Everyday consumers buy into the concept of brands and their associated meanings – the perception of quality, a symbolic relationship, a vicarious experience, or even a sense of identity. Brands, like the products they represent, are symbols – we don’t sell advocacy or attributes, we sell systems of meaning. The extent to which consumers recognize, internalize, and relate to brand meanings is not only an academic question. These meanings contribute to “brand equity,” the financial value of intangible brand benefits that exceed the use value of goods, and impacts upon a firm’s financial performance. Therefore, the management of brand equity demands first and foremost the management of brand meanings, or semiotics.
Studying symbolism goes beyond the flights of fancy that people often associate with it. There is a discipline we use regularly to make sense of our symbolic lives. I’m thinking specifically of structural semiotics, a discipline that extends the laws of structural linguistics to the analysis of verbal, visual, and spatial sign systems, to shed light on the cultural codes and discourse of brands. It proposes that semiotic research should form the cornerstone of brand equity management, since brands rely so heavily on sign systems that contribute to profitability by distinguishing brands from simple commodities, from competitors, and engaging consumers in the brand world. In other words, it isn’t just the functional side of the product that makes the sale, it is the representational and the metaphorical writ large. Understand the symbolic side and manage it as carefully as you do your supply chain and you’ll see you profits grow.