How Consumers Create Brand Meaning

Summer 2020

The marketing world has a peculiarly ineffective way of thinking about how consumers make meaning. This failure is particularly surprising because marketing, of all professions, believes it is in the very business of meaning-making. To draw an analogy, the situation in the marketing profession is akin to the car industry making cars, but not being able to build an internal combustion engine. 

Of course, as marketing professionals, we use meanings all the time and we assume, on this basis, that we are making meaning. But, in fact, all we are doing is assembling pre-formed meanings (in the form of words and images) in the service of the brands. This article will show how we are failing to address the central issue of meaning-making itself and the possible solutions to this problem. We will do this in the company of the world’s first, and probably greatest, semiotician Charles Peirce. Writing in the nineteenth century, he created a semiotic system that explains how our meanings are created from scratch (e.g. not merely re-assembled) and, by extension, how these meanings develop into the kind of symbols that we call brands.

Meaning Creation - The Missing Link in Marketing

What is missing in marketing, its secret black hole, can be best understood as shown in the diagram opposite.

There are three positions on this triangle. In the bottom left hand corner we have our raw perceptions; these are how we experience the world. At the top of the triangle are the symbols that we use to understand and to navigate the world – these can be words, concepts, and, importantly for marketing purposes, brands. The latter should be treated as symbols because they stand, as shorthand, for the sets of values that we associate with them. In the bottom right hand corner, we have communication. This is either normal forms of communication – where we use spoken or written words to communicate with each other – or, in the marketing sphere, where we use words, images, symbols, and branding devices (such as logos) to convey meaning in a commercial context.

“Brands should be treated as symbols because they stand, as shorthand, for the sets of values that we associate with them.”

The central argument of this article is that the marketing profession focusses almost all of its efforts (and money) on movement ‘B’ (from symbols to communication) whilst entirely ignoring the importance of the other dimension: movement ‘A’ from our raw perceptions to symbols. It is of considerable interest why we do this. Some of the reasons are linked to marketing theory, but there are other, deeper seated reasons rooted in Western culture itself.

If we look at the marketing reasons first, our industry is dominated by the belief that brand owners, and their creative agencies, are the sources of meaning. In their model of meaning-making it is the brand owner who adds value to the brand and their creative agencies help them in this task. Consumers are often positioned, as a result of this, as passive ‘receivers’ of branding messages. They have no active role in the meaning-making process and are framed simply as potential ‘landing grounds’ for the creative activity of the brand. At one level, and quite paradoxically, it is accepted that the consumer can sometimes play an interruptive role in meaning-making, but this, significantly, is only acknowledged if they misinterpret an intended brand message. If a meaning is ‘correctly’ communicated to the consumer, then the brand owner is able to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

At a deeper, cultural, level there are other reasons at work. Dimension ‘A’ is never interrogated because we adopt a lazy way of thinking about meaning-making. In our dominant psychological model, we assume that the meaning-making process is very simple indeed: the consumer simply interprets what they experience. This model assumes that there are no processes, or stages, involved in meaning-making and that, as a result, there is no activity that we can interrogate or evaluate. The consumer just interprets ‘x’ or ‘y’ as ‘a’ or ‘b’, and we simply have to accept that this is the case. Charles Peirce was adamant that this set of assumptions is flawed and that there is a particular process we go through when moving from our perceptions to our symbols. It is this process that determines the meanings which we make.

Of course, we can ask the question: why is this important? Surely marketing professionals can just ‘make do’ with dimension ‘B’? Peirce would reply that this is to neglect how consumers themselves make meaning and how they make sense of their world. This is a fundamental oversight on the part of the marketing community, because it is this process that ultimately creates the meanings of a brand in each consumer’s mind. Consumers make brand meanings, albeit with the materials that brand owners supply to them. If we don’t take cognizance of their role in the process, then we will only grasp at a partial level how consumers understand brands. The model that views the consumer as a ‘landing ground’ for brand messages fails to realise that meaning-making is, as it were, a ‘joint venture’.

If we can understand how consumers make their own contribution to meaning-making, then a number of benefits follow for market researchers. We can identify how brands come to possess their meanings, how these meanings are structured, and we will be able to identify how communications have impacted on brand meaning in the past. As a result, we will be in a position to help brand owners change the meanings of their brands, because we will understand the processes that create those meanings.

“We will be in a position to help brand owners change the meanings of their brands, because we will understand the processes that create those meanings.”

Cultural Semiotics vs Individual Semiotics

Mention of semiotics demands that we make a key distinction between the two kinds of semiotics that exist in academia. These are:

  • The semiotics of Saussure

  • The semiotics of Peirce

Saussurian semiotics has been, until recently, the most popular in academic circles and it is the one that has been promoted most strongly in commercial research. Saussure argued that signs should be seen as cultural artefacts. Different cultures give meaning to different objects (or events) in ways that are entirely arbitrary. It follows from this that the meaning of a sign is culturally dependent. So, a red light may mean ‘stop’ in one culture, but it may mean something entirely different in another. For Saussure, semiotics is a study of how signs operate within culture.

This approach has many merits, and, as we shall see, consumers do read the signs they encounter in their own culture. This has a considerable impact on how they make meaning. But there are also several drawbacks to Saussure’s approach, which have been highlighted in the literature. Saussure is unable to give any account of how signs are created in the first place. For him, they simply exist in our culture and Saussure provides no account of how they are created. Secondly, and following on from this, he cannot explain how signs change their meanings. It is obvious that signs do evolve their meanings and yet Saussure cannot explain how this happens because, for him, our signs are fixed by our culture. Thirdly, his account also excludes the role of the individual. This means that his form of semiotics cannot attempt to understand how individuals form meanings and this limits his form of semiotics in a commercial environment. Lastly, Saussure also assumes that each person is able to learn, quite magically, the cultural codes that surround them. He gives no account of how this might happen, and this is a glaring weakness of his approach. We seem to be able to learn the meaning of the signs within our culture and we must in some way do this ourselves. Has anyone ever explained our cultural codes to you?

In the diagram on the previous page, we find that Saussure, mirroring marketing professionals, is entirely focused on the movement from symbols to communication (arrow B). He does not consider how signs are created in the first place. Saussurian semiotics still works within the traditional communication paradigm. It assumes that a set of cultural codes exist, and commercial semioticians are able to advise their clients on how these codes can optimise brand communications. This form of semiotics should be thought of, therefore, as cultural semiotics.

In contrast to Saussure, Peirce argues that meaning-making is an individual activity. His main focus is the left-hand side of our model, although he also explores how our symbols are subsequently combined to create meaning. Critically, he offers a way of understanding how meanings are created from our raw perceptions of the world.

This opens up a new territory for market researchers. In the context of marketing, Peirce demonstrates how consumers make sense of brands. Although Peirce would certainly acknowledge that brands do have a major input, through their brand communications, he also insists that we need to understand how the consumer makes sense of such communications. Critically, his semiotic system is also dynamic; this means that we are also able to understand how the meanings of brands can change over time and how we can engineer changes in meaning in the future.

Moreover, from the point of view of qualitative research, Peircean semiotics also opens up the possibility of identifying, with consumers, how they construct their own meanings and how they, therefore, construe their world. We no longer have to accept that consumers ‘interpret’ things in different ways, we can identify how they have reached certain specific conclusions about the meanings of brands. This qualitative research approach is potentially new in consumer research. I would suggest we should call it ‘qualitative semiotics’ because it combines both Peircean semiotic theory and the traditional qualitative research methodologies of respondent interviews.

“Qualitative semiotics’ combines both Peircean semiotic theory and the traditional qualitative research methodologies of respondent interviews.”

The Peircean Model – How Do Consumers Create Meaning?

The full extent of Peirce’s semiotic theory need not be discussed in any detail here. But we must identify how it differs from the conventional model of perception, dominant in marketing, that simply assumes that we see things in the world and interpret them. Peirce maintains that this model of perception is entirely flawed. Instead of assuming that we observe something which is known, and then interpret it, he argues that we should begin by acknowledging that we do not know what it is. This hardly ever happens in our day to day lives because we have already gone through the semiotic process of understanding what something is. But if we are going to understand the activity of sign formation, we should assume that we do not know the identity of things around us.

Critically, this means that when we observe something for the first time, we experience what Peirce calls a ‘vague’. We do not know exactly what something is, but the human mind makes a guess as to what kind of thing it is. This means that we observe something, not as an individual thing, but rather as the member of a putative class of things. In consumer world, for example, we might encounter a new bottle in the supermarket and guess that it is a kind of beer. Importantly, at this initial stage, our minds classify things on the basis of what they have encountered before – this is where our reading of culture signs plays a key part.

In Peircean language, what we do is to ‘posit’ the existence of a putative identity (which he calls an ‘icon’) when we encounter something for the first time. This identity is indeterminate, and we guess what it is on the basis of how it is similar to other things that we have encountered before. This ‘guess’ may prove to be correct, or it may turn out to be mistaken, but this identity is what we run with at this initial stage.

In the second stage of sign formation, we begin to learn how this putative identity interacts with the rest of the world. We learn, for example, where this beer is found, who drinks it, what it tastes like, and how expensive it is. Peirce calls all of these qualities ‘indices’ of the identity and this stage—where indices accrue to the identity— is called the indexical stage in sign formation.

The third, and final, stage of sign formation is where meaning is created, and this involves a technical concept that Peirce calls ‘sublation’. Sublation is the way in which a concept is turned upside down (literally ‘lifted up from under’) and it is this process which creates meaning. In order to understand this process, we move from:

  • Iconic Stage:  A putative identity (X) is created based on similarity

  • Indexical Stage: This identity (X) accrues indexical associations. These are, for example, ‘p’, ‘q’, ‘r’.

  • Symbolic Stage: Sublation takes place. ‘p’, ‘q’, and ‘r’ now become signs of X (e.g. a conceptual reversal occurs). So, when we see ‘p’, ‘q’ and ‘r’ again we assume the potential presence of ‘X’ – especially if we observe ‘p’, ‘q’ and ‘r’ together at the same time.

  • It is the action of sublation that creates meaning. Meaning is not formed by acts of (brand) communication that state that ‘X’ means ‘p’, ‘q’ or ‘r’, or some agreement amongst individuals that ‘X’ means these things. It is the act of sublation in the individual mind of the perceiver that creates the meaning of a brand.

So, let us apply this analysis to a real-life example. I am in New York and I notice that a number of the cars driving around are bright yellow. I form an icon of these cars and hypothesise that they share an identity. Over time I learn that these cars are only associated with New York. I link them in my mind with Central Park, Times Square and films with Robert de Niro. At some point sublation takes place and, when I see a yellow car, I now associate it with New York. What has happened, at this point, is that these yellow cars have become a sign of New York.

Very importantly, of course, this act of meaning formation is my own; it works at an individual level. I form icons in a way that is particular to myself and this means that different objects, events, or brands, will have different meanings for me when compared with other people. I might, for example, form an icon of a particular subset of yellow taxis and this could be the identity that I run with. Equally, the experiences I have of yellow taxis could create a set of meanings which are entirely different from another individual who has different experiences of them. Moreover, the process of sign formation is never ending. What a yellow taxi means to me today will be different from what it may mean to me in ten years’ time when I have more experience of them. Peirce thus outlines a theory of meaning creation that is both operating at the individual level and which is able to account for changes in meaning – something that Saussure’s semiotic model is unable to explain.

“Peirce thus outlines a theory of meaning creation that is both operating at the individual level and which is able to account for changes in meaning.”

Applied Meaning-Making: The Branding Process

How can we apply model of meaning-making to branding? When we encounter new products, or when we walk into a pub, shop, or café for the first time, Peirce argues that, without knowing it, we immediately classify these things as members of classes. We do this on the basis of our previous experience and our existing perceptual classes. In so doing, the identity that we create is always, in some way, a qualification of our existing knowledge.

It is of enormous significance, therefore, how we initially frame a putative identity. We are likely to work with it for some time as we qualify it and try to find out what sort of thing it is. This is precisely why first impressions are so important in human interactions.

In marketing, this means what is key to meaning generation is how the consumer initially frames a brand. What sort of thing do they think it is? This is, of course, critical if a brand owner is trying to position a new product as a ‘healthy’ fruit juice, a ‘premium’ lager, or a ‘youthful’ carbonate. Getting the consumer to frame it in the right way initially, with the right kind of icon, is a critical task. The next stage is one of providing a brand with a set of indexical associations that qualify it and make it unique. It is the task of advertising to provide a brand with these indexical associations, although, of course, how the brand is encountered by consumers in their day to day experience will also create additional indices. For example, who uses a brand, where it is sold etc will create indexical associations that may be beyond the control of the brand owner.

At the third stage, where the brand becomes what Peirce calls a ‘symbol’, the brand is then able to stand (as a sign) for the set of values that have become associated with it at the indexical stage. It starts to have a meaning. Peirce does not tell us exactly what triggers sublation. It is something that happens in the mind of each consumer and will vary by individual. Taking a leaf out of neuroscience, it is probably when the mind has become wired in such a way that a ‘pathway’ is created between different elements.

Peirce is clear, however, that this is how meaning is created. We cannot make meaning by simply sending messages to the consumer, or by telling them the rational and emotional benefits of a brand. We need to engage them in the concept forming process (e.g. icon, index, symbol) and to do this in a way that encourages them to make a sign out of the elements of whatever brand they encounter.

Qualitative Semiotics: Researching Meaning-Making

One of the great strengths of Peirce’s model is that it provides a completely new way of understanding consumer thinking. In conventional market research we make little attempt to understand how consumers form their concepts, or their meanings. We assume that these meanings are simply present in their minds and they have been determined by their interpretations of the world. But the trouble with the interpretation model is that it is a ‘black box’ – we cannot follow how consumers have reached these interpretations.

In contrast, Peirce provides us with a clear three stage process that enables us to identify both how consumers form their concepts and where they are on their journeys from perception to symbol formation. This means that it is possible to identify several aspects of the meaning making process: what identities have been formed by consumers; how do different consumers see the same brand in different ways, and which parts of a brand have been included (or not included) by them in its meaning. Moreover, it is also possible to identify whether sublation has taken place; is it a true identity or is it no more than a name with a set of associations?

Without going into too much detail, it is possible to talk to consumers in a qualitative setting (usually depth interviews or paired depths, not in groups as they are too large) about a number of key dimensions in the Peircean model. These are:

  • How is a brand classified?

  • What sort of thing is it? What is its posited identity?

  • What are its associations (e.g indices)?

  • Has it reached the stage of being sublated?

It is also possible to use Peirce’s semiotic model to analyse individual brand communications, analysing the identities that are being formed in an advertising execution and also how they are qualified within that context.

It will be noted by readers that some of these questions are already familiar in a qualitative context (e.g. mapping exercises are a way of asking the classification question), but what ‘qualitative semiotics’ provides is a systematic theory, and approach, which reframes conventional qualitative techniques. This allows us to open up a world that has hitherto been closed to market research: the possibility of understanding how brand meaning is made by consumers. This, in turn, presents commercial research with the possibility of a significant role in the core marketing activity of adding value to brands.

“In conventional market research we make little attempt to understand how consumers form their concepts, or their meanings.”

Chris Barnham

Chris Barnham Research Ltd

Chris has run his own qualitative consultancy since 1996. He works on brand identity, brand communication and design projects in the UK, Eire, Europe and North America. He read philosophy at Oxford University and has a PhD in Peircean Semiotics from University College, London. He has published a series of papers in the International Journal of Market Research (IJMR) and he is writing a book on Peircean Semiotics - to be published in 2021.