Symbols are as old as human beings. They precede even the written word. They have their origin mainly in religions: the cross, the Star of David, the laughing Buddha. These symbols are identifiers, helping people find like-minded people and match them to concrete concepts. Symbols develop, and fluctuate, across cultures and time. The human skull, for example, is a symbol of extreme risk that we can find on a pirate flag or a jar of chemicals.

Symbols become cognitive shortcuts, a visual shorthand that transforms them into valuable communication devices. The human brain is constantly using signals and symbols that allow it to use those resources to come up with an idea without needing to explain it every time. As people interact with a symbol, whether it’s branded, religious, or otherwise, it becomes filled with meaning. It becomes a heuristic of what’s to come. When you see a person wearing a white jacket and a stethoscope, you think it’s a doctor. The white jacket and the stethoscope are the symbols of the profession, and when they are combined we naturally assume that the person wearing them must be a doctor. Symbols are a visual way to communicate our thoughts and beliefs.

The science that studies symbols is semiotics. The role of semiotics and language as a cultural system can help determine how humans naturally make connections and derive meanings from the environment. The same idea can be applied to explore how different demographics respond to certain brands. Therefore, it is important for brands to determine the precise way in which their assets can be erected into iconic symbols.

The origin of semiotics goes back to the end of the nineteenth century with Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist whose ideas served for the beginning and subsequent development of the study of linguistics and with it of symbols.

Semiotics makes it possible to understand the meaning of things in the world, including colors, shapes, typographies, images, materials, or sounds. Branding uses the principles of semiotics for branding.

Let’s take gold as an example. What is gold? We could say that gold is a shiny, yellow, heavy, malleable and ductile metal. However, gold means much more than that. In today’s world, gold can be money, jewelry, medals… It can also mean health, excellence, prestige, prosperity, nobility, divinity, extravagance… It can even have opposite meanings such as “liquid gold” referring to oil. In semiotics, “gold” is a signifier that is associated with many senses or meanings, such as those mentioned above. If we put the signifier and the signified together, we will be creating a signal. For example, having a “Gold Visa” is associated with Premium services but also with a higher level of status. Or a product like “
1 Million
“, in the form of a gold bar, becomes the best projection of a Paco Rabanne fragrance.

But let’s not forget a key principle in semiotics: each culture translates signals in a particular way. Yellow in the Western world is the color of the sun’s rays, of happiness, of joy, of energy. It is a symbol of enthusiasm and prudence, optimism and warmth, but at the same time it symbolizes envy, betrayal, cowardice and dishonesty. The yellow press is the tabloid press. In Asia it is the imperial color. It is a sign of wisdom and a very favorable color in Buddhism. In India it is associated with the business world, but in Egypt it is the color of mourning.

Culture plays a fundamental role in converting signals (signifiers) into encoded meanings, rich in associations and predictive value for all of us. Context links a sign with others of the same characteristics. A red dot can be the flag of Japan, a negative indicator, or a road sign… It all depends on the framework.

When we shop, we decode the symbols we receive based on our learning. Size, shape and material of the packaging can speak of the use of the product; The color often evokes the brand itself and its category. Let’s contrast how bottled water brands usually use bottles with sinuous shapes, blue colors and images of nature with names that indicate their origin. All this symbolizes meanings such as purity, freshness, naturalness and authenticity, which is what the consumer values in this category.

The most common symbol that a company develops is its logo. But beware, logos can work as a symbol, but most of them have not been created to serve that purpose. While logos are made to present a name in an attractive way according to a positioning, symbols (isotypes) are themselves elements of connection and synthesis of a meaning. A great example can be found in the swoosh of Nike, where with a single stroke it is possible to transmit many concepts linked to the brand, such as movement, dynamism, strength… Mobile applications (apps), on the other hand, have enhanced the need to rescue and promote symbols (icons, isotypes, etc.) to represent brands. In spite of this, as in many cases the identities of brands do not contemplate this need and opportunity from the outset, we find very underdeveloped solutions that simply resort to the use of the initial of the name.

Douglas Atkins states in The Culting of Brands: “There are also dangers in creating a symbolic system that is symbolic of nothing. Aesthetics are not enough. Icons are only icons if they communicate a world of meaning to the community that honors them.”

Developing symbols for a brand should be a strategic process as well as a creative one. Symbols can be a navigational tool, such as Facebook or Instagram icons. Symbols can be a differentiating element, such as the Coca-Cola bottle or the red soles of Louboutin. And they can be synonymous with status, like Ferrari’s prancing horse or Gucci’s bound G’s. This is where you need to pay more attention. A logo can simply be a typographic design that represents the name of a brand itself. A symbol is bound to convey a meaning by itself.

Iconic brands, those that inspire unwavering loyalty and great emotional attachment in their followers, have also been able to create their symbols aware that they increase the economic value of the company. David Aaker writes in Managing Brand Equity: “The reality is that most companies and products are pretty similar; Differences that exist, such as quality of service, are difficult to communicate effectively and credibly. When products and services are difficult to differentiate, a symbol can be the central element of brand equity, the key to differentiating its characteristics. The symbol can itself create awareness, associations, and fondness or feelings which, in turn, can affect fidelity and perceived quality.”

Let it be clear then that the symbol is not an artistic expression of the brand. It is an emotional communication device that has been used since the dawn of humanity. And it’s one of the most effective tools to stand out in a highly competitive market. A great product with a strong value proposition may not be enough. Consumers don’t really believe that there is a big difference between the products. That’s why you need to connect with them on a deeper level.

If you’re looking for ways to strengthen customers’ connection to your brand, symbols may be just what you need. Keep in mind that signals can come in many ways, from branding we manage to decode each one to provide the right meaning to each brand.

Carlos Puig Falcó
CEO of Branward