Symbolic Representation and Constructing Brands

The intent of advertising is to associate desire with commodities and services, and to cement feelings of positive affect to brands.  It is to create a sense of meaning that ensures interest, sparks curiosity and develops bonds with the things we buy. But simply making promises about quality and cost are meaningless unless a deeper connection is established, a connection based in symbols and shared associations that require a two-way exchange.

So what does it mean to have a two-way exchange? Simply this: ads, and indeed all marketing tools, must produce narratives, be they texts, visual representations or any other means of conveying a message,  that are sufficiently compelling that viewers are motivated to decipher them. They can’t simply impart information, they need elements that require the viewer to decode meaning and interpret meaning. Ads and marketing tools require viewers to complete their meaning and to make the necessary turns of meaning that give value to the brand. In other words, we encode ads with symbolic information that requires viewers to decode and interpret.

It’s worth noting here that no matter how much they strive to make the decoding process an identical replica (inverse though it may be) of the encoding process, advertisers and marketers can never achieve an absolute equivalence between the encoding and the decoding processes. The process is simply too messy and loaded with baggage from the development process. The encoding side establishes the interpretive parameters for making sense of the campaign by the viewer. Both advertisers and the viewers apply a socio-cultural grammar, or a shared set of propositions about how marketing materials and ads are structured and how the narrative of these media will unfold. Recognizing and making sense of ad messages usually takes place at a non-reflexive level for most Americans and Europeans.  Increasingly this is true for the rest of the developed world. Like any language, the grammar of the ad remains unspoken.  It is simply part of the subconscious background that makes intelligibility and communication possible.

Commercials employ a shorthand of signification. Advertising agencies look to referent systems for vocal, textual, visual and musical signifiers, compressing and sequencing them together in a recognizable structure. Referent systems designate widely shared systems of knowledge and clusters of meaning. For the ad to work the viewer most validate the sign.  In other words, they must attach a signified to the signifier. Supported by the various elements we all recognize as part of an ad (narration, music, background sound, the relationship of each image to others in the commercial) and the viewer’s knowledge of the referent system from which the signifier is drawn, the viewer is guided through this validation process.  The intent is not to co-create meaning, but to direct it.  Certain clusters of signifiers recur again and again, of course, because it makes the process of decoding that much simpler. There are commercials in our thought-scape that are composed of disparate shorts that flow at a staccato pace. And yet viewers are able to easily decipher and interpret the intent of these commercials and associate both affect and a signified to a brand. Whether or not they accept the ad’s intended conclusion is another matter, of course. But they do interpret the underlying meanings with relative ease.

At its most elementary level branding is about equivalence. Brand building works to create an association in the consumer’s mind between a recognizable commodity or service and imagery of a desirable quality. First, the brand itself is given a recognizable, but differentiated, representation: the logo. Then, that representation is attached to a series of layered signifiers that point to a specific set of meanings: the signified. The goal is to blend layers of signifiers to support the branding message. Vectors are created across elements (visual, auditory, textual) so that when we experience a trigger we think of the slogan. Or a shared color in the commercial might create a visual equivalence between a global scape and a corporation. Elements both signify and serve as conduits for these vectors of equivalence. A sound signature (think of the Intel song) might cement a narrative to a logo as well as signifying something in its own right.

The signifiers that share the same space must indeed appear to have a natural connection. To create this sense of unquestioned objectivity, advertising draws on a range of devices to establish a sense of equivalence between commodity/brand and a meaning plus affect. These devices include composition, size, color, music, narrative, spokesperson, images, text, logo design, or anything that suggests this and that are one and the same. If the viewer valorized this process, the formula (brand equals signifier equals signified) is completed.

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