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8.10. Brands And Semiotics

Semiotics is the study of meaning, and is concerned with the symbolism conveyed by objects and words. Semiotics refers to systems of signs; the most obvious system is words, but other systems exist. For example, a film would use the sign systems of the spoken word, the gestures of the actors, the music of the soundtrack, and the conventions of movie direction and production to generate an overall meaning. The overall meaning is generated as a result of an interaction between the sign system and the observer or reader: the viewer interprets the information in the light of existing knowledge and attitudes, later including it in an overall perceptual map of reality. Brands are important symbols, often using more than one sign system to create meaning; the brand name, the logo, the colour and the design of the packaging all contribute. In terms of semiotics brands have four levels:

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  • A utilitarian sign. This is about the practical aspects of the product, and includes meanings of reliability, effectiveness, fitness for the purpose and so forth.
  • A commercial sign. This is about the exchange values of the product, perhaps conveying meanings about value for money or cost-effectiveness.
  • A socio-cultural sign. This is about the social effects of buying (or not buying) the product, with meanings about membership of aspirational groups or about the fitness of the product for filling social roles.
  • A sign about the mythical values of the product. Myths are heroic stories about the product, many of which have little basis in fact: for example the Harley Davidson motorcycle brand has a strong mythical value due (in part) to its starring role in the film Easy Rider. The same is true of James Bond’s Aston Martin, and several brands of beer.

Myths provide a conceptual framework through which the contradictions of life can be resolved, and brands can build on this. For example, modern industrial life is, presumably, the antithesis of frontier adventure. Yet the Harley Davidson, a product of twentieth-century industry, was used to represent the (probably mythical) freedom and adventure of the American West. The association of different values with the brand name can be extremely useful when researching the acceptability of a brand's image. The importance that consumers place on these values can be researched using focus groups, with a subsequent analysis of the key signs contained within the brand, and consumers can be segmented according to their responsiveness to the particular signs contained within the brand and their relevance to the consumer's own internal values. Research carried out by Gordon and Valentin into retail buying behavior showed that different retail outlets convey different meanings to consumers in terms of a continuum from planned, routine shopping through to impulse buying. Each store type met the needs differently and conveyed different meanings in terms of appropriateness of behaviour. Convenience stores conveyed an image of disorder and feelings of guilt and confusion (perhaps associated with having forgotten to buy some items in the course of the regular weekly shop). Supermarkets represented planned shopping and conveyed an image of efficient domestic management and functionality. Petrol stations carried a dual meaning of planned purchase (for petrol) and impulse buying (in the shop). Business travelers seeking a break from work and pleasure travelers seeking to enhance the ‘holiday’ feeling both indulged in impulsive behaviour motivated by the need for a treat. Finally, off-licences legitimated the purchase of alcohol, allowing shoppers to buy drinks without the uneasy feeling that other shoppers might disapprove. Off-licences also provided an environment in which people felt able to experiment with new purchases. These signs are relevant not only for the retailers themselves in terms of their own branding, but also for branded-goods manufacturers who need to decide which outlets are most appropriate for their brands and where in the store the brand should be located. For example, snack foods and chocolate are successfully sold in petrol stations, where the travellers are often looking for a treat to break up a boring journey.

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