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The Branding of America
Teaching Ideas

What can students learn from this activity?
In today's material world, students are bombarded with advertisements promoting the attributes of popular brands of products they eat, drink, wear, chew or ride in. Show them an image of Aunt Jemima or the Quaker Oats man and visions of pancakes or a steamy bowl of oatmeal will probably appear in their minds. Mention the words - Coke, Jell-O or Sunkist - and they will most likely be familiar with the products they represent. But how do these brand names or product icons really influence them? Do they represent the best quality product? Should products be purchased solely because of their names? How can we help our students to become educated consumers?

This activity provides a historical view of some of the brand name products familiar today. By examining the history of these products, students can begin to get a sense of how some of today's successful brand names got their start. They can learn the fascinating stories behind the product names. They can observe how products changed over the course of history as a response to economic, cultural or technological influences. They can witness the adventure, creativity, imagination, courage, persistence and frustration exhibited in the lives of the brilliant and dedicated men and women responsible for the success of these products. They can investigate their own communities to locate and share similar success stories. By studying American brand name products from a historical point of view, students will gain a better understanding of the economic culture that they live in today.

How can you extend this activity with your students?
Conduct an in-depth product study. Explore the history of the product. Was the product the result of an invention? Was the product developed by one person? A family? A group of people? Did geography affectt the development of the product? Was it developed in an agricultural or an industrial setting? Were natural resources involved? What were the economic conditions of the times in which the product was developed? How did this product satisfy people's wants and needs? Did advertising play a part in its success? Did the product have an impact on the course of history? What might have happened if the product had not been developed? Has the original product or family of products changed or expanded over time? To whom did the product appeal? Adults? Children? What competitors did the product face in the marketplace? Has technology had any impact on the product or its usefulness?

Study how product advertisements have changed over time. Choose a product and locate historic and more recent advertisements. Study the historical ads for clues and information about life in the past. Analyze the ads in terms of target customer (age, gender, occupation), selling points and persuasive techniques used. Compare the ads and note changes in the images and text used in the ads. Is there more detail or less? Are the images bigger or smaller? Has the vocabulary changed?

Explore product development in terms of historic and economic eras. How were products developed and marketed in preindustrial times? What effect did industrialization have on product growth and development? How are products developed and marketed in today's global economy? What role did advertising play during each of these time periods?

Explore the economics of YOUR local community. Investigate the history of your local community. Were there entrepreneurs or inventors who developed products in your hometown? Are there any brand name products available today that can be linked to your local community?

Discuss the impact of branding on consumer awareness today. How many "brands" are in an average supermarket? Do media or print advertisements influence our purchases? Do students or their parents purchase brand name products? Have students conduct a study or poll of preferred brands or selected items. Ask students to predict what new items on today's supermarket shelves might have staying power. What products might be fads or failures?

Investigate the history of trademarks, logos and patents. The United States Patent and Trademark Office and the International Trademark Association are excellent sources of information.

Study the concept of genericization. Compile a list and study the history of specific brand names like Aspirin, Kleenex, Xerox or Vaseline that have become so common that they are often used to name the generic product. A fascinating article on this topic - American Proprietary Eponyms - contains an excellent database of these terms.

Discuss the ethical issues regarding the making and selling of "knock-off" products. Is it legal to make a "knock-off" or close copy of a name brand? How does this practice affect the marketability of an authentic brand name product?

Explore the topic of media literacy in relation to advertising. Learn more about advertising theory and the art of persuasion. Study advertising techniques used in television and magazine advertisements. Compare product or service ads with political ads. Are the same techniques used? What makes an advertisement successful?

Develop a hypothetical product. Determine the age, gender and occupation of your target consumer and design an advertising campaign to launch the product.