Arbitrariness, desires and different levels of brand meaning

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.

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.

Luxury, Transfunctionalisation and Dispensability

Marketing is a search for something material or mystical. Theoretically, marketing is about filling gaps or voids which leave people in a state of discomfort, displeasure and dissatisfaction.  Many brands therefore operate within the realm of what is needed; these fulfill need gaps, expressed or otherwise. Accordingly there are products and brands, the absence of which is likely to result in a state of annoyance and discomfort.  A necessity is something unavoidable or indispensable. Necessary goods are the ones which are essential for survival; hence they are indispensible like food, shelter and water. But no absolutes exist.  A necessary good for someone may be luxury for the other. Sunscreen lotion may be necessary for a working executive but luxury for a construction worker.

Luxury on the other hand is non-essential or unnecessary.  Luxuries certainly bring pleasure comfort but their absence is not likely to put life at risk. A watch is necessary for an MNC’s executive but Rolex is not. His travel to office is essential but driving a BMW is not.  And his signing of paper is indispensible part of his job but writing with a Mont Blanc is not. Luxuries in this conceptualization are un-necessary, dispensable and avoidable. So the big question is how marketers transform their inessential wares into something deeply coveted, cherished and wanted. The market for luxuries is huge and growing.  Luxury is a two tiered phenomenon.  First, the luxury connotations prevail at goods categories level and secondly, at the brand level.

Absence of a necessity creates a condition of discomfort and this gives rise to their marketing justification.  But then what justifications do luxury brands offer? So why must luxury brands like Mercedes, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton, Harry Winston, Vertu, Hermes, Macallan Single Malt, Chanel, and Ralph Lauren be bought? Luxury brands develop their justification not by fulfilling the discomfort or annoyance void by functionality. The first building block at the heart of a luxury brand is its ‘inessentiality’. Luxury brands do not address to annoyances and discomforts rather they subvert brand narrative by pushing it into the realm of inessential, something which is dispensable for survival. The discourse about essential or functionality is opposite of the concept of luxury. Luxury in this construction implies discovering something material or immaterial that falls outside the boundary of the ‘essential’.

Is the concept of luxury universal? Luxury is a culturally constructed phenomenon.  For instance, a high carat diamond may not hold any luxury connotations for an African tribe. This is also true for brand building, the connotations or symbolism signifying (Nichole Kidman/ diamond dial for Omega Ladymatic) luxury depends upon culture.  A car denotes a vehicle but a BMW connotes luxury which is more than a car. A watch denotes a time keeping device but Rolex connotes luxury.  Luxury making is about making appearances and disappearances. In both these cases, the objects (car and watch) fade into background and some symbolic construction comes to forefront.

Luxury branding is about investing something ‘extra’ into a product.  This may take physical or non-physical form. Luxury brands transform the way they are looked at by their consumers. But then there is not universal way of looking at things. The way of looking at things is culturally determined. Culture supplies values, codes and norms which are then applied to decode meaning.  Objects can be viewed employing physical, mechanical, economic or social perspective.  Meanings operate at two levels. The first order meaning is about what it denotes and is functionally determined. The second order meaning or connotation is creation by the process of transfunctionalisation . Initially an object is devoid of any sign value. Luxury is not about denotation or functionality, it is about connotation.  The sign value (brand as signifier) is constructed by an interplay of socio-cultural process. Marketers use cultural as sign system to achieve this transformation, in which mass media plays a dominant role. Here the product is made to stand for something that it is inherently not by and interplay of signs and codes drawn from the culture.

A semiotic study of luxury watch brands revealed interesting findings as to how these time keeping devices are transfunctionlised into pieces of luxury- unique and highly desirable.  The five codes used by these brands were:  transfunctionalisation into jewelry which takes the watch away from its functionality. It is signified through design aspects like looks, diamonds, bracelets and availability at jewelry stores.  Second, luxury signified through quality or what is inside the case of a watch- the technology.  It is expressed through complications of movement, precision, sapphire glass etc.  Then there a code relate to jewelry is about watch’s construction with precious metals and materials like diamonds and gold. And lastly luxury is about scarcity and exclusivity. These brands create an impression of scarcity by not letting their brands available everywhere.    

Making of a luxury brand is about transformation of an object into a construct of imagination by systematic conversion of exchange value into sign value.

Pepsi, “Oh Yes Abhi”, Slogans , Resonance and Layers of Meaning

Two important routes to brand creation are visual and verbal. The visual (illustration, pictures, logo) and verbal (message, headline, slogan) elements are combined to create brand image. These elements engage prospects through two of the five senses, the sight and sound. Brand slogans assume heightened importance in present day time-short and over-assaulted consumer. Perceptual filtering and defense mechanisms are pressed into action to escape from incessant barrage of messages that hit consumer’s mind. Slogans for being short and mnemonic are effective tools because of being less stressful on cognitive system. Slogans can convey brand’s essence (what brand stands for) in an instance and simultaneously contribute to brand strength by building recall and visualization.  For instance a sign off/ slogan like ‘High performance delivered’ (Accenture), ‘Melts in your mouth not in your hands (M&Ms) and ‘”When it Absolutely, Positively has to be there overnight’ (FedEx), ‘We try harder’ (Avis), ‘Think different’ (Apple), ‘Solutions for a small planet’ (IBM) convey brand promise succinctly and position it in relation to competition by highlighting relative strength.  Ranbir,Priyanka And M. S. Dhoni Photo Shoot For Pepsi Oh Yes ABHI! Ad

In the quest to bond with its market, Pepsi has launched its new campaign ‘Right here right now’/ ‘Oh Yes Abhi’.  It is interesting to see how brands change gears in their negotiation of psychological space in their search for relevance and resonance. Brand is much more than product, in this case the drink.  And the drink  is likely to deliver the same kind of experience. But then why the campaign has been launched that seeks to alter brand’s meaning semiotic ally? This brings us to the question whether people buy brands only for the utility sake or their delivery extends beyond functional boundaries.  A campaign that aims to alter brand symbolism without any  change of its product is certainly an effort given to align brand’s meaning with evolving consumer psycho-social reality.

Pepsi’s communication campaigns provide an interesting case study on changing youth psychology and life style. The brand is quick to size up the psychological space and read its undercurrents. It seizes opportunity in hidden concerns, dilemmas, and aspirations of its young target group. Prima facie Pepsi’s slogans appear simple statements with a very definite literal meaning. The denotative meaning actually is superficial to all these communications. The brand actually engages with its consumers at connotative level.  Accordingly communication says one thing at express level manner but quite another at the unspoken form. One of characteristics of good brand is that it forges bonds which transcend the logic, reason and rationality. Consider the following slogans which Pepsi has employed over the time:

‘Nothing official about it’ (1996)

‘Yeh dil maange more!’ (2006)

“Pepsi ye pyaas heh badi” (2000)

“My Pepsi My Way”(2009)

“Change the game” (2011)

 “Oh Yes Abhi” (2013)


In an interview with ET (28/1/13) Justice Verma  said, ‘If the government takes time, they should make way for persons who are quicker. If, at 80, I am so impatient, govt should understand the impatience of youth’.  Philosophically life is a different phenomenon from what it used to be. The meaning of time, relationships, institutions, consumption and artifacts has changed. There has been a fundamental shift in life values, aspirations and goals: life is short, time runs fast, conflicting priorities, a lot to be achieved, now is when you exist, pleasure is fine, me is first, old is no wisdom.  The certainty (emanating from linearity of progression in everything) coupled with philosophy of abnegation (sense control) made contentment an easily realizable goal. When tomorrow is uncertain, the focus shifts to now, young seek instant gratification ‘ Cause time can’t wait then I sure can’t wait, I ain’t got no patience no I just can’t wait… ‘No time for procrastination’ (Now generation song). The dictionary meaning of ‘impatient’ is lack of patience; intolerance of or irritability with anything that impedes or delays/ restless desire for change and excitement. Impatience is fuelled by a desire to ‘do more’ (‘yeh dil mange more’/ ‘ye pyaas heh badi’) which proportionately reduces the time available. This is the reason why the new currency of trade has become time (do you measure distance by time or kilometer?)

The idea appropriated by new Pepsi campaign taps into inner psychological reality of impatient generation (psychology of instant gratification- no urge deferment).  The slogan ‘Oh Yes Abhi, does not urge you to drink Pepsi ‘right now’ as it may seem to suggest but seeks to give the brand a new consumer resonating identity.

 Prof Mitra, my esteemed colleague at FMS says that Pepsi’s slogans have a third layer of meaning which operate within the realm of sexuality. Read these slogans. They do seem to be laden with  sexual connotations.