Market Research Qualitative Research

Symbols: Telegraph Your Brand Story for Instant, Deep Resonance

I say, “Swoosh,” and you say…

Nike, of course.

The Nike swoosh is iconic. Recognized by athletes, spectators, and people the world over, the Nike Swoosh is valued at over $26 billion. Business people love to tell the story that this essential corporate asset was created by a graphic design student at Portland State University in 1971 who was paid about $35 (under $300 in 2017) for her work.

From $35 to $26 billion. Not a bad ROI!

The valuation happened because the Nike Swoosh has become a brand symbol. Symbols provide a form of “shorthand” in communications. A visual image comes to represent an idea or a universal truth that is widely recognized by a group of consumers. Symbols are valuable communication tools because advertisers have mere seconds to capture the attention of and make a connection with their audience. Symbols can quickly impart meaning to the story brands are trying to tell, saving valuable time and money.

Symbols work to tell your brand story because consumers are very comfortable with symbols. Like archetypes and sensory cues, we are surrounded by symbols from a young age. These symbols give us insight into truths inherent to our humanity and to understanding our world.

Universal symbols function almost as archetypes. While they are not unique to your brand, they have a universal meaning. Using these archetypal symbols is a shorthand that communicates a broad emotional connection. For example, circles as symbols are interpreted to mean birth, rebirth, the cycles of life, and the turning of seasons. Birds as a symbol mean freedom, liberation, and the soul’s ascent to heaven. The Goddess (usually shown with a pregnant belly) is a universal symbol of fertility, harvest, and abundance.

Nike is not the only brand story that relies on a strong symbol for communicating rich meaning and connecting with emotions. Here are some additional examples:

  • BMW is a German company that started in aeronautics. To express that heritage the BMW logo was designed to represent spinning propellers viewed head-on. The symbol is meant to remind consumers of BMW’s heritage of fine engineering and high-performance machines. After all, today’s BMW is the ultimate driving machine as expressed in current advertising slogan as “designed for driving pleasure.”
  • The Michelin Man – that rotund, happy figure – was designed to represent a pile of tires. That symbol has been in use since 1888 with only minor modification. Clearly, the symbol quickly communicates what the company is about: tires you can rely on to give you safe, long-lasting, trouble free transportation.
  • Rolex watches’ symbol consists of a pointed crown above the company name, and has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950’s (with the only addition being to make the crown gold). The crown symbol telegraphs prestige, victory, and perfection. The symbol is reflected in the company’s slogan: “A Crown for Every Achievement.”

Not all logos are symbols, but most logos have the potential to become symbols. The key is to build awareness and comprehension of that logo or symbol to the point that it can telegraph your brand story and becomes short-hand to communicate your brand essence. As an example of a brand logo that has not become a symbol, think of Microsoft. While most of us stare at that symbol for hours every day, the company has not taken advantage of that exposure to imbue that symbol with meaning, perhaps missing a great marketing opportunity.

Additionally, like a brand story, symbols’ meaning can evolve. While the Nike Swoosh was associated originally with professional athletic teams, now when paired with the “Just Do It” slogan, it has evolved to come to mean striving to accomplish a goal, whether an athletic goal or something else. This additional meaning significantly widened the brand’s’ appeal and target market. In BMW’s case, the symbol came about to represent the merger of the aircraft company with an automotive company.

When a symbol is intentionally managed to be a strong, clear communication and emotional connection to consumers, they become a valuable asset and a powerful marketing tool. Marketers must stay on the pulse of what their symbol means and how that might differ across groups. Like a flag for your brand, your symbol makes an important contribution to telling your brand story.

Symbols are more than pretty. Symbols are built with meaning. Learn how with FeltonBuford Partners.

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