Smoke signifies fire – thus the saying ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’ Similarly, facial micro expressions often manifest unseen emotions. Even words or letters, which are only sounds, carry meaning to communicate and persuade. Like signs and symbols, brands are also imaginative signposts, signifying sign-object relations and connecting specific signs to definite objects. Take for instance the ‘golden arches’ of McDonald’s:  Kids scream for a Happy Meal at the very sight of them. For children, the arches become a clear representation of food and fun, while for adults golden arches symbolize many other things (such as fast food, quick consistent service, and clean bathrooms) – all of which are instrumental brand identity markers in impressing the image of American food in consumers’ consciousness.

Semiotics, the scientific domain of study that explores the actions of sign systems, lays out fertile territory on how brands assimilate to provide meanings and representations in the consumer ecosystem. Though brand owners and custodians create identities, consumers are actively involved in the process of signification, thereby constructing brand meaning and related connotations. To mine the insights that and unlock the sheaves of meaning, consumer behaviorists and market researchers can turn to semiotics to explore the transient or enduring collections of mental associations, perceptions, and expectations. Every time consumer groups decide to use and recognize a sign as a vehicle to interpret vessels of other intangible qualities, in another vein, brand managers can also actively employ semiotic elements to define or aggregate brand referents. Since a brand is a system of sensory signs that incites consumers in a symbolic process, which then contributes to tangible value, semiotics is the keystone of brand building.

Although interest in signs has a long, celebrated history ranging from Hippocrates to Plato, modern semiotic analysis can be said to have begun with Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and the incomparable American pragmatist and polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Important theoretical and applied work was uniquely reinvigorated throughout the 20th century via Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, and several other distinguished semioticians. In today’s entropic world of consumerism and instantaneous worldwide communication, principles of semiotics can be an effective strategic tool for marketers to compare brand intention with consumer interpretation, to robustly align brand identity with brand image.

Unlike conventional research approaches, Peircean semiotic resources are emergent approaches that emphasize determining referents by interpretants to further develop brands as dynamic symbolic entities. When we consider the semiotics of music culture, the iPod was an inspired outcome that not only leveraged culture, but also changed pop culture. The Nintendo Wii transformed gaming’s symbolized culture of laziness into human interaction and activity, as did Starbucks a decade earlier and the Muthoot Group in the gold-loaning business.

Although branding is by far the most visible application area, semiotic techniques can also be employed to formulate brand elements from logos to package designs, marketing mixes, promotions, advertising, etc. In this context, the ‘Semiotics of Brand Building’ deck embedded below is worth exploring. The presentation consists of three sections:

  1. Why semiotics?
  2. The philosophic historicity of semiotics
  3. Semiotics in the context of brand building

The case of the Muthoot brand lends credence to the structural semiotic concept of ‘bricolage’ that not only offers an innovative framework to understand both narrative and dialectical processes of branding, but also formulates memorable visual, verbal, and experiential identities, and effectively manages those discursive structures of the brand.

Analogous to a jigsaw puzzle-solver, a semiotician can figure out how the bits and pieces of signs and concepts cohere with larger patterns. After all, people buy things not only for what things can do, but also for what they stand for. Brand meanings mediate between products and consumer motivation – and semiology can amply help in deciphering those meanings.