That Tiny Little Image On Your Shirt

I just completed a fall class for my MFA at SCAD. The class offered a new perspective on the design process and how designers help create meaning. I thought of publishing my final paper via this blog as I discovered that the subject of semiotics is very often forgotten in the design process. I hope you enjoy it.

Semiotics Help Build Stronger Brands

People buy brands for multiple reasons, because of their function, like comfortable Aerosoles shoes, because of their form, like a suitcase in the shape of Hello Kitty, or because of the way they make them feel, like Nike’s apparel. Marketing and advertising are natural carriers of messages to consumers through their communications campaigns, but there’s an inherent message embedded in product design and its symbols themselves that persuade people to buy them. What makes the consumer select one brand over the other? Semiotics plays a key role in communicating with consumers as it is through a set of signs—in the form of product design, and marketing and advertising images—that the brand message is conveyed. By focusing on the meaning of brands to consumers, this paper argues that semiotics can help build stronger brands when they are a part of an integrated visual strategy and system.

An exploration of semiotics as a way to build stronger brands begins with a definition of a brand. There are multiple definitions of branding depending on perspectives; Leo Burnett defines a brand symbol as “anything that leaves a mental picture of the brand’s identity” (Cohen). The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines a brand from a product perspective as “a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” Multiple components come into play when developing a brand, and they need to work together in a harmonious way in order to make the brand strong and meaningful. As Charles Berlo’s Message Components theory establishes: content, elements, structure, code, and treatment must work together in order to create meaning in visual communications. When these components are put together in a coherent and strategic way, the results will have an effect on the humans’ senses. As Davis explains, the response to visual communications is not only physical but also emotional. From the cognitive perspective, Donald Norman, a psychologist, (Davis 69) states that emotional responses are linked to the physical characteristics of a product. He explains the visceral level of emotion is based on product appearance. This theory leads to think that the visual aspect of a product and the images associated with it have an effect on what consumers choose to buy.

Semiotics focuses on the study of signs, particularly their production and interpretation in the context of communication and social interaction (Davis 104). If we apply this concept of semiotics to the development of brands, we observe how it affects consumer behavior. Semiotics, by means of signs, becomes the tool that brands use to communicate with the world in a meaningful way. Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of semiotics, viewed language as a system in which the basic unit is the sign. One example is the Hello Kitty character turned successful line of products. Christine Yano, a Harvard University professor who has studied Hello Kitty for more than 16 years (yes, she exists), attributes the character’s success to its "very clever, aesthetically pleasing design" (The Week).

To expand on the example of the Hello Kitty brand, we can draw some conclusions about the use of semiotics and how it can help generate loyal consumers. When most people think of Hello Kitty, they think of cuteness, girlhood, happiness, and friendship. The iconic brand was worth $7 billion in 2014 when it turned 40 years old (Wikipedia). This is considered a successful brand because of what it represents. If we analyze the character design, we find it to be a symbol that is an anthropomorphism of a cat as she is not a cat standing on four legs, but a cat that stands on two legs, like a human. Choosing to buy Hello Kitty is choosing to be “cute” and “adorable”. Roland Barthes, a French literary critic and theorist, calls this phenomenon a “readily” creation in which the creator controls meaning. The character designer made decisions, deliberately, about design elements (round face, a tilted bow in between its round ears, pink color, and no mouth because “Hello Kitty speaks from the heart”) in order to convey pre-established connotations assigned by Sanrio, the company owner.

The Hello Kitty brand keeps getting stronger as its network of product development expands. Yano describes how “part of the genius of Sanrio lies in offering the Hello Kitty imprint upon any number and variety of goods. Whether a girl purchases one item, two items, or ten, they link easily into a well-coordinated suite… in effect symbolic cocoon of age-graded, gender identity” (Yano 30). In a recent statement, Yano declared that, "Hello Kitty is not a cat… She is a little girl.” These generated controversy among media channels such as CNN and Daily Mail who have described Yano’s statement as “outrageous” and “shocking” respectively. The idea that this representation of a cat was described as a girl and had no mouth, led to the perception that it did not speak for itself. The semiotics of this character, through humanization in this case, leverages physical characteristics and personality attributes—Hello Kitty’s favorite saying is “you can never have too many friends”. The components of its physical characteristics have contributed to the way this symbol is perceived, having pre-teen girls raving about it. In this regards, Jessica Helfand explains “to engage the eye while simultaneously lassoing consumer loyalty is the stuff of branding, but at its core it’s all about an enduring desire that links a person to a designed thing, for as long as it is humanly possible to do so” (182). The semiotics of the Hello Kitty character are consistent and present in all the merchandise the brand develops, engaging consumers and creating loyalty, from coin purses to jets.

Part of the Hello Kitty success was its resemblance to a cultural symbol that predated her, maneki-neko, which is a Japanese figurine that is a symbol of good luck. The creation of the Hello Kitty character in this case came from an existing cultural sign that carried a positive connotation. Semiotics made the Hello Kitty brand stronger, not only because its unique design as a symbol, but also for what it represented, culturally.

Virginia Valentine, a founding partner of Semiotics Solutions, Ltd, in UK, establishes that “semiotics is the other half of the equation in market research”. In her presentation, Semiotics and Market Research (The Other Half of the Equation), she says that semiotics do not talk to consumers, instead it utilizes the rules and body of culture to communicate.

The market presents consumers with numerous brands in which some are more successful than others. The ones that have survived the test of times are the ones that have proven to have an inherent meaning to their consumers. The visual forms of these brands are key to that success as they carry a cognitive power that is important to the one buying them. These brands, like Hello Kitty, have benefited from the value of using semiotics in the development of both their visual identities and product lines as integrated systems. As Helfand puts it, “the things that we want make us who we are, and if we all want the same things…then the fulfillment of the International Style may reveal itself as a truly dystopian legacy…” (194).

Brands create symbols such logo marks and graphic elements with a focus on how they will represent them, but ultimately, focusing on how those symbols will represent consumers, will define the brand’s strength and success.


Works Cited

Catalin, Munteanu Claudio, and Andreea, Pagalea. “Brands as a Means of Consumer Self-Expression and Desired Personal Lifestyle.” Procedia – Journal of Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 109, 2014, pp. 103-107.
Cohen, Heidi. “30 Branding Definitions.” Actionable Marketing Guide. 8 Aug. 2011.
Davis, Meredith. Graphic Design Theory. Thames & Hudson Inc., 2012.
Cohen, Heidi. “30 Definitions of a Brand”. HeidiCohen,
Helfand, Jessica. Design: The Invention of Desire. Yale University Press, 2016
“Hello Kitty.” Wikipedia Commons,
“Hello Kitty Turns 40: How Did She Become so Popular?” The Week,
Valentine, Virginia. “Semiotics and Market Research (The Other Half of the Equation).” 22 May 2008.
Yarrow, Kit. Engagement. Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy. Wiley Publishers, 2014
Yano, Christine R. Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific. Duke University Press, 2013.