Debbie Millman
2,233,132 views • 14:12

Thirteen point eight billion years ago, the universe as we know it began with a big bang, and everything that we know and are and are made of was created.

Fifty thousand years ago, our brains underwent a major genetic mutation, which resulted in the biological reorganization of the brain. Some scientists call this "The Big Brain Bang." Others call it "The Great Leap Forward," which I prefer. It's so much more poetic. This is when Homo sapiens began to evolve into the modern species that we are today. The Great Leap Forward activated most of our modern abilities: abstract thought, planning, cooking, competitive labor, language, art, music and self-decoration.

After the Great Leap Forward, there was an explosion of stone toolmaking, more sophisticated weaponry and, 32,000 years ago, the creation of our first sophisticated mark-making on the cave walls of Lascaux. It's not a coincidence that we've gone from documenting our reality on the cave walls of Lascaux to the walls of Facebook. And, in a very meta experience, you can now a book a trip to see the walls of Lascaux on the walls of Facebook.

Approximately 10,000 years ago, men and women began to array themselves with makeup. They started to self-decorate. But this wasn't for seductive purposes; this was for religious convictions. We wanted to be more beautiful, purer, cleaner in the eyes of something or someone that we believed had more power than we did. There is no culture in recorded human history that has not practiced some form of organized worship, which we now call "religion."

Six thousand years ago, in an effort to unite people, our ancestors began to design telegraphic symbols to represent beliefs and to identify affiliations. These symbols connected like-minded people, and they are all extraordinary. These affiliations allowed us to feel safer and more secure in groups, and the sharing created consensus around what the symbols represented. With these marks, you knew where you fit in, both for the people that were in the in crowd and those, as importantly, that were excluded. These symbols were created in what I consider to be a very bottom-up manner: they were made by people for people and then shared for free among people to honor the higher power that they ascribed to. What's ironic is that the higher power actually had nothing to do with this.

These early affiliations, they often shared identical characteristics, which is rather baffling given how scattered we were all over the planet. We constructed similar rituals, practices and behaviors no matter where we were anywhere on the globe. We constructed rituals to create symbolic logos. We built environments for worship. We developed strict rules on how to engage with each other with food, with hair, with birth, with death, with marriage and procreation. Some of the symbols have eerie commonalities. The hand of God shows up over and over and over again. It shows up as the hamsa hand in Mesopotamia. It shows us as the hand of Fatima in Islam. It shows up as the hand of Miriam in Judaism.

Now, when we didn't agree on what our beliefs and behaviors were in regards to others, if we felt that somebody else's were incorrect, we began to fight, and many of our first wars were religious. Our flags were used on the battlefield to signify which side of the battlefield we belonged to, because that was the only way to be able to tell friend from foe. We all looked alike. And now our flags are on mass-manufactured uniforms that we are making.

Logos on products to identify a maker came next, and brands were given legal recognition on January 1, 1876, with the advent of the Trademarks Registration Act. The first trademarked brand was Bass Ale, and I kind of wonder what that says about our humanity that first trademarked brand was an alcoholic beverage.

Now, here is what I consider to be the first case of branded product placement. There are bottles of Bass Ale behind me with the logo accurately presented here in this very famous painting in 1882 by Édouard Manet.

One of the most widely recognized logos in the world today is the Nike swoosh, which was introduced in 1971. Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student, originally created the logo for 35 dollars. Upon seeing it, Nike CEO Phil Knight stated, "I don't love it but maybe it will grow on me." Maybe it will grow on me. But why is the swoosh so popular? Why is the swoosh so popular? Is it the mark? Or is the marketing? And what can we make of the fact that the Nike swoosh seems to be the Newport logo upside down or the Capital One logo on its side? That is not the only logo with a shared identity.

This next logo is a logo that has a shared identity with wholly different meanings. As a Jewish person, I believe that this logo, this swastika, is the most heinous logo of all time. But it actually has a rather surprising trajectory. The word "swastika" originally comes from the ancient Sanskrit word "svastika," which actually means "good fortune," "luck" and "well-being." In the early 1900s, before it was appropriated by Hitler, it was used by Coca-Cola on a good luck bottle opener. The American Biscuit Company prominently registered the mark and put it on boxes of cookies. The US Playing Card Company registered the mark in 1921 for Fortune Playing Cards. The Boy Scouts used the mark on shoes in 1910, and the symbol was also featured on cigar labels, boxtops, road signs and even poker chips. Even the Jain made use of the logo along with a hand of God many millennia ago. These marks were identical, but with use as a Nazi symbol, the impact became very, very different.

The hand of God, the Nike swoosh and the swastika: they all demonstrate how we've been manufacturing meaning with visual language over millennia. It's a behavior that's almost as old as we are.

Today, in the United States, there are over 116,000 malls, and they all look pretty much the same. There are more than 40,000 supermarkets, and they each have over 40,000 items. If you went shopping for bottled water, you'd have over 80 options to choose from. Since their launch in 1912, you could choose from over 100 flavors and variants of Oreo cookies.

Now, is this a good thing or is it a bad thing? Is a plethora of choice necessary in a free market? I believe it is both a good and bad thing, as humans are both good and bad, and we're the ones creating and using and buying these brands. However, I think that the question of whether this behavior is good or bad is actually secondary to understanding why — why we behave this way in the first place.

Here's the thing: every one of our mass-marketed products are what I consider to be top-down brands. They're still created by people, but they are owned, operated, manufactured, advertised, designed, promoted and distributed by the corporation and pushed down and sold to the consumer for financial gain. These corporations have a responsibility to a P and L with an expectation of an ROI and have names like P and G and AT and T and J and J. And that's pretty much the way it's been for the last couple of hundred years: a top-down model controlled by the corporation.

Until 2011. That's when we began to see evidence of real, significant, far-reaching change. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street proved how the internet could amplify messages and connect like-minded people with powerful beliefs to inspire change. We witnessed a cultural shift via social media with hashtags like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

In its wake, the discipline of branding has transformed more in the last 10 years than it has in the last 10,000, and for the first time in modern history, the most popular, influential brands are not brands being pushed down by the corporation. They are brands being pushed up by the people, for the people, for the sole purpose of changing the world and making it a better place. Our greatest innovations aren't brands providing a different form or a different flavor of our favorite snack. Our greatest innovations are the creation of brands that can make a difference in our lives and reflect the kind of world that we want to live in.

In November of 2016, Krista Suh, Jayna Zweiman and Kat Coyle created a hat to be worn at the Women's March in Washington, DC.


This was the day after the presidential inauguration. Two months later, on January 21, 2017, millions of people all over the world wore handmade pink pussyhats in support of the Women's March all over the world. The hat was not created for any financial benefit. Like our religious symbols created thousands of years ago, the hat was created by the people, for the people to serve what I believe is the highest benefit of branding: to unite people in the communication of shared ideals.

The pink pussyhat became a mark for a movement. In a very short time, two months, it became universally recognizable. It connected an audience in an unprecedented way. It is a brand, but it is more than that. Today, the pink pussyhat is proof positive that branding is not just a tool of capitalism. Branding is the profound manifestation of the human spirit. The condition of branding has always reflected the condition of our culture. It is our responsibility to continue to leverage the democratic power branding provides, and it is our responsibility to design a culture that reflects and honors the kind of world we want to live in.

Thank you.