Brand semiotics and brand equity

Brand Semiotics provide powerful tools to not only understand brand personalities, but also to identify opportunities to occupy advantageous positions in the brandscape.

Brand choice is significantly influenced by emotional engagement and the intangible, perceived benefits that the brands represent. Semiotic analysis helps our understanding of these dynamics, and how they are communicated.

So what is semiotics? 

semiotic stoplightIt’s a branch of social science that is concerned with symbols. At its most basic, consider a red traffic light – that’s a symbol that society accepts as a requirement to stop. Semiotics is about ‘signs’ – and the red light is a sign.

Semioticians may talk about the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’. All that means is that the redlight is the sign – the signifier –  and the order to stop is what is signified. Interestingly, what is signified in this case is a culturally accepted ‘rule’.

More than names and logos

Let’s take a brand example – ‘Apple’. The brand name (and the Apple logo if you like) are signifiers, they are ‘signs’. And what is signified is not just a business or its products, but a complex mixture of things they stand for. It’s about emotional connection, vision and values, loyalty and personal identification. The meanings behind the brand are constructions that we, as consumers, build in our minds – in a way, it could be said that ‘we’ build the brand.

But let’s not get too obsessed with logos and brand names. There are lots of signs around every brand – visual, or literal – sometimes personal in the way business is done. Premises and products, other customers and their behaviours and interactions with the brand. In fact, almost anything around the brand can be considered a sign.


As a general classification may consider the main semiotic dimensions as:

  • Material – text, images, brand names and logos, ads, websites etc.
  • Conventional – based upon society’s rules and traditions.
  • Contextual – social context and cultural nuances.
  • Performative – involving the behaviour of people and their interactions.

You’ll probably be getting the impression that there is a great deal of theory involved in semiotics, and you’d be right, but that is really the territory of academics. We’re concerned with how we can apply semiotics to the real world of brands.

How can we make practical use of semiotic approaches? 

There are many applications in branding and brand development. The methods used may be somewhat different from those common in other techniques.

As an example, research usually takes an ethnographic approach to assemble and evaluate data. This is very similar to ‘grounded theory’.

Unlike survey methods where you start with a question that you want an answer to, a semiotic approach starts with an open mind. There is no question.  The researcher collects as much data as possible that occupies the category being researched. Typically this may include published material, print media, ads, images, interviews, web material, social media, packaging… searching all the ‘signs’ in the category. Even though we haven’t started with a ‘question’, we expect one or more to be emergent from the exercise. This means the question is more likely to be the right one.

The objective is to look for patterns, tensions, and dialectics. This strategic analysis allows us to map the category in a strategic grid. We can use binary tensions to see what space the brand in question occupies in the category. 

The analysis should also allow us to spot opportunities to improve the brand’s positioning.

For a new brand, strategic possibilities can be identified for occupying unique advantageous places in the brandscape. This can provide a powerful platform for building creative strategies. Unlike traditional approaches using survey style research, which tend to be applied downstream, the ethnographic, qualitative methods described above are ideal for upstream strategies. The brand’s position and direction can be established right from the start.

We’ve only taken a quick look at this topic, but in an increasingly crowded and complex brand space we need a process to understand its dynamics. People often talk about brand narratives – the story a brand tells. Well, brands are telling their story all the time, in terms of the signs – the signifiers that surround them and are embodied in them. These signs signify brand equity.



Ian West
dangerous ideas

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