Brand Semiotics: Shorthand Through Symbols


An athlete looks down to lace up his shoes and a familiar sight instills confidence in his equipment. A ubiquitous curved checkmark now known universally as “The Swoosh” carries multiple layers of meaning. Although each layer might not be known to everyone that wears a Nike product, the values that The Swoosh symbolizes are likely the reason they made the purchase. The company derived its name Nike from the Greek Goddess of Victory and the wings of the goddess provide a loose base for the logo design. The shape of their mark is also meant to depict motion and speed, and by harnessing the power of onomatopoeia as the term to describe it, “swoosh” reinforces this idea. Nike embodies these ideals of victory, movement and speed in everything that they do. Whether encouraging individuals to “Just Do It” or showing Michael Jordan in flight, all of the company’s messaging focuses on the principles the brand symbolizes, accreting value in a singular idea of outsized performance.


Human beings tirelessly crave and create symbols as a form of shorthand. From cave paintings to hieroglyphics to the numerous emblems that define the world’s religions, humans have ascribed meaning to shapes and colors and pictures throughout our history. With a concept inherent to human ingenuity, it’s a no-brainer to leverage symbolism in brand building. Branding seeks to connect people to your business at a deeper level by signaling unique functional, emotional and self-expressive benefits, and over time symbols embody and represent these brand benefits to the world.

Symbols act as efficient visual cues for consumers. As you rush through the streets to a meeting and you need to pick up coffee on the way, you’re likely not looking for the word “coffee.” You’re not even looking for the eponymous coffee-swilling first mate from Moby Dick that gave Starbucks its name. Instead, you’re looking for a green circle with a familiar stylized mermaid. In the midst of a road trip to an unfamiliar location, you look for a pair of golden arches that represent legendary consistency in burgers and fries the world over. When your brand has strong symbolism, consumers know the exact benefits they derive from it at a glance. When a product has the silhouette of a bitten apple on it, consumers make certain assumptions about the product’s design, functionality and user experience before making that purchase. Folks don’t have to do additional research or listen to taglines or pursue any explanation. Brands with strong symbolism act as a visual shorthand.

Many of the top brands leverage symbolism. Airbnb’s mark, which they call the “Bélo,” conveys a sense of belonging — the desire to feel welcomed, respected and appreciated for who you are, no matter where you might be. In the pursuit to become “Earth’s biggest bookstore,” Jeff Bezos wanted a name for his company that would reflect this value. He eventually chose Amazon, named after Earth’s biggest river, as a symbol equal to his vision. The design choice for the Nestlé logo may seem obvious since it shows a nest with birds, as the company’s name means “nest” in German. What most people don’t know, however, is that very early in the company’s history Henri Nestlé added three young birds being fed by a mother to the logo to create a visual link between his name and his company’s infant cereal products.


Symbolism also extends beyond your logo or name. The iconic hourglass shape of the Coca-Cola bottle is perhaps the best-known example of embedding symbolism in the product. In 1914, Harold Hirsch, the lead attorney for the Coca-Cola Company stated, “We are not building Coca-Cola alone for today. We are building Coca-Cola forever, and it is our hope that Coca-Cola will remain the National drink to the end of time.” By shifting away from cylindrical bottles used for every other drink, Coca-Cola turned the shape of their product into a symbol that conveyed preemptive uniqueness and distinction in soft drinks.


Symbols allow brands to capture and express their value propositions at a glance, and over time, can become iconic badges that enjoy near-universal recognition. Don’t overlook the power of symbols in building your brand. With consistency, hard work and a dash of luck, your symbol might wind up among the greats.


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