So it turns out that Mesopotamian hooch was the first brand.
It was 5,000 years ago, according to archaeologist David Wengrow, when the disparate villages of Sumer began to grow and trade with one another, that stoppers in wine bottles appeared to identify products by type and source.
Makes sense. The Sumerians invented cities, juvenile delinquency, love songs, Noah's flood, and most of the other tenets of modern civilization that we assume are our own. They also enjoyed their liquor. Coming up with the idea of a logo to elevate a commodity to the status of a product would be just another example of our habits having first been theirs.
But was it branding?
Wengrow seems to think so, explaining that labels, along with what the ancients did in production and distribution, amounted to branding strategies.
Makes sense, too, considering 1) there's no agreement on what actually constitutes a branding strategy, and so 2) anything and everything in existence could be considered some form of it.
So, following this logic, religions are brands (the cross or crescent are logos), as are nationalities (each country has a set of associative attributes). People are brands, with the analogy applying to how we dress (packaging), the ways we act (outbound marketing), and our reactions to others (customer service). All bits of communication are symbols into which we pour meaning, and, while our bodies exist in a physical reality, our consciousness lives in an imagined realm of ideas, emotions, and perceptions.
Maybe the ancients branded, just like we do.
Or maybe not.
Maybe the analogy of branding is just an analogy; those illustrated bottle stoppers simply identifiers, and not an ancient approximation of "waaaaaasabi." Semiotics and cognitive psych can be sexy (yup, if you're into those sorts of things), but, like all those ledgers of funerary items we got from the Egyptians, maybe people have always accounted for their lives based on far more specific, material criteria.
Makes sense. While we can think just about anything about everything, our experience is founded upon the details of who, what, where, when, why, and how. Addressing (or manipulating) this reality could just as easily be called, well, reality strategy. And branding could constitute little more than the marks we use to label it.
The Sumerians may have been simply claiming ownership of their moonshine.
Determining whether they were trying to accomplish something more might first require a drink.