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All about brand identity
BS Strategist Team in New Delh
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June 04, 2008

Since the appearance of its initial slogan -- 'Just do it' -- Nike has cultivated the universal values associated with sports and the Olympic movement: surpassing oneself, determination, competition, accomplishment. This is where the brand's ethic, its vision of the world, and what it believes are situated.

What is the identity of a brand? Our first answer might be that it is what the brand 'says' to consumers -- making a distinction between what it says and how they understand it.

The notion of identity is still too little used by managers, and that's a shame, because to our way of thinking it offers some very useful and concrete glimpses into the essence of the brand phenomenon itself. It constitutes the foundation and the federating element of all the activities we have designated as being manifestations of the brand.

We sometimes have a tendency to confine brand identity to the intuitive, affective sphere, which the company's concrete and methodical processes cannot influence. Yet tools for analysis do exist, originating in the field of semiology, with which this area can be at least partially rationalized and provide very concrete lessons about managing a brand. . . 

Brand ethics and aesthetics

Of all the tools available today, semiology is, in our opinion and based on our experience, the discipline best suited to aiding a manager in defining, prolonging and defending the identity of a luxury brand. From our perspective as non-specialists but convinced users, we would like to take a moment to discuss this discipline.

First of all, what is semiology? Imagine two 'No Smoking' signs, one of which gets its message across better than the other. Is it possible to describe exactly what makes one more effective than the other, without the discussion becoming simply a matter of subjective tastes?

And is it possible to describe it in general terms, to aid us in, say, designing another type of sign (for example, a "No Parking" sign)? In broad terms, that is the project of semiology.

Its aim (according to Greimas) is to describe, as objectively as possible, the process of production of meaning, and generally of all the practices of signification that make up cultures. But it can be extended, Jean-Marie Floch adds, to a certain disposition of the mind, curious about anything that has (or could have) meaning.

If we accept the validity of applying semiotics to the study of brand identities, we are making the following basic premise: brands are systems that produce meaning...

The hinge

The first of these semiotic tools is the "hinge," a simple framework developed by Jean-Marie Floch to bring out the different levels of analysis or definition of a brand universe . . . . . .The use of the hinge is relatively simple. It aims at characterizing the brand's identity through its expression and its content -- that is, at giving a formal definition of its aesthetic and of its ethic.

The aesthetic study is fairly easy to put into practice, especially if the brand in question is a very "typed" one, where the colors, shapes and materials are resolutely baroque or classical. In this domain, the contribution of Jean-Marie Floch, who updated the work of Heinrich Wolfflin, has been essential.

Note that generally, the Northern European brands -- Jil Sander, Ikea, Helmut Lang, BMW -- and North American brands-Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Coach -- have an aesthetic of the classical type, characterised pictorially by:

  • Clearly defined lines and contours, emphasizing individually recognizable elements
  • Space divided into easily identifiable zones, each with its own autonomy
  • Closed shapes, visible in their entirety: planes
  • Impressions of stability: symmetries
  • Saturated colours.

    On the other hand, Mediterranean brands -- Loewe, Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana, Rubelli, Majorica, Lamborghini, Versace, Roberto Cavalli -- have a tendency toward the baroque, characterized pictorially by:

  • lines delineated by shadow effects: curves and criss-crosses
  • open forms, which can appear accidental
  • each part losing its autonomy and taking on meaning only in association with the rest of the work
  • movement treated in depth: volumes
  • chiaroscuro and deep colors.

    The study conducted on Loewe in 1996 by one of the authors, who was its president at the time, in collaboration with Creative Business and Jean-Marie Floch, led to the development and the communication of the concept of a "minimalist baroque" aesthetic.

    These apparently contradictory terms met with much success with the press. In the late 1990s, this Spanish fashion brand -- a century-and-a-half old and often referred to by the French as the 'Iberian Hermes' -- had good name recognition, associated with quality and a strong presence in Spain and Japan, but was still weak in the other markets.

    Struggling to achieve international status, and also suffering from the absence of a charismatic founder in its history � unlike Chanel, for example -- Loewe had the appearance of a slightly 'tired' brand.

    The characterisation of the brand's aesthetic effectively transmitted the message of a brand that was faithful to its roots (the baroque) and with a strong desire for modernity (minimalism, which at the time was still in vogue). That message was coherent with the recruiting of designer Narciso Rodriguez, who was himself a blend of modernity and respect for tradition.

    The study of the brand ethic, on the other hand, is considerably more difficult, above all for brands that were not founded by a creator with a strong personality, or that have squandered their heritage. Certain brands are so clearly positioned that the task is easier. Take Nike, for example.

    Since the appearance of its initial slogan -- 'Just do it' -- Nike has cultivated the universal values associated with sports and the Olympic movement: surpassing oneself, determination, competition, accomplishment.

    Nike, remember, is the goddess of victory. This is where the brand's ethic, its vision of the world, and what it believes are situated; "what it stands for," to use Jean-Marie Floch's expression.

    The launch of the controversial Mecca-Cola in France in November 2002 is a very significant example of a brand that directly communicates the values underlying the ethic of its brand identity.

    Its bottles and the opening page of its website say: "No more drinking stupid, drink with commitment!" and ൒ per cent of our net profits, for Palestinian Childhood. 10 per cent for [local] charity-an NGO." This is clear to everyone, without the need for a semiotician to translate.

    Another recently successful brand is Camper. The Spanish shoe manufacturer expresses very clearly which brand ethic it wants to promote through its slogan 'Walk don't run': a whole philosophy of life.

    In certain cases, setting about finding the permanent values the brand has expressed since its inception is a frustrating process. It sometimes leads -- as was the case with Loewe -- to a recognition of the non-existence of a brand ethic.

    Such a situation has an advantage in that it leaves open a very broad field for the choice of values, but it also shows that the brand has had no obvious permanent values over time, and, therefore, has been perceived in a very imprecise way.

    Using a semiologist who is experienced in the study of the corpus of brands is an absolute necessity in this type of research.

    The role of the semiologist consists not only in finding possible meanings beyond the signs, but also in determining precisely the objective procedures to be used in constructing that meaning. By describing in detail the nature of a brand's identity and the means of its expression, the semiologist will help the manager perpetuate that identity and prolong its life.

    Extracted from:

  • Luxury Brand Management: A World of Privilege
    Authors: Michel Chevalier and G�rald Mazzalovo
    Publisher: John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte LTD
    Price: $39,
    Page: 423 ISBN: 9780470823262

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