We use language to express our ideas and thoughts. But language is not the only way of expression. Both verbal expressions and visual images belong to a sign system by which meanings are conveyed and made. Ferdinand de Sausssure and Charles S Peirce explored the areas of signs and called their approach as ‘semiology’ and ‘semiotics’. Sign, which comes from Greek word ‘semeion ‘sits at the centre of semiotic theory. People use language to express their concepts and ideas, in a consumerist society, products and brands operate as a system of signs. Brands and products are signs that we surround ourselves with to send out messages to others. Brands are valuable for their instrumentality in consumer identity creation and expression. A consumer’s body is like a piece of real estate on which products and logos situate themselves. A lot can be deciphered from the overall constellation of brands that a person transforms himself into. Brands in this scheme of things need stand for something more than the product or service they envelop. They need to enter in the realm of semiotics or science of signs to achieve value transformation.
There are two aspects of a sign: the signifier (gold) and the signified (concept-precious). The meaning is interpreted by people as is determined by cultural code. So the term ‘gold’ is immediately linked with ‘precious/costly’ according to cultural norms and values. It is through the enculturation and socialization process we learnt what to associate with a given signifier. These codes are essential to interpret everything that we are surrounded by. But the relationship between the sign and signified is not intrinsic rather it is arbitrary (Saussure). The link between ‘status/ luxury’ and ‘Bentley’ is a constructed rather than inherent one. Although Bentley is primarily denotes a vehicle for transportation, but it connotes status/luxury. This arbitrariness of meaning provides marketers with a fertile ground to imbue their objects with meanings that create desires and promote consumption.
An object is like an empty vessel or a container. Besides its physical property and performance it does not contain any sign value. But when it enters into socio-cultural world, it begins to acquire symbolic or sign value. Secondary signification or denotation is inescapable. Therefore how an object is initiated in cultural space critical determinant of its sign value. For instance a color is a color. But not all colors are equal. Consider a color like purple which a shade between crimson and blue, but it is not only this. In its extended meaning it stands for royalty, luxury, power, nobility, wealth, wisdom and creativity. But exact meanings of things vary across cultural boundaries. For instance, in China the color purple signifies spiritual awareness, strength and awareness and in Japan it stands for privilege and wealth. However in Thailand it is worn in mourning. Imagine the vast possibilities that this phenomenon opens up for a brand’s to acquire meaning other than what it stands for in objective reality.
The semantic perspective is only one way of looking at an object (Eco). An object like a pen or automobile can be seen from different perspectives: physical, mechanical, economic and social level. Consider ‘black dress’ created by Coco Chanel in 1920s from different perspectives:
Physical level: this refers to the physical properties. The materials used in this dress were materials such as lace, tulle, soft weightless silks in black color. In terms of its construction it was slash-necked, short and diagonal pin tucks.
Mechanical level: a pen at this level writes and an automobile transports. The little black dress provided simple and comfortable body cover.
Economic level: this pertains to exchange value. The economic value is measured by the maximum amount of other things that a person will willingly give up for something. It is about choices and tradeoffs that people make. In present economies, it is reflected in the rupees or dollars that people are willing to give for something.
Social level: objects can be linked to a certain social class and indicate status, distinction and hierarchy. Like caviar and single malts indicate rich class. Also brands such as Rolls Royce and Harry Winston are linked to social status. Starting as a simple wear without any class restrictions, the LBD socially epitomized elegant, stylish, sophisticated women.
Semantic level: at the semantic level the meaning of a sign is ‘cultural unit’, i.e. the meaning of signs is culturally defined. Here the object does not remain an object, rather it into enters as a unit into a system of cultural units and forms relationships.
Branding is all about signs and signification. Eco calls ‘signification’ as the semiotic event where a sign ‘stands for something’. Consider the latest communication of Coke-‘open happiness’. How the brand has been achieving semantic transformation in what the brand stands for. The resistance that has been brewing up against junk food in general and some brands in particular makes it essential for the suspect brands to transform what their brands stand for. Coke is reinventing its fit with new emerging cultural paradigm where Coke is beginning to stand for ill health.