Semiotics and Strategic Brand Management
Laura R. Oswald
Associate Professor, the University of Illinois
Director, Marketing Semiotics Inc.
Semiotics and Brand Equity
Over the past ten years or so, brand strategy researchers have come to recognize the
importance of brand communication in building and sustaining brand equity, the value attached
to a brand name or logo that supercedes product attributes and differentiates brands in the
competitive arena (See
Sherry 1987, Umiker-Sebeok 1987, Aaker 1991, 1995; Schmidt 1995,
). The contribution of brand
meanings and perceptions to profitability – the Coca Cola brand is valued at over $70 billion -
testifies to the power of symbolic representation to capture the hearts and minds of consumers by
means of visual, audio, and verbal signs. The semiotic dimension of brands is therefore
instrumental for building awareness, positive associations, and long-term customer loyalty, and
contributes to trademark ownership and operational advantages such as channel and media clout.
Consequently, managing brand equity means managing brand semiotics.
Thus rather than define brand semiotics as a supplement to the traditional marketing
toolbox of product, price, promotion and placement, I propose that brand equity management is
entirely semiotic, and that a brand can be defined as a
system of signs
and symbols that engages
the consumer in an imaginary/symbolic process that contributes tangible value to a product
offering. This process may
include a vicarious experience, a
relationship, or need fulfillment
and may operate at the levels of
product, price, promotion, or
placement. Semiotics is thus a cornerstone of brand equity management, since symbolic
communication ties consumption to the form of brand communication in advertising, packaging,
and brand logo.
The Complexity of Marketing Sign Systems
As a sign system, brand communication is achieved through a
complex matrix of signifying elements, including material, structural,
conventional, contextual, and performative dimensions. Let me
illustrate this reference to the logo for the McDonald’s (on the right).
– a visual icon.
– golden arches, red background, brand name superimposed on the arches in
white, squared font. The arches located to the left of the square so the logo moves off to the
right, suggesting movement.
Conventional or Codified
– the golden arches, the color scheme, and the brand name
consistently signify the company and brand offerings for the
McDonald’s company. Anywhere in the world, in various
languages, this logo tells the consumer that a burger and fries are
not far away. (French McDonald’s, on the right)