Symbols, Meaning and Branding

“Symbols are as old as humans,” Jeremy Miller writes, and anyone who has seen the cave paintings of our ancestors would be hard-pressed to prove him wrong.  Symbols and icons are “markers”, immediately comprehensible visuals (and, depending on whose definition you prefer, words and gestures as well) that can be nearly universally understood.  Let’s examine some of the most common symbols, and look at how symbols today have become “a primary communication device of brands.”

Symbols develop, and fluctuate, through cultures and through time.  Perhaps the best case study of this is the snake.  As Jack Tresidder begins the snake’s entry in his Dictionary of Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Traditional Images, Icons, and Emblems, the snake is “The most significant and complex of all animal symbols, and perhaps the oldest.” 

Noting that the snake has been “above all a magico-religious symbol of primeval life force,” Tresidder goes on to list the extremely high amount of concepts symbolized by the snake across different communities.  Life and birth, death and danger (a duality he calls “protective-destructive symbolism”), as well as divinity and ancestral representation, medicine and resurrection—the snake as symbol is truly prolific and varied.

Many symbols, however, have far more unified meanings.  The human skull, for example, “…in its most self-evident form, [is] a symbol of mortality… calling attention to the vanity of earthly things.”  While it, like the symbol of the entire skeleton, can have undertones of “life to come” due to the skeleton’s ‘surviving’ death, the skull is almost always equated with death and extreme risk—Tresidder points specifically to the pirate flag’s skull and crossbones as “now a universally understood warning signal.”

Perhaps, then, it’s best not to think of symbols as having either universal meanings or a plurality of meanings, as both can be true at the same time.  The skull on a pirate flag, or a vial of chemicals, or a soldier’s helmet sends a clear visual message: back off, or you’ll be in mortal danger.

Yet, Tresidder’s commentary on the skeleton/skull’s occasional invocation as a symbol of continued life, or “the seat of intelligence” and “the part of the body most resistant to decay,” shows that even this seemingly unified meaning can vary.

This is not to say you should employ a symbol and simply hope those who see it interpret it the best possible way—far from it.  Unless your audience is familiar with the skull’s symbolic history with European pagan cults, don’t expect them to read it as anything other than a warning or icon of mortality. 

This is why corporate logos are usually “designed to evoke familiarity and connection… being the primary interface between products and consumers,” as Miller articulates.  Familiarity and connection require universal meaning behind the symbols and icons used, not diversity of interpretation.

Douglas Holt argues that strong brands use their iconic logos and customer-facing imagery to “forge a deep connection with the culture” around them, through icons that “deliver myths to us in a tangible form, thereby making them more accessible.”

Of course, the use of myth here is somewhat broad; your icon needn’t directly invoke the myth of Achilles, say, to function in the minds of consumers.  Holt’s use of myth refers more to simple, quickly-understood stories and meanings than it does full narrative legends.  “People feel compelled to make these icons part of their lives because, through the, they’re able to experience powerful myths continually,” the writer contends.

Think of the logos of major brands, like the Supreme clothing line—there’s no direct tie to ancient myth or history in a red block the word “supreme” inside it, but it has and does conjure a mythos that’s appealing.  That myth is about exclusivity and status.

The logos of modern brands are modern myth-making, “provid[ing] clues to understanding experiences by conveying recognizable meanings that are shared by societies.”  Good symbols, whether logos or other, “offer identity, common shared values, and provide visibility to culture.”  What’s more, they’re “arbitrary stand-ins” for those values, containing meaning due to our infusing them with it.

Take, for example, the iconic shape of a Coca-Cola bottle, or the golden arches of McDonald’s.  Neither of these necessarily ‘mean’ anything out of context; for that matter, neither does the symbol of a snake.  In context, however, their use has become an immediate way to summon the myths brands hope to summon: the story of quick, affordable, and tasty refreshment.

This is why strong whiteboard video uses icons and symbols with regularity.  If a TruScribe artist draws an arrow striking a bullseye, they do not need to write “successful achievement of yearly goals” under it to convey that message.  Symbols like these have near-universal myths attached to them, like the numerous safety symbols used across the world to imply electrical or fire hazards.

Symbols allow artists to create a frame that transfers meaning rapidly and reliably, engaging the brains of viewers who have seen these icons so many times that they need no priming to comprehend them.  The opposite—complex, full depictions of concepts in words or images—will result in engagement, but at much slower pace.

Complex images also run the risk of distracting your viewers, from your voiced message as well as the rest of the visual frame.  Icons and symbols do not.  When an artist draws a scale while the narrator discusses balance, the symbol cements the idea quickly and fluidly.

Purposeful simplicity is a virtue in video, and symbols are the epitome of simplicity.  Whether it’s a brand image like a logo or an icon like a lightning bolt standing in for “electricity,” symbols are a way to communicate by relying on the viewers’ associations and understanding.   This is why they’re so effective, especially when compared to complex, literal visuals that require cognitive effort to dissect.

What kind of symbols and icons do you see the most?  Does your company’s logo or brand have a history or relationship to universal symbols, or does it rely more on associative meaning in the culture it was created?  What kinds of symbols do you use to express ideas in your videos?