How are they reading your brand?

So, you made a draft of your new company logo, wrote down the kind of values you want your business to impose and sent this information to a graphic designer, who made a killer design out of it? Or maybe you wanted a more professional approach, so you hired a marketing firm to come up with various designs from which you picked the one that is the most ”you”?


At any point did anyone ask the consumers of your brand what do they think?






Business-wise, you’re running quite a big risk there. Especially if you and your brand are planning to enter the world stage. While you may be an expert in your field of business and have an eye for what captures the attention of people in your society, your consumers across the globe might have quite a different set of cultural cues and viewpoints through which they read your image.


Enter semiotics. Semiotics, from the greek word sēmeíon, is the study of signs. On the base level, semiotics is a doctrine that teaches us to appreciate our experience of the world as something mediated to us by signs. Signs are sent, signs are received, signs are experienced, and most importantly, signs are interpreted. And the way signs are interpreted varies according to how the interpreter relates signs to other signs.


Brands – whether we’re talking about logos, names, trademarks, attributes of a product, the customer experience of a service or whatever – are very complex signs or sets of signs. From a semiotics point-of-view we can look at a brand as a text: people who engage with a brand read all the signs and form an understanding of what the brand is saying to them. But it is important to understand that the way this text is produced depends on the context, that is to say, all the other signs available to the ”reader”.


Here lies the risk I cannot emphasize enough: the messages you intend to send through your brand image are not the only ones being read, the consumers will read other messages unto your brand.


A semiotic analysis of brands and marketing typically pits a brand against the competitors on its marketplace and extracts competing values and meanings associated with each brand to pave a way for new innovations and more coherent marketing in the future. The competing brands create a context for your brand from which your brand’s ”text” has to stand out to be competitive. This context varies from market to market.


To fully get an understanding of a brand’s perception, however, we should get the perspective straight from the readers. One popular way to acquire this information is through polling and surveying. The challenge then is often to form the right kind of survey: after all, how do you ask someone how they read without imposing on them your own understanding of how reading should be conducted?


To tackle this, I personally recommend integrating the analysis to ethnographic study that creates thick data, meaning the observation and interviewing of representative persons of different cultures and societies who might be tackling their understanding of different brands in unpredictable ways.


Each individual and each society will create their own semiotic ways of reading your brand, so to understand the full impact of your brand, you should learn to read what they read through semiotically oriented cultural research.


- Antti Kiviranta


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