My first job post MBA was with Ogilvy & Mather and my first client there was Unilever (then called HLL). We had to design packaging for various tea brands. That’s where I learned about the meanings of different colours: gold, for example, signified premium and had to be used sparingly. So did black, but it was not popular in India at the time. Brown and red were favourites for tea. Green connoted freshness — and the list went on.
This made sense intuitively — and many of us, in marketing, do make use of semiotics in an instinctive way. It’s not just about the colours. Rounded corners in products often connote better design. The shape or material of a bottle may change our perception of its contents. (Think of why you pay more for certain kinds of bottled water than others.)
The narrative and tonality are significant, too. It may be the same cream but the narrative, when sold to men, may be different from the narrative used to sell the product to women. The tone may be more masculine and sporty for a men’s face cream, while softer, more feminine for women. The colour palette used may also differ significantly — black, blue, green for men and pink, yellow, white for women.
The science of symbols, narratives and colours is referred to as semiotics. In their book Signs, Symbols and Marketing Effectiveness, Hamsini Shivakumar and Pranab Bobo Dutta — both veterans of the communications world — have created a beginner’s guide to semiotics born from their own interest in the topic.
Appropriate to a book on symbolism, this book is filled with images to tell its story. Rather than explaining the differences between, say, a premium razor and a cheap disposable, the authors will show you the same. And once you see it, of course you'll realise that you have known this all along but perhaps not thought it through consciously. The book encourages the reader to make these connections for themselves, which is a great approach because you can then easily apply it to your own portfolio of products. There are also simple frameworks that help you understand what makes one brand stronger than another. There is a snappy analysis of Reebok and Nike from a semiotics viewpoint, attempting to determine which of the two is stronger in terms of name, colour, logo, typeface, and the product's identity as a whole. Given how Indian brands tend to jump to new logos every few years, it would be interesting to analyse the potential success of the new identities from this perspective. Boards should ask for a semiotic analysis of a brand identity before pumping in millions into a costly exercise that may turn out to be merely cosmetic or even detrimental.
I found the book valuable as it was intellectually stimulating with regards to the topic, and provided me with a framework to organise my ideas. It is the first image-driven book on marketing that I have read. While the approach works well, I did wish the authors had used more text to explain the ideas. The current format was too close to a powerpoint presentation for my taste. It makes for a brisk, punchy read, but I wish that it could have delved even deeper into the topic — it whetted my interest, but could not provide a detailed understanding of the topic at hand.
The book is a must read for anyone who has a portfolio of products — you will immediately feel the itch to analyse them semiotically. If you are redoing your logo or product design, it would certainly be worth your time to read this before signing off on a costly campaign. And, if, like me, you are an armchair analyst of ads, this book will arm you with the science to critique them more effectively.