Brands, Connotative meaning and System of signs

Luxury is a perceptual phenomenon. It belongs to an object but is not an objective construction. It is constructed in perceptual space of people by a process of meaning transfer. It involves semiotic process of transformation of an object into a sign. A sign operates at two levels of signification. The first order signification is about denotation of what a sign represents. Denotation stands for literal or explicit meaning which operates within the realm of reality. For instance Ray Ban is a shade which protects eyes from ultra violet rays, comes in plastic and metal frames, and with different types of glass shapes sizes and shades. The denotative meaning is ‘what goes without saying’ or is ‘obvious’ description of something.

Making of a luxury brands requires a deliberate and strategic shift from the field of denotation to connotation. How many of people actually look (eye) at Chanel or Ralph Lauren as sun shades or see (perception) them differently. The meaning inferred in these cases operates within the realm of imagination and myth. These brands succeed not by how they are looked at rather by how they are seen. Luxury brands transcend from their denotation or first order signification to appropriate a second order meaning. A whole lot of cultural connotations surround these brands which make them valuable by a certain class of consumers. Brand Chanel signifies class, opulence, style, glamour, fabulous and French.  Ralph Lauren on the other hand signifies American classism combined with English Aristocracy with a dash of sportiness. Technically connotation stands for connotare in Latin, which means ‘to mark along with’. That is how cultural meaning is attached to objects which push them into symbolic, emotional and historic sphere. 

The relationship between a sign and signified (concept) is arbitrary (Saussure). In the above two cases of Ralph Lauren and Chanel, the signified or concept has not been inherent to the objects that they sell, rather these are created or appropriated. Brands are given meaning by use of signs preexisting in a cultural system. Brand communication uses mass media which extensively deploys signs to create meaning. Typically the meaning creation process uses objects, artifacts, people, music, activities in advertising which are obtained from the material culture. Consider how Woodland brand uses people (young, sporty), activity (adventure sport), background (rugged terrain, mountain, and jungle), adventure equipment (mountain bike, climbing gear), shoe construction (sole, leather, laces, shape), earthy colors, brand symbol (tree), bird (eagle) to create a meaning. Upon seeing the ad, people use codes to get to the signified.

In building a meaning, brand communication relies upon different types of signs. Three aspects signs can be distinguished: iconic, indexical and symbolic.  An icon signifies meaning by sharing resemblance. For instance upon seeing a picture or drawing of a person or object (ads show people like a real young male in Woodland’s ad and cycle) to develop meaning. We find out toilets meant for men and women on the basis of icons displayed which share gender resemblance.  Indexical signs signify meaning by the process of causation. The audience can make out or figure meaning like smoke indicates fire and trees signify jungle). In Woodland’s ad by seeing mountain cliff and rugged location we can figure out that the shoes are meant tough outdoor situations. Lastly relationship between a symbol and what it signifies can neither be seen nor figured out, rather it must be learnt. For instance we learn what different traffic symbols signify (a pin band sign on the road suggests that road is bending or the word ‘Kitty’ signifies cat, platinum is learnt to be precious in some cultures).

 Woodland as a term combines two words ‘wood’ (jungle) and land. Literally it stands for jungle or woods. But by use of signs in its communication, the brand has evolved into a symbol of rugged outdoorsy personality. The shoe ceases to be at the centre of its meaning which is quite discernable from the spatial position that name has been given and percentage of space given to shoe in ads. Similarly luxury brands do not stand for objects or products they sell; rather they transform themselves into symbols of something called ‘luxury’ by substitution of the signified.

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3 thoughts on “Brands, Connotative meaning and System of signs

  1. Sir, this is probably the best article i have come across on how brands transact in the mindspace. I had always wondered the relevance of symbolism and wondered if it was infact over-streched. You bought that point out with amazing clarity.

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