Brands communicate with the world through a series of message delivery systems such as broadcast advertising, web sites, company representatives and product interaction. These systems utilize brand signals to communicate. While these signals commonly take the form of brand names and logos, they can also extend into sight, sound, touch, taste, smell or even action such as a brand ritual.

Brand signals are far more than an aesthetic veneer. They turn abstract meaning into tangible cues, allowing consumers to better navigate the marketplace. Functioning as vessels, these signals carry learned and associative meaning. That meaning is often instilled by the brand owner and further enhanced by the audience. The connotation of a brand signal evolves over time, as either the brand owner or its audience fills the vessel with new meaning that displaces the original. Take for example, two well know brand signals that once represented something very different than they do today, the ENRON name and logo. The original meaning was displaced by consumers’ new understanding of “ENRON.”

The most effective brands use a wide array of signals to manage consumers’ expectations. Many of these are co-authored by the brand owner and its audience. These signals communicate on multiple levels: Specifically and Categorically, Individually and Collectively.

Specifically and Categorically
When a signal is specific to a given brand, it directly equates to that brand: The names McDonald’s and Big Mac directly equate to the McDonald’s brand as do the golden arches and Ronald McDonald. Yet, we also recognize brand signals by category. These signals indicate brands by type. We relate the yellow and red color scheme to the fast food/burger category. Have you ever noticed how McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s all share the same color scheme? Coincidence? McDonald’s (first to market) established the color scheme that has defined the fast food burger joint category for generations.

Individually and Collectively
Some brand signals carry enough meaning to hold up individually such as a company’s name, its logo or even an iconic shape. Such is the case with Coca-Cola’s “contour bottle.” With its distinctive curves, it is one of the most recognized icons in the world. Designed so it could be identified in the dark and shaped so that, even if broken, it is identifiable at a glance; the unique bottle design ensures that Coca-Cola is never confused with competitors.

Other brand signals work collectively. A slice of lime on its own says nothing. However, when it adorns the neck of a clear beer bottle, the lime says Corona! Add a tropical beach and it screams!

Of course, individual signals can contribute to the collective, and categorical signals can contribute to the specific. Be they specific or categorical, individual or collective, not all brand signals are created intentionally. Many are associated with or equated to the brand over time. These signals are of no less value than those which are developed intentionally by the brand owner. The Corona lime ritual was not created by Corona, but rather a California bartender who, in 1981, made a bet with his buddy that he could start a trend. Corona might not have started the lime ritual, they may not own it legally, but they benefit from this well know brand signal.

Your own brand likely has signals that extend beyond its name and logo. By identifying and refining these signals, your brand can begin to own these mental cues to build a more engaging brand experience with your audience.

Mark Gallagher, Brand Expressionist® at Blackcoffee®.