From brand to branding. The enlightened semiotic gaze

Quotes from a fictitious dialog:

A – “If you need to go to Tesco, take the Picasso but leave the Clio, I’ll need it!
B – All right, but actually, I’ll shop at Sainsbury.
A – OK then, please remember to buy my Danone, and do buy some Cheerio’s and Special K for the children.”

Anyone can understand this dialog with brands instead of products and companies. Brands give a lot of information about a product, they make it tangible and anchor it in the reality. However, these products often relate to more than one brand, for instance Renault Clio or Nestle’s Cheerio’s. Each brand has its own meaning and the overall meaning one ascribes to a brand is the result of an assemblage of two or more brands and their associated meanings. This process is labelled branding.

What does branding mean?

Unlike brands, branding is not that much studied in marketing. François Bobrie’s recent paper in Recherche et Applications en Marketing focuses on branding through a semiotic approach (i.e. the general theory of signs, in all their shapes and manifestations). He suggests that branding can be seen as the source of a story for the branded object. In other words, it is a real language telling a story, and above all, a positioning. This narrative can manifest itself through visual representations.

An assemblage of brands

Why would you look at branding instead of brands?

The majority of goods are not branded by one but by an assemblage of brands, words and/or branding (e.g. company, product brand, claim). These are discourses (language objects with a meaning) whose content is made of narratives. These narratives facilitate the differentiation from the competitors.

In order to better show the purpose of looking closer at branding, the author uses the examples of the visual discourses put forward by four Beaujolais « grand cru » bearing the name of their estate, of their winemakers or owners, etc… (e.g.: Laurent Perrachon, Les Mouilles, Juliénas ; Château Thivin, cuvée Godefroy, Côte de Brouilly). He does the same with four Bordeaux bottles (e.g.: Château Giscours, Margaux 1855 grand cru classé; Château Clerc Milon, Pauillac, Grand Cru classé).

Through a semiotic analysis of their labels, François Bobrie shows that branding allows products to:

  • tell their differences ;
  • define a positioning ;
  • identify a potential segment for preferred recipients (for instance expert consumers, luxury wine consumers, or consumers seeking taste experiences).

What is the point for managers of using semiotic to study branding practices?

The author identifies two major benefits of doing so:

  • The first benefit relates to the early stages of the branding development. Managers can study the competitors’ discourses through a comparative analysis. This assessment helps managers deciding on the positioning they want to put forward. It is quite usual to use semiotic methods today, they are easy to implement and they allow a conversation between marketers and designers.
  • The second benefit comes around the interpretation of consumers’ choice of the branded product. The semiotic allows the analysis of consumers’ discourse when they talk about their purchases and consumption. It helps understanding the meaning they give to them.

By doing this, managers can make informed decisions about the marketing strategies they want to implement. In sum, analysing branding as a semiotic system of visual representations is an efficient way to understand how to depict an offering and tell the story of its positioning.

Bobrie, F. (2018). Visual representations of goods and services through their brandings: The semiotic foundations of a language of brands. Recherche et Applications en Marketing (English Edition), 33(3), 122-144.

Blog post adapted from Fanny Magnoni.

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