“The sign is a gesture produced with the intention of communicating, that is, in order to transmit one's representation or inner state to another being.” Umberto Eco (1932 -2016)
In February we paid our respects to Umberto Eco as we lost one of our generation’s greatest minds. The renowned novelist, philosopher, scholar and semiotician was born in Piedmont in Italy in 1932. He was perhaps best known for his 1980 historical novel The Name of the Rose, which combines semiotics with medieval history in a tense murder mystery. Eco was a notable figure within the world of semiotics; responsible for the development of the theory of ‘interpretative semiotics’ as well as publishing several books on the topic, co-founding an academic journal and basically affecting our ability to better understand the hidden cultural influences that shape our lives.
It is because of this, that we, in the world of branding have a lot to learn from the likes of Eco and his colleagues.
There are still a great number of brands across the different marketplaces who confuse their brand with their product. They engage rationality and literalness in the task of convincing consumers of their product’s benefit - be it functional or emotional. In contrast Eco’s work demonstrates that meaning is best transmitted through symbols and images. However hard marketers try and create images and narratives, through their communications and social media that allude to what the function of the product is, this is still not branding. Branding happens when the brand identity itself is capable of symbolising the brand’s real purpose and role in the life of the consumer. It does not need to demonstrate the features of your product and/or service. Every aspect of your brand identity should be designed to reflect your brand’s value and persona, from the colours used, to the choice of font, the shape of the marque etc. They all act as signs to your audience about why they should want to engage with you – as a brand.
But it’s not enough just to load your brand identity with obvious symbols that reflect what it is that makes your brand special. The question is how to create symbolism that is capable of prompting an emotional reaction or even somehow creating a resonance within their unconscious minds. Once you find yourself embedded into the dark recesses of a consumers’ mind, that’s where the true foundations of brand loyalty are built.
But how do you find your way in?
Signs allow us to communicate meaning and emotive symbols and signs allow us to not only communicate meaning, but also engage with our audience on a far deeper level. The use of semiotics in branding is not a new concept by any means, think of Heinz and their use of the keystone within their brand marque – a keystone is the wedge-shaped stone that’s placed into masonry when building an arch. It acts as a lock, holding all the other stones in place. The keystone in Heinz’s branding is designed to elicit associations of the strength of the family unit, and how this all-important keystone supports them and holds them together. Although most people who view the brand won’t consciously draw that association, once you are aware of it’s meaning there’s no argument that it’s a very clever and appropriate use of emotive symbolism. As human beings, the unconscious narrative that we are not aware of is what drives our decision-making. In this sense signs work best when they elicit implicit memories, which mean that they trigger unconscious associations within the consumer’s mind creating a familiarity with the brand. This is how the brand makes its mark and affects decisions at the point of purchase.
The easiest route to finding your way into the unconscious minds of consumers and driving them to purchase is simple….follow the right signs.