Semiotics and Brand Development

A brand is more than one iconic symbol, it’s a system of interconnected images, actions and signs that create a response in your consumers. While it is often put down to something as simple as logo design (which is anything but simple, in fact), identity and branding work extends beyond the creation of a company logo or trademark. The identity of any particular corporation, product or service encompasses a variety of materials including business cards, marketing materials, staff uniforms, advertisements, commercials, web presence, etc. All of this is created to establish an identity that the consumer comes to value beyond the direct benefits of the company.

A part of establishing the company brand, the identity work is important in conveying the principles, ideas and standards of the organization for which it is developed. Designers work together with strategists, copywriters, marketing directors and a host of other professionals to ensure that a brand identity is communicated effectively and efficiently from the client to the consumer. And in an age of social media and assumed shared interests, the communication is increasingly a multi-faceted conversation.

Most design firms and agencies create branding and identity work for their clients on some level, others specialize in identity and branding only. In any case, brand development involves deep thinking and a commitment to understanding the symbolic interconnectedness of the parties engaged with the brand. This is the art and science of semiotics. But why bother?  There are a number of simple reasons.

Understanding

Semiotics can help you dig into the underlying meanings in communication and establish a richer connection with consumers. On a practical level, a semiotic approach allows you to determine why an ad, a web page or a new product’s design is or isn’t working. It allows you to isolate components, but it also allows you to determine how they work or don’t work in relation to other elements.

Renovation

Over time symbols change and without constant care brands fall apart. A brand can keep making small changes, but ultimately, this process doesn’t work. Eventually you have to strip right back to bare bones and rebuild the brand completely. Semiotics can be used to deconstruct brands and categories, exposing truths that can be used to reconstruct them, and make them stronger.

Articulation

Semiotics can help articulate the problem you actually have, as opposed to the symptom you are trying to address. The approach allows you to move beyond intuition and get to the deeper issues behind what is happening with your brand.

Research

A semiotic approach can help you improve your qualitative work, by helping you redevelop your line of questioning, or listening for different things. Rather than focusing on traditional needs-based questioning and observation, a semiotics approach uncovers deeper issues and subconscious triggers that strengthen the meaning behind the brand.  There is a strong tradition in ethnographic research specifically of employing a semiotic approach.  Both methods are observational and interpretive. Ethnographic research aims to understand what consumers do and why they do it, rather than what they say. In other words, it assumes that human behavior is more complex than what people tell you. Similarly, semiotics assumes that how human beings interact with and understand the world is more than what they tell you.

Briefs

Ultimately, semiotics creates richer, deeper briefs and platforms that creative teams can actually work from. Rather than simply providing data, it provides avenues of expression that the creative team can build upon and use to explore a range of opportunities for communication. It can provide platforms from which to strengthen your communication, be that advertising or design.

Manage Brand Symbols as You Manage Supply Chains

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.