SEMIOTICS OF BRAND BUILDING

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.

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AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL APPROACH TO BRANDING

(Editor’s pick when published originally in the Branding Magazine)

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” While this shorthand definition is convenient, it completely misses the inextricable mental associations and emotional linkages that consumers create when valuing brands.

On the continuum from cave paintings to social media updates, symbols have created an infinite sensory palette of visual and verbal expression which instantaneously produces the intended perceptual recognition – belonging, love, respect, loyalty and advocacy.

Brand identity elements, from names to tags to designs, are only the material markers completely devoid of meaning. It is often the case not what the brand stands for, but what consumers perceive the brand stands for. If a consumer is intimately attached to a symbol, close examination divulges that there is actually less to the symbol than meets the eye. A wedding ring does not mean a marriage has occurred. For instance, the bride from the Syrian Christian communities of Kerala wears minnu (a pendant) to signal marital union. Should we apply principles of cultural anthropology to advance branding from mere material symbols to the realm of symbolism, a collective understanding of the plots and metaphors that spur customers’ imaginations and mental associations begin to be defined.

Symbolism is a culturally-determined activity, more as a totality than as the arithmetic sum of a group of symbols. In branding, the object of symbolism is the enhancement of the importance of what is symbolized. This enrichment to symbolic meaning occurs when brand stories are recited by various authors: Company, culture intermediaries, critics, retail sales personnel and customers.

I spent three years pursuing a ‘going native’ type of interpretive ethnographic research on customer evangelists who pompously wore a brand logo as a tattoo. Harley Davidson loyalists don’t care about the torque generated by the engine; rather, it is the Harley brand values espoused by sociocultural, symbolic, and ideological aspects that transform the casual biker into a Harley loyalist. In fact, many car buyers ignore and/or are completely ignorant of product attributes and technical specifications, such as a multi-point fuel injection system, the engine compression ratio, etc. None of the brands are found in lists of attributes, nor sets of form and function. Instead, brands can be known only by the unfolding of their unique stories within the context of the symbolic perception they create and manage for long periods of time.

When we look at brands through a cultural anthropological lens, it becomes more discernible as to why consumers tattoo themselves with the Harley Davidson or Nike logo in permanent ink to proudly claim membership of a tribe; sprinkle the rim of a Corona bottle with sea salt and insert a lime wedge to flavor the beer; never mind paying $2.59 for a cup of Starbucks when they can brew coffee at home for $0.07/cup. As we move into the consideration of symbolic perception, our concern with fields, organizations, and relationships shifts our framework of brand discourse to approach brands as vessels of symbolic meanings that evoke personalities and emotion through myth, rituals, symbolism and ethos.

Brand is a noun. It is a verb. It may be about what we do. But, overall, it is all about what is in the mind – the mind of the consumer and the mind of the employee. Regrettably, most books, articles, and practices (like AMA’s imprecise definition of a brand) approach, analyze and articulate brand as a mere material marker from a business economic perspective. It is about time that we start examining brands and branding from a cultural perspective. And anthropology can amply help.


BEST COMMERCIALS OF 2013

“Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark.  You know what you are doing, but nobody else does.”  –  Steuart Henderson Britt

From a foal to babies dancing, advertising agencies were inventive to capture consumers’ attention in 2013. Take a look at these ten top commercials and let me know what was your favorite in the comments below.

10. Evian, “Baby and Me”

Agency: BETC (France)

Director: Rémi Babinet

9. Canon, “Inspired”

Agency: Grey New York (USA)

Director: Nicolai Fuglsig, MJZ

8. Prada, “Candy L’Eau”

Executive Producer: Lisa Margulis (the Directors Bureau) (France)

Director: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

7. Grey Poupon, “The Chase”

Agency: Crispin Porter + Bogusky (USA)

Director: Bryan Buckley, Hungry Man

6.  Nike, “The Jogger”

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy (USA)

Director: Lance Acord, Park Pictures

5. Pepsi Max, “Test Drive”

Agency: TBWA (USA)

Director: John Norman

4. Dove, “Real Sketches”

Agency: Ogilvy and Mather (Brazil)

Director: John Carey

 

3. Budweiser, “The Clydesdales Brotherhood”

Agency: Anomaly (USA)

Director: Jake Scott

 

2. Carlsberg, “Standing up for a Friend”

Agency: Duval Guillaume Modem (Belgium)

Director: Geoffrey Hantson and Katrien Bottez

 

1. Sainbury’s, “Christmas in a Day”

Agency: Scott Free Films (England)

Director: Kevin Macdonald

 


LUXURY BRAND MANAGEMENT

Marketing luxury is a paradox.  Luxury defies econometric models.  Though the processes by which consumers acquire and consume luxury remain an enigma, luxury brand names and products are highly visible in the marketplace.

I became interested in branding luxury back in 2007 when I used to frequent Dubai (UAE).  It was then I acquainted with research work pursued by Bernard Dubois, Thomas Stanley, Claire Paternault and others.  I even designed a workshop for corporate clients in Middle East and Europe interested in luxury retailing.  I taught an MBA level course on Luxury Branding at my favorite business school in India, MICA, in 2008-’09.

Recently, I promised Hult MBAs at San Francisco that I shall provide them my insights on luxury branding in my BE class.  Though a little late, I am living up to my promise.  This slide deck empirically explores the luxury sector, the status of international luxury brands, and how luxury is branded and sold to consumers.


BRAND ENGINEERING

How do you look at the world?  The world is just the same; it does not change.  Do you see it from down here, like a frog, as Spengler said, or up above, like an eagle.  Branding is the management of perceptions in the consumer ecosystem.


LEARN BY DOING: BRAND BATTLE IN THE CLASSROOM

I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand.”  - Confucius

We learn best by doing – ask any cricket coach; the only way you master a sport is by strapping on the pads and going to bat.

Of course there is value in reading and watching the game but with repetitive, unimaginative study too often those illustrative practices become little more than blunt weapons with which to beat any natural creative spark out of the student.

Education becomes little more than memorizing equations, formulae and concepts; regurgitate them in exams and valiantly keeping score.

And as we all know you can’t read the perfect game.

Involvement drives engagement; that’s why in my eight years as a Business School Professor I have become increasingly aware of the responsibility I have towards my students to prepare them for the world of business away from descriptive practices.

Conscious of the reality of the classroom, I teamed up with two progressively minded organizations, the Muthoot Group and Delhi Daredevils, to focus upon the problem of how to develop a novel experiential teaching tool.

Brand Battle Simulations took the practice of ‘war games’ a technique used by the US military to prepare their troops for the multiply eventualities of combat and applied it to the world of business.

As in a typical war game, student-teams take roles to simulate an unfolding crisis or gauge the possible reaction of competitors to a critical strategic move.

When recently teaching Brand Management, I invited the Directors of the Muthoot Group and the CMO of Delhi Daredevils to form control groups charged with presenting individual teams of up to ten MBA students with a scenario – imagined or real – about a current business crisis that they were then asked to solve.

With teams either playing the client, competition or a stakeholder I acted as the coach, guiding the student-teams to apply business theories, interpret secondary research, synthesize knowledge gleaned, and evaluate strategies.

Due to the nature of ‘play’ within a classroom environment, students felt free to think beyond the client brief to implement creative solutions to unforeseen problems while allowing clients to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses, threats and opportunities of their brand strategy.

‘Learn by Doing’ lectures make their apparent lack of formal planning their strength.  In this model, a language teacher could aid learning by getting his class to act out scenes from a play or a short story, a science teacher could demonstrate the flammable nature of hydrogen by showing its effects with a little washing up liquid and a match.

The only limit placed on learning is the limits of your imagination.

While ‘learn by doing’ lectures may be nonlinear and rigid, they are always coherent and surprising.  Beneath the seeming chaos in the classroom, there is always an underlying method that aids edification.

Like any good coach, educators are charged with getting the best from their students – to motivate and reward them through experiential teaching but too often our educational system stifles development with demonstrative pedagogic ideas.

The problems then left facing educators in this respect are familiar; students do not assimilate the necessary know-how and -why, and nor do they possess sufficient motivation to ask why these processes are critical to higher thinking.

The ominous problem remains; students know too much and do too little.

A growing self-awareness of the issue at hand has in effect crippled development in some of the premier business schools in the United States.

For instance, the Harvard Business School pioneered a case study approach to educating its students which attempted to tackle this malaise by fostering business education through a mix of theoretical reflection and deft application of the knowledge gained.

However, its modus operandi of promoting theoretical reflection became its primary value.  Students were still no closer to experiencing practical business situations.

It seems unimaginable that any other profession would prepare their students to enter the world of work without giving them the necessary practical tools in which to succeed.

After all, you wouldn’t trust a surgeon who had only perused elaborate case studies, discussed them in the classroom and written eloquently on the subject if he has no practical experience of the operating theatre.

‘Hear one, see one, do one,’ is an adage used by residents to learn a procedure.  In business education, however, the saying would be: “Hear one, talk about one, talk about another one.”

The reality is that what MBAs have to learn to be the managers of tomorrow they will have to do so within classrooms today – and how we are teaching them will only get them so far.

(Originally published by THE HINDU in Education Plus section on Monday, March 25, 2013)


Best Commercials 2012

Most advertising is kitsch; some of it is amusing; much is trash. But, those brilliantly communicated ideas that garner enormous cultural attention amply justify why advertising should not be construed as annoying legerdemain, economic waste, or cultural dross. Here are some of 2012’s brilliant advertisements made for TV and reused on YouTube:

10. Dollar Shave Club, “Our Blades are F***ing Great”

Agency: Paulilu Productions
Los Angeles, USA
http://www.DollarShaveClub.com

9. Adidas, “Take the Stage”

Agency: Sid Lee
London, England

8. Guinness, “St. Patrick’s Day”

Agency: AMV BBDO
London, England

7. EMDA, “Alzheimer Awareness”

Agency: ACW Grey
Tel Aviv, Israel

6. Chrysler, “It’s Half Time in America”

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
Portland, OR; United States

5. ETN, “Howling Football”

Agency: Ambient Advert
Berlin, Germany

4. LG, “Smart Thief”

Agency: Y&R
Amsterdam, Holland

3. Barack Obama, “Obama for America”

Agency: Bully Pulpit Interactive
Washington DC; United States

2. P&G, “Best Job”

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
Portland, OR; United States

1. Red Bull, “Red Bull Stratos”

Agency: Riedel Communications
Filmed near Roswell, NM; United States (FlightLine Films)