The Semiotics of Branding

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Is a brand a sign, or is it the destination? Or is it both? Or is it something greater than either one?

How you answer that question may well depend on where you sit professionally,  in-house in a product or sales group, as a strategist or communications expert in or outside the organization, or at an external design or branding agency.

In an earlier post we talked about how brands are, essentially, languages, with ‘grammar rules’, a lexicon, and ways of speaking that pattern very much as they do with natural languages. In fact, brands, as communicative media, are something even more: they’re semiotic systems.

What’s a semiotic system? The short answer (if there can be one) is that it is a set of patterned relationships among three elements of a ‘triangle of meaning’: icons, indexes, and symbols.

Time for an example. Think of an iPad. The image of the iPad itself is the icon, the idea you have about iPads is the index, and the word ‘iPad’ is the linguistic symbol we use to refer to both our idea of the iPad and the thing itself. Another way of labelling this is with the Peircean triad of firstness, secondness, and thirdness.

With this serviceable definition (admittedly vastly simplified to a formal semiotician!), we can see at once how understanding brands as semiotic systems is key to a successful brand strategy. For a brand is neither just a product, nor is it our idea about the product, least of all the words and pictures we use to describe and refer to the product. Rather the brand is the patterned relationship among all three.

Very often, ‘brand’ is used with only one of those meanings. To a consumer product manager, the ‘brand’ is, perhaps, simply the thing itself, the widget, the toothpaste, an individual person such as a celebrity, etc. To someone working in the branding and design industries, the brand is, for all practical purposes, the set of symbols: the words, the colors, the pictures, the text. This is very often what traditional design agencies are really referring to when they say they ‘create brands’ or ‘manage brands’. And to brand strategists, the brand is very likely taken to be the idea, the core set of understandings and feelings we have about a product, organization, or individual.

So to recap: there is the thing itself, the idea we have about the thing, and the ways we can represent our idea of the thing, visually, verbally, or through other means of perception, such as texture, feel, tone, and sound. A successful brand strategy incorporates elements of all three.

That’s why collaboration, again, is so essential to crafting a successful brand. The active engagement of product, marketing, and creative helps ensure the three pillars relate to and support each other as a meaningful, effective semiotic system.

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