Please learn from our mistakes

No-bullshit lessons in business and careers. One mail every day. 15k+ readers love it. Join in?

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
3 Apr

There's beauty in intentionality.

“If advertisement is the "Town Crier" for marketing, it follows that good marketing should always be established on a sound semiotic basis.

Marketing is relevant to advertisement not merely through the way a certain product is presented, but rather through the manner in which the general marketing concept is embodied in various signs through which producers communicate with users.

There are some instances when the town crier should be loud, others when the town crier should use a combination of expressive means, and others when silence — a very controlled silence — can make a well-defined marketing strategy reach its goal.

Semiotic awareness allows marketing professionals and advertisers to discover what is required for each circumstance.”

This is an excerpt from a 1987 consumer marketing research journal I was reading recently.

And for those of you who do not know — of which I assume would be many — semiotics is the study of symbols and their meaning.

In the context of branding, semiotics can be used to understand how a brand communicates and creates meaning for consumers through its visual, verbal, and experiential elements.

A brand's logo, colour palette, packaging, and advertising are all examples of semiotic elements that can influence the consumer's interpretation of the brand.

For example, I came across this restaurant called Qmin.

When I saw its logo at first, I read it as 3min. When I read its tagline — “qurated quality cuisine” — I surmised that their unique value proposition was somehow delivering this curated experience within 3 minutes.

It's only when I learned more that I found out that it's actually Qmin, for cumin seeds, and not 3min. The idea of cumin (a spice) written as Qmin was a difficult connection to make at first.

To me, it felt as if the brand lacked intention while designing its logo.

When I say intention, I mean a deep awareness of what you are doing and how it will be received by your audience.

But maybe it's just me. Maybe all consumers aren’t that invested. It's your brand. You have the right to leave out the customer from the dialogue and go by your style. But this is rarely the case, especially when you're trying to build a business.

Qmin's blunder, then, simply feels like an unintentional omission.

But regardless of whether this confusion is intentional or not, leaving the customer out of the dialogue can have all sorts of outcomes. Customers could forget your brand name, have a lower recall rate, and find it difficult to make associations, which is already difficult given the speed at which brands bombard customers.

Also probably why I think it is crucial to understand the language of brand symbols or semiotics.

All brand symbols are tools to communicate with the audience. They communicate a certain expectation, a certain image, and your audience naturally expects you to be consistent with your symbols. As a brand, your logo is how you usually initiate the conversation across touchpoints.

Kenya Hara’s notes on MUJI’s communication serve as a good starting point for how to initiate this conversation with a mere logo.

Hara uses advertising as the medium to explain MUJI’s brand communication. He highlights how crucial it is for a brand to impose its intention on the customer too strongly.

He emphasizes the need to design communication to accommodate the consumer’s interpretation of the brand. Visually, he describes this as —

In his view, how a brand is interpreted depends on the interpreter, which makes sense. And subsequently, he accommodates this understanding into MUJI’s brand communication.

“The ad's nucleus is the centripetal force that allows for diverse interpretations. People who like it pile into it their varied expectations and wishes. The MUJI advertising concept is the recognition of this fact, developed into a methodology. That is, communication becomes effective only when an advertisement is offered as an empty vessel and viewers freely deposit into it their ideas and wishes.

In a sense, the MUJI logo is the best copy and brand mark we could possibly have. By virtue of the passage of time and the accumulation of significance, the four Chinese characters of the MUJI logo reflect meaning to just the right extent.

In keeping with this concept, our product advertising has a definite, simple style in which the featured product is placed in the centre of an image in which the MUJI logo also appears somewhere.”

I have written a piece on MUJI before. If you read it, you will realize that this philosophy doesn't just stay limited to a fancy interpretation of the logo but seeps through in every choice the brand makes and everything it does.

And I find this coherence enviable.

Because based on the context of your consumer’s life — brand communication — including but not limited to the logo, ad copy, visuals, product experience, and customer service — can be seen as initiating and carrying out a dialogue with your customer. And the task of a brand manager, in the long run, is to design communication in a way that allows the customers to interpret the brand as the business intends and maintain that coherence across every touchpoint.

And when we talk about coherence, first there's the matter of consistency.

For example, uses small case letters in all of their brand communication. This helps them feel distinct, helps them stand out, and also creates a long-term visual association. The launch events at Apple follow a distinct yet repetitive style, along with how their webpages are designed, the messaging they use, the aesthetic; everything is consistent.

Heck, even Starbucks getting your name incorrect while calling out your order is an example of using a specific form of communication consistently to create brand recall.

Secondly, there's the matter of painting a narrative.

Customers buy brands based on how they justify that purchase to themselves. If the product or service cost is high, the number of reasons required to justify the purchase will be higher. It will be the opposite in the case of lower-priced products. For instance, when we cite the example of uber-luxurious brands such as Rolls Royce or Hermés never using advertising and excessive promotion to sell products, we forget that all of it is intentional and towards painting a certain brand image. These brands drive the kind of sales they do because by communicating less and maintaining a controlled silence, they allow ample room for favourable myth creation and interpretation. The customer starts associating feelings of prestige and quality automatically when the brand acts like a secure person who doesn't need to shout from the rooftops to justify its value.

Despite being subtle, achieving that kind of power requires a strong thought process around what the brand intends to stand for and being anal about that intent across everything the brand does.

All brand communication has to be deliberate and intentional.

Once you realize the value of strong intent infused into every element, you will notice it in all good brands. IKEA does it well, and so do many of the good brands that are often talked about in branding case studies.

Following the latest trend blindly often fails to factor in this core intent. It can create dissonance in the mind of the customer. That is why great brands never do it, unless it is their whole brand strategy, in which case some other brand elements create consistency.

For example, Zomato is a brand that follows the latest trends but the consistent element across all of their communication everywhere is that it centers around food and dishes, never anything else.

In any case, to create influence through a brand, a business must have clarity on what message it would like to signal. Thereafter, all the focus should be on using the kind of communication that helps the customers arrive at similar or adjacent meanings.

In the end, it's all about intent and how deeply it seeps into your messaging. Good brands never drop the ball.

Feeling Lucky?
Subscribe to get new posts emailed to you, daily. No spam.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
15k+ business professionals act on our advice every day. You should too.
Subscribe to get new posts emailed to you, daily. No spam.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
15k+ business professionals act on our advice every day. You should too.