Semiotics and the Brand

Marketers have long recognized the symbolic nature of shopping and consumption.  Products and brands are symbols for sale – products and brands are often purchased as much for their symbolic value as they are their pragmatic value.  And this is the heart of Semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of symbols , signs and sign processes.  I has been a fundamental part of anthropology since the beginnings of the discipline.  Experts in Semiotics are trained to identify and make sense of these symbol systems, uncovering how they construct and reflect the cultural contexts in which they are found. As it relates to business, Semioticians are trained to identify, interpret, and leverage these symbolic meanings for purposes of market definition, brand development, brand positioning, communication strategy, design and packaging.

Brands are symbol systems that consumers associate with verbal, visual, and performative elements of communication. They are temples to meanings that are rarely articulated in focus groups or surveys. That means that every element of a product or service, from cans of beer to amusement parks, is wrapped up in a series of symbols that consumers use to interpret what a brand means and how it relates specifically to them.  These symbolic dimensions add value to products by creating added dimensions beyond the obvious, functional needs. Brands allow consumers to create meaning for themselves, helping them construct who they symbolically want to be. This sense of self is an articulated schema  that functionally controls how self-referent information is structured and categorized.  It establishes how closely a brand reflects the self, which means they are tied to how people construct identity. The more closely the symbolic structures are tied to the sense of self, the more important they become to the individual. Brands, then, speak to those elements of existence that shape the unspoken needs we have as human beings for such concepts as love, status, ritual, power and belonging. In other words, they touch us on a deeper level that stirs our emotions and our interest.

As an example, I have done a great deal of work over the years around household provisioning.  From beer to toilet paper to cereal to soap. In all of these cases, the reasons for brand loyalty are only minimally tied to function. Yes, performance and price drive sales, but consumers are fickle and willing to turn away from brands they have no symbolic ties to when something else comes along. Not so for those brands with strong symbolic associations. Consumers who are loyal to a brand of soap because they associate it with being a good parent are more likely to stick with the brand no matter what. Brewers that talk less about calories and the affects of alcohol, focusing instead on nostalgia, connoisseurship, and status are more likely to retain their consumers.  The more the brand touches the underlying symbolic drivers behind the purchase, the more likely they are to see long-term commitment on the part of the shopper and consumer.

A brand is a sign, or more accurately a system of signs, that triggers a process of interpretation is a consumer’s mind, which means it is more than a series of functional, commoditized features and benefits. It touches on memories, associations with broad cultural ideals and individual desires. It is an act of two-way communication, not just a one-way projection by the company to the consumer. When brands speak to the rationale and meanings behind these semiotic structures, brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer. That positions the brand to become something more than a commodity, it becomes part of the consumer’s life and promotes a wider array of associations between the brand and the consumer. That produces loyalty and great market share.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. Nice to read this, Gavin. I have been using semiotic analysis as a methodology in Consumer Anthropology based approaches to brand strategy and innovation projects for about a decade now. Semiotics is about as ethnographic as it gets…

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