Smoke signifies fire.  Thus the saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  Similarly, facial micro expressions often manifest unseen emotions.  Even words (or letters) which are only sounds carry meaning to communicate and also persuade.  Like signs and symbols, brands are also imaginative signposts, signifying sign-object relation, and connecting specific signs to definite objects.  Take for instance the “golden arches”.  Kids scream for a Happy Meal at the very sight of it.  For children, McDonalds’ becomes a clear representation of food and fun, while for adults golden arches symbolizes many other meanings, such as: fast food, quick consistent service, clean bathrooms, which are instrumental brand identity markers in impressing the image of American food in consumers’ consciousness.

Semiotics, the scientific domain of study that explores actions of sign systems, lays out fertile territory how brands assimilate to provide meanings and representations in the consumer ecosystem.  Though brand owners and custodians create identities, consumers actively involve in the process of signification, thereby constructing brand meaning and related brand connotations.  To mine the insights that can unlock the sheaves of meanings, consumer behaviorists and market researchers can turn to semiotics to explore the transient or enduring collections of mental associations, perceptions, and expectations.  Because every time consumer groups decide to use and recognize a sign as a vehicle to interpret vessels of other intangible qualities, in another vein, brand managers can also actively employ semiotic elements to define or aggregate brand referents.  Since a brand is a system of sensory signs that incites consumers in a symbolic process, which then contributes to tangible value, semiotics is the keystone of brand building.

Although interest in signs has a long, celebrated history starting from Hippocrates to Plato, modern semiotic analysis can be said to have begun with Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and the incomparable American pragmatist and polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).  Important theoretical and applied work were uniquely reinvigorated throughout the 20th. century via Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, and several other distinguished semioticians.  In today’s entropic world of consumerism and instantaneous worldwide communication, principles of semiotics can be an effective strategic tool for marketers to compare brand intention with consumer interpretation, to robustly align brand identity with brand image.

Unlike conventional research approaches, Peircean semiotic resources are emergent approaches that emphasize determining referents by interpretants to further develop brands as dynamic symbolic entities.  When we consider the semiotics of music culture, the iPod was an inspired outcome that not only leveraged culture, but also changed pop culture.  Nintendo Wii transformed the symbolized culture of laziness in gaming to human interaction and activity; so did Starbucks a decade earlier, and the Muthoot Group in gold-loaning business.

Although branding is by far the most visible application area, semiotic techniques can also be employed to formulate brand elements from logo to packaging design, marketing mix, promotions, and advertising, etc.  In this context, author’s slide deck, “Semiotics of Brand Building” embedded in this article below, is worth exploring.  The presentation consists of three sections: 1. Why semiotics, 2. philosophic historicity of semiotics, and 3. semiotics in the context of brand building.  The case of the Muthoot brand lends credence to the structural semiotic concept of “bricolage” that not only offers an innovative framework to understand both narrative and dialectical process of branding, but also formulates memorable visual, indelible verbal, and experiential identities, and effectively manage those discursive structures of the brand.

Brands, at root, is a metaphor, but the nature of metaphorical thinking is entirely a distinctive aspect of human behavior of his civilizations.  As a culturally determined activity, brands are a totality than the arithmetic sum of a group of identity markers from name, logo, strap line, advertisement, endorser, or whatever.  The object of symbolism is the enhancement of the significance of a brand that is symbolized.   Consequently, brands are privileged doublets, born out of the materiality of “messages on bottles” and resides as organic states of mind with which consumers can directly form consociation.  You only need to think of myriad bottled water brands named with imagined properties associated with pristine water sources.  For instance, bottled water brands, Yosemite Waters and Alaskan Falls are packaged using municipal water sources in the industrial suburbs of Corpus Christi, TX and Dayton, OH respectively.

Though it seems mystical at first blush, brands are also symbolic expressions of meanings that can augment regimented mental associations and emotional attachments of the consumer.  Brands add emotion to instinct and afford a foothold for reason by its delineation of the particular instinct it expresses.  The expression of symbolic brand meaning is a distinctive type of communication:  narrative, picture, enactment, and re-enactment, and yet somehow separate from them as ever-present components of consumption culture.  The effect of symbolic meaning formation is primarily the formulation of perceptual experience, conscious, non conscious and unconscious, which constantly reinforces and/or reformulates conceptual frames.

Analogous to a jigsaw puzzle-solver, a semiotician can figure out how the bits of signs and pieces of concepts cohere into larger patterns.  After all, people buy things not only for what things can do, but also for what things stand for.  Brand meaning mediates between products and consumer motivation; semiology can amply help in deciphering those meanings.


About Sudio Sudarsan

Sudio Sudarsan helps companies and startups drive demand and impact through more effective use of their brand, marketing, design, digital, and innovation assets. He teaches advanced courses in marketing to MBA students at premier b-schools in three continents around the world. You can follow him on Twitter @iSudio; view some of his retired presentations at View all posts by Sudio Sudarsan

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