How Powerful Are Symbols When Branding?

How Powerful Are Symbols When Branding?

James Martin-Harper |

A verbal metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word normally used for one thing is applied to another. “America is a melting pot.” A visual metaphor is a symbol that can bring an invisible product to life.

When a visual conflict with a verbal, the visual always wins. Take a picture of beautiful women and label the picture “ugly women.” In spite of what the caption says, viewers don’t believe she is ugly, but just assume somebody put the wrong caption on the picture. Not the wrong picture on the caption. The visual always dominates the verbal. Not the other way round. When the nail is weak, it’s usually a sign that the marketing people picked the hammer first, which violates the basic marketing principle of the nail first, hammer second.

Having a visual hammer that doesn’t move is a serious handicap on television. That’s one reason Prudential has been moving away from verbal rock metaphors. “Growing and protecting your wealth” is a recent Prudential slogan. Sooner or later, Prudential will also need a new hammer. On the other hand, Pacific Life has a hammer that works well on television. The humpback whale represents qualities such as performance, strength and protection. The whale is an outgrowth of the Pacific Life Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation and conservation of marine mammals.

Often a copywriter selects a nail and an art director picks a hammer and the two never seem to connect with each other. Like insurance, a lot of marketing time and money goes into selling pharmaceutical products, but while the pills may be visible, the visual hammers are not. Or if they are, they aren’t exactly appropriate hammers. Take erectile-dysfunction drugs. The first brand in the category (Viagra) made a wise decision to pre-empt a colour by using blue pills. What should competitors have done to differentiate their brands? One of the oddest visual symbols is the twin bathtubs used by Cialis, a brand currently close second in erectile-dysfunction drugs. And the Cialis brand is widely expected to become the market leader soon. The rise of Cialis is remarkable because it was the third drug in the category, after Viagra and Levitra.  Why do twin bathtubs convey the idea of two naked people without showing them naked or even remotely exotic? The brand’s verbal nail (the 36-hour drug) also differentiates Cialis from its competitors.

Symbols, whether they are used as visual hammers or not, play an important role in today’s society. On products, on websites, on clothing, on retail stores and on billboards. The Swoosh, for example, identifies a Nike product in situations where the Nike name might not be readable. Like on a shoe or on a hat. Instead of developing a recognizable symbol, too many companies take the easy way and use initials instead. Who makes the “N” shoe? People probably don’t know, but it is New Balance. But most people can readily figure it out. When you see the Swoosh on a shoe, the Nike name instantly registers in your mind. When you see the letter “N,” you have to think about it for a while to come up with the name. And most people don’t bother to do so. When you have more than one name, you need all your initials if you have any hope of widespread consumer recognition.