and brand of the Dutch East India Trading Company, established 1602, meets the criteria as the oldest brand not associated with an individual or partnership.

Clarification - I am not claiming that only a share-capital corporation can own a brand - only that only a share-capital corporation can exist for long enough to meet OP's designation of the type of brand that OP is inquiring about - one that lasted for a period significantly longer than a single lifetime, and perhaps for much longer.

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+1 for that answer. I wondered if this is also the first instance of a "company" in whatever form. Is there any interesting references/books about this? –  Rajib Dec 11 '13 at 8:38
You fail to explain why only a share-capital corporation would be able to own a brand, i don't see why a person or a family could own one. Also, there are examples of share-capital corporations before the 1600's. Cicero participated in an organization in which he provided money, while others provided boats, mules or manpower to pull of large trading voyages (senators where not allowed to own large vessels). such organizations where often temporary, but at times stayed together. –  Jeroen K Dec 11 '13 at 17:03
Also the VOC did not sell a product that was exclusively associated with their brand as a sign of quality, so i don't think it's what OP is looking for. –  Jeroen K Dec 11 '13 at 17:04
@JeroenK: I believe you are confusing a partnership with a share-capital corporation. Partnerships certainly have existed for ages, but they dissolve and reform on every arrival, death or departure of a partner. As such, they cannot exist for longer than a single lifetime. What you describe for Cicero, from your description, was most definitely a partnership. –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 11 '13 at 22:44
I suppose you're right, cicero's corporation must have been a partnership. But why would only a share capital corporation be able to own a brand? –  Jeroen K Dec 12 '13 at 8:28

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