Worth a thousand words
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Worth a thousand words

Signs and symbols form their own, hidden language, often more powerful than words.

Semiotics is the study of signs, examining how things gain particular associations and the implications for how we communicate. It’s a bit like linguistics, except it focuses on visual and auditory symbols rather than language exclusively.

Symbols, including brand logos, metaphors and a whole host of other phenomena, can be used as a kind of shorthand. Unlike words – which typically have only a couple of specific definitions and can be used for the odd pun – one symbol can convey a whole raft of meanings.

For example, a picture of a crown is associated with the idea of monarchy, but also implies pomp and circumstance, tradition, prestige, heritage and absolute control. In Britain, the long and relatively uncontroversial reign of Elizabeth II has imbued it with additional connotations of stability and trust.

Successful brands often become symbols in themselves, gaining value in the minds of the public and, as a result, financial value – according to WPP and Millward Brown, the McDonald’s brand is worth US$81 billion. Just seeing the red and yellow ‘big M’ logo conveys meanings built up over decades.

Up-and-comers, who don’t have the luxury of an established brand with its own associations, can borrow existing symbols to steer people towards a particular view. For example:

  1. Colours – red is associated with danger and energy, blue with intelligence and calm.
  2. Animals – Thinking about creating a mascot? Bees suggest hard work and cooperation, lions bravery, dogs loyalty, monkeys mischief.
  3. Type fonts – these can convey as much meaning as the words, and should be chosen carefully for all communications, not just your company logo. A serif font gives a traditional, authoritative feel, while sans serif looks more ‘modern’. However, every so often there is a shift in fashion between serif and sans serif fonts – Google’s recent logo change may signal a return to a sans serif spell.
  4. Everyday objects – broken chains can represent freedom; ladders, ascension; pound or dollar signs more often indicate good value for money than exclusivity.
  5. Arrows – an arrow takes on different meanings according to the where it points. When going right they stand for speed or progress, because that is how we have been taught to read – take a look at the logos of FedEx and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

But beware when choosing symbols, because they can vary by culture or context. For example, in the Far East the colour green is associated with sickness, and it is white, not black, that is the colour of death and mourning in China. Some brands tailor their approaches to different markets to avoid awkward connotations.

And organisations should also watch out because symbols are not static; the meaning can change. The value of the McDonald’s brand, though still high, declined 5% in the last year, and 5% in the year before that, because of people’s shifting attitudes to health, food provenance and quality.

Rob Coston Reporter CPL
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