Semiotics and the Meaning of Meaning

The article is written by Craig Swanson, Creative Director, Partner of  Toniq LLC, USA

Kenneth Burke, the renowned 20th century literary theorist, defined man as the “symbol-using animal”. There are profound implications to this statement, but let’s consider just a single aspect: the idea that each little package of symbolic content we create is, cell-like, filled with meaning that far outweighs its small size and seeming single purpose. These little bundles — whether the symbols of the letters and words you’re reading now, or the symbols of geometric and free-form shape, or the visceral symbols of color, shade, environment, art — are atomic entities of meaning. And, like the atom, they harness tremendous energies and potentials.

Semiotics is the study of these meanings. Following our analogy: what physics is to matter, semiotics is to meaning. As such it is a key analytical toolset for the creation and understanding of brands and other vehicles of marketing communication. A brand has goals set by its stakeholders, goals that are intended to persuade and influence an audience of consumers, competitors, the market at large. So understanding the semiotics of your brand communications — especially in the initial creation of the brand or in repositioning the brand message — is more than mere efficiency or interest: it’s critical to your business.

Photo: What is semiotics

As a field, Semiotics goes beyond any single discipline, encompassing many features and skill sets. For aspects related to brand development, the elements of anthropology, linguistics, social sciences, and art history, among others, are especially relevant. Let’s look at a few of the ways semiotic analysis and understanding affect brand communications.

Say What?

The primary way we understand anything in depth, so we believe, is through words. Often in brand creation we will work to carve out a positioning through the development of an idea called «Own a Word». We want to define a domain which belongs uniquely to our brand. Unfortunately, perhaps, words are not black or white, but mean different things to different people. Even when those differences of meaning are relatively limited, they may go outside the zone we wish to evoke.

This is especially true for the emotionally-heightened zones of brands, where audiences both inside (stakeholders) and outside (audience) the corporation are passionate about their convictions. To address this issue of multiple and sometimes contradictory meaning, an effective means to streamline and focus communications is through visual positioning. This process organizes, then deploys, visual codes such as color, texture, shape, symbol, and relies on semiotic cues — universal or cultural meaning — to dissect and build its message. The result is communication that is tacitly, rationally, and emotionally resonant with intended audiences, comprised of single, focused, effective brand meaning.

For example, in defining the brand’s biography we are not simply creating its primary color palette, its logomark, and so forth. Rather, the process decodes all the strategic elements and aspirations the brand must embody, then assembles these into one or more visual territory directions for team alignment. This goes far beyond traditional “mood boards”, collages, or inspiration imagery. It provides the opportunity to clarify what we mean when we say: “The brand is blue.” (What blue? What range of hues? Combined to evoke what atmosphere?) Or “The brand is strong, idealistic, masculine.” (What does strong look like? Across what spectrum of masculinity are we trying to build?) These clarifications are key and cannot be relevantly communicated through words alone. Only through universal and cultural meanings — semiotically-decoded imagery — can we come to common understanding and significance for the brand.

My Name Is X

The development of a brand name is arguably the most important initial task in turning your product, service, company into a real brand: an entity with significance for an intended audience. The brand name evokes, provides context, and inspires avenues for new product development. Aligning the signals you want to transmit with the signals the audience actually receives is key. As mentioned, words are not as exact as transmitting codes like Morse, ascii, or binary. Even so we do want to stack the odds in our favor. And so we build a semiotically-driven name development zone that includes visual territories and linguistic nuances that will help communicate our brand message most succinctly.

Here is an example of a simplified code schematic for sending a particular «signal» to an audience:

Photo: scheme of communications

While there is a great deal more detail involved in the ways this simple chart translates into fully realized strategic imagery, the point is we must understand deep codes of meaning and the ways they evoke, both consciously and unconsciously, attitudes of attraction, desire, and satisfaction. This is the signal element that allows us to truly understand a category and breakthrough to a unique, distinctive platform. So whether we’re talking fountain pens, an extraordinary culinary experience, or the sense of community we feel at a local club, going beneath the surface to the semiotic core yields territories of brand essence and brand value that affect us not only logically but instinctively and emotionally.

What It All Means

A brand, finally, is a container for meaning. It is the piece for which we (mankind, the symbol-using animal) believe there is no substitute. We put the same ketchup into two bottles: one bearing generic store branding and one bearing the name Heinz. Some will buy merely on price, sure, while others will buy because of the meaning conferred by the brand. Like any guarantee, it reduces doubt and enforces the goodwill that comes from quality. The fact is: every one of us (including those who buy merely on price) believe in brands, whether we think we do or not. Why? Because brands and their semiotic codes are all around us and there’s no escape: a deep seed planted everywhere in our 21st century world, brands go far beyond what we wear on our feet or put in our bodies. Experience is branded. Semiotic codes are embedded in our friendships (Facebook “likes”), our travels (Travelocity’s gnome), our homes (Owens Corning’s “pink panther” insulation), our aesthetics (the pyramid at the Louvre; Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim), our faiths (the cross, the crescent, the star).

Understanding how we as brand creators construct and mine these rich containers of strategic meaning necessitates a range of semiotic understandings. While they do not always provide the assurance of a simple denotative «this equals that», they promote the far more powerful, viral, impossible-to-ignore connotations that confer value and difference as surely as a 5-dollar bill is different from a 10. And that simple/complicated, impossible/accessible dichotomy is the path they travel to implant into our hearts and souls.

About the Author

Craig Swanson is Creative Director, Partner of Toniq LLC.

Toniq is a brand strategy firm dedicated to creating “brand effervescence.” Mr. Swanson and the Toniq staff bring life, energy and dimension to brands by blending marketing with anthropology, sociology, the psychology of symbolism and innovative consumer research techniques. Email:, Tel: 212-755-2929 x218.