When it comes to communication, words only go so far. If your significant other is standing angrily over a sink of dirty dishes saying “Are you planning on doing the dishes today?”, chances are, there’s a deeper implicit message that’s even more valuable.
It’s not just what the product does for the consumer; it’s what the product communicates about the consumer.
For brands, almost everything is implicit.
We can see this most clearly in the luxury industry. Any old tote bag can carry one’s belongings, but luxury buyers pay a massive premium for high-end brands, largely, because of what they symbolize: taste, status, and wealth. It’s generally pretty awkward to brag about these things explicitly, so brands and products step in to do it implicitly.
In this way, brands become symbols for this kind of secret messaging. As discussed in Branding That Means Business, this is one of the crucial roles of the brand: it’s not just what the product does for the consumer; it’s what the product communicates about the consumer.
The core concept which enables this type of implicit communication is called social signaling, and brands can harness it to great effect.
Let’s dive in.
Brands as Symbols
The Prius became a symbol of sustainability – it communicated this to the greater social world.
While seen most fully in luxury, brands from many other industries can get in on the action. Luxury items signal attributes associated with status, but the symbolism isn’t limited to these values alone. Just about any trait which is valuable to the consumer can become part of the brand’s symbolism.
Consider sustainability. Many consumers hold this value in high esteem and want to publicly advertise this quality to their social group. And so naturally, brands have converged onto this in clever ways.
Toyota was able to successfully tap into social signaling within the automotive industry, by building a subsidiary brand around Prius, one of the first hybrid vehicles to launch in the U.S. market. The Prius became a symbol of sustainability – it communicated this to the greater social world. As one research paper described it, the Prius “functions as a mobile, self-promoting billboard for pro environmentalism”.
The skeptic might argue: How do we know for sure that this specific, signaling feature provided value to the consumer, above and beyond the car itself? Maybe people simply enjoy the Prius for the product’s functional, utilitarian traits?
A signal is only as good as its source. This is why strong brands, especially those who engage in signaling, go to great lengths to protect their asset.
It turns out, the financial value of social signaling to the brand can be quantified. Research from Duke University found that Prius owners were willing to pay a significant premium for the privilege of signaling. In this study, consumers were given the option to choose between the same exact vehicle with identical features. The one difference was a Prius decal. It turns out that customers were willing to lay down big bucks for that symbol—up to $4,200!
Social signaling can be big business.
Protecting Brand Symbolism
The ability to socially signal is predicated on a strong, distinct brand that is rich in symbolism. A signal is only as good as its source. This is why strong brands, especially those who engage in signaling, go to great lengths to protect their asset.
In many parts of the world, Patagonia is the premier pro-environmental brand. Emanating from the core principles of the organization, the brand has demonstrated a strong commitment to sustainability which is seen at the level of both brand strategy and marketing tactics. This pro-environmental commitment was fortified in 2022 when Yvon Chouinard relinquished ownership of the company to a non-profit trust which donates all profits (roughly $100m a year) to combat climate change.
Along the way, they’ve even taken drastic stances to protect this valuable symbolism. In Silicon Valley and elsewhere, the Patagonia vest became a popular look. Patagonia was regularly contracted by businesses to make unique versions of the vest featuring an embroidered company logo.
Sustainability is one of many values a brand tap into; the possibilities are plentiful.
This was great business for Patagonia, but at the same time, it posed a serious risk to the brand symbolism and social signaling they had worked so hard to cultivate. If the vests were adorned by the employees of companies who act against Patagonia’s values, this has a negative spillover effect on their brand image. In 2019, Patagonia made the decision to refuse the business of any business it deemed “ecologically damaging”.
As discussed in Branding That Means Business, this was a telling move by Patagonia. By being ultra-selective about its co-branding, even at the expense of its short-term revenues, Patagonia protected its brand image and reified one of the most valuable features of its products: its symbolism.
Applying Symbolism to Branding
Sustainability is one of many values a brand tap into; the possibilities are plentiful. It simply needs to be a value that consumers hold dear, and want to implicitly communicate with others. Bombas socks and Tom’s Shoes both went for the value of “humanitarian” and baked it directly into their business model: A “buy one—gift one to the needy” for all of their products. In doing so, they carved out brands and products that signal this pro-sociality.
It takes consumer psychology to another level: identifying not just the individual consumers, but those of their broader community.
To integrate social signaling, think about your brand, and your target consumer. Is there an opportunity for the brand to communicate something to the consumer? Consider the values the consumer holds dear or aspires towards, especially those they can’t easily express. If these are the same, or similar to values inherent in the brand, there may be a strong opportunity to develop a signaling strategy.
It’s worth noting that, while powerful, social signaling requires considerable investment. As the brand, you are playing the role of cultural educator, building the shared meaning the brand will symbolize. This means the need to advertise and communicate these features beyond the buyer themselves, and to their broader community.
It means imbuing the brand image with these traits, which are valuable to the consumers themselves and values that the consumers want to communicate to others. It takes consumer psychology to another level: identifying not just the individual consumers, but those of their broader community. Identifying these, along with a communications strategy to convey them authentically, requires market research which is both deep and broad.
The brand’s identifiers can go beyond simple recognition; they can come to symbolize deep, personal attributes.
While difficult, the benefits of social signaling can be immense. Through this brand symbolism, the brand, and its identifiers, can serve as a proxy for these implicit messages, providing subtext to a consumer’s use of the product: “I’m successful”, “I’m a humanitarian”, “I care about the environment”, and so on.
A brand rich in symbolism is a valuable asset, helping it differentiate from competitors in powerful ways. In this way, the brand’s identifiers can go beyond simple recognition; they can come to symbolize deep, personal attributes, endearing consumers to the brand in new and significant ways.