Brand (Non)Sense - Read the signs

Have you read the signs?

An acquaintance is considering abandoning the franchise agreement for their coffee shop. There are pros and cons both ways, but the biggest risk they face what will happen when they take the sign down.

I have suggested this risk to them as nicely as I can. But I am not sure they are listening. They currently benefit from a brand. They argue they are being harmed by it. Either way, the BRAND is exerting an influence on the business.

What they don’t seem to grasp is that simply replacing one bulkhead sign for another does not create a new brand. There is a long list of things that ‘signify’ the brand – things they (as long-term franchisees) are taking for granted.

They may be justified in wanting to ditch their franchisor, but I am not sure they understand the consequences (and the requirements) of creating a new brand fully.

Retailers sometimes think branding is what marketers do. Small business thinks branding is what big business does. Big business thinks ‘branding’ is what advertising agencies do for them. None of the above are true.

I blame marketing practitioners for the fact that most business people don’t appreciate the importance of brands. Proctor and Gamble were/are lauded for being the pre-eminent exponents of brand management, but making ‘brand’ the responsibility of one person did branding a great disservice.

The definition of ‘branding’ doesn’t really illuminate the subject:

Old English brand, brond "fire, flame; firebrand, piece of burning wood, torch," and (poetic) "sword," from Proto-Germanic *brandaz (cognates: Old Norse brandr, Old High German brant, Old Frisian brond "firebrand, blade of a sword," German brand "fire"), from root *bran-/*bren- (see burn (v.)). Meaning "identifying mark made by a hot iron" (1550s) broadened by 1827 to "a particular make of goods." Brand name is from 1922.

Whilst the origin of the word ‘branding’ may have much in common with the practice of farmers slapping a hot iron on the arse of a cow, and it was used to signify ownership; the modern practice of ‘branding’ as a dark art of marketing is quite different. The brand symbol (a logo) is but one element in the arsenal of the professional brand manager.

Branding is actually semiotic craft.

Semiotics is commonly defined as the study of signs, symbols, and signification. Signifiers are any material things that signify, e.g., words on a page, facial expressions or images.

Despite the fact that I say you can’t outsource the responsibility for branding to an ad agency, you can’t really build a brand effectively with the assistance of your second cousin twice removed and an aunt who dabbles in drawing. You may be able to buy a logo for $99 online, but you can’t build a brand that way. There is a time and place for professionals to be involved.


The following two advertisements were analysed by Emma Henderson (researcher), whom I will rely on to make the case.

Both of the following advertisements are for Ralph Lauren Romance.  Figure 1 is for the women's fragrance and Figure 2 is for the men’s fragrance. 

The ads signify DIFFERENT things to their male and female audiences.

BUT – and this is the power of advertising that is done ‘on brand’, these two ads also clearly share the Ralph Lauren brand heritage.

The ads signify the SAME things to their male and female audiences.

  • Both advertisements show a male and a female  (ROMANCE  is a two-way street)
  • Both advertisements are in black white, but as one compares both one can notice that the male advertisement has much darker tones.
  • Both models have the ‘perfect’ figure, which signifies health and beauty.  The male is perfectly toned whilst the female is very slim and attractive; her hair is flowing to signify femininity. 
  • The visual codes within the advertisements signify gender; in both advertisements the male takes on the active role

I am pretty confident that few people would have looked at those two pictures and entertain the notion of ‘syntagmatic patterns’.

That is kinda the point: Good brand design is invisible.

But semiotics can be and is much bigger than studying ‘signs’. And semiotics is not an esoteric art practised by hipster-designers in Paddington or Chapel Street.

Most designers will do what designers do and focus on the symbols, but if you think about the definition carefully, retail is awash with signs – more than just ‘signage’ – there are many other signifiers.

Have you thought about these signifiers in your store?

  • The way a diner puts the cutlery on the plate
  • The way a customer looks (signals) for assistance
  • The message on your carry bag
  • The height of the hook, the size of the mirror and the absence/ presence/ style/ comfort/ colour of a chair in the change room
  • The smile on a sales associate’s face (and the colour of the lipstick)
  • The volume of the music (and the name of the band)
  • The pile  in the carpet
  • The sign above the cash register about shoplifting
  • The font size of your tickets

EVERYTHING signifies something.

Ten of the basic lessons of brand management I have learned in the school of life are:

  1. Creating and maintaining a brand cannot be simply outsourced to an agency.
  2. There is more to the brand than the logo and a sign above the door.
  3. It takes a long time to create a brand.
  4. You only get one chance to create a brand (because they are built on impressions).
  5. It is cheaper to create a new brand than to ‘re-position’ one that you have screwed up.
  6. You may own the logo, but you don’t own the brand since it is what people think about you
  7. What people think about you is an accumulation of all those little things (signifiers) you say and do and don’t say and don’t do.
  8. You build a brand by living it, not advertising it.
  9. You are always building or destroying your brand by the things you say and do.
  10. Whether you do it by design or by accident, BRAND happens.


The challenge is to think about these things consciously, and to manage it proactively.

The list of signifiers (including the long list I did not write down) can equally be seen as brand touch points. To build a successful brand requires the brand owner to do two things:

  • Create a brand idea and express it across ALL the signifiers
  • Maintain that idea consistently in the face of constant change and the human propensity to lose interest

Step one takes creativity and step two takes discipline; both of which are in scarce supply.


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