We are surrounded by pictures, images and icons. More than any other time in human history we are overloaded by visual stimulus. No wonder marketing, sales and communications are difficult and don’t stick. At the heart of branding I have become very interested in our history and relationship with symbols and semiotics (the study of signs and the way they work to generate meaning). Signs, symbols and pictures have been used to tell stories and create meaning since before we could speak. I’m interested in how powerful images are able to transfer complex ideas almost in the blink of an eye.

Charles Revlon said ” In the Factory we make cosmetics. In the store we sell hope”.

Each of the well-known symbols carries meaning for the viewer. Symbolic meaning is both self and social allowing both public and private meanings to exist for the same symbol. Each time we engage with a symbol or brand we tell ourselves a story about ourselves . So the care we take creating associating our brands and crafting stories that give meaning to our brands are some of the biggest and most important activities we can do to help our brands live.

Symbols are increasingly used to convey meaning and are used from computer navigation right the way to brand icons and even a country or culture. Companies like Innocent have been able to grow their brand image by engaging in storytelling associated with its core brand identity. The same can be said for Apple, Starbucks and Disney.

The key distinction for brands with symbolic appeal is that they have managed to tell stories that customers use to complete self-identity changes at an emotional level. Not all brands can make as much of these “fit my style of life” stories but those that can become enduring and create long-lasting loyalty quickly.

Pharma brands have a hard time creating meaning with brand symbols. Brands that are  consumer or patient focused have been created like Viagra, Bayer Asprin. Outside of consumer brands it seems much harder for pharma use our in built ability to understand symbols to create brand loyalty. I firmly believe that pharma products should be assessed on their on their evidence based efficacy and safety to enhance outcomes for patients but there  is often still choice between several brands. Can symbols be used to influence these brand moments and choice?

A deep understanding of the lives of patients will uncover metaphors for how disease and treatment interacts with their lives. It’s also equally important to understand how physicians and treatment delivery impacts patients lives and throws light on other aspects of disease management. Certain symbols already have been “coded” into the lives of patient and physicians and have meaning. Using these will enable brand stories to be told quickly and simply with inbuilt meaning. I think these symbols can create a longer lasting interaction. For example, symbolic ways of showing when to use a brand or which type of patients may be better than the smiling elderly patient that seems to represent most pharma brands. We have to go beyond just creating a logo as a brand identifier.