What is a Brand Promise? — How Semiotics Contributes to Your Brand.

When talking about a brand, it is important to understand what exactly a brand is. The term “brand” can mean different things to different people. For some, a brand is simply a company. For example, you can distinguish one brand of shampoo from another by the brand. That is certainly one aspect of a brand. However, when talking about a brand promise we cannot define a brand as a company.

I define “brand” as a symbol of the promises made to recipients of the product or service offered by an organization. In other words, a brand is a promise or set of promise made to the consumer. A brand is not limited to companies. Brands include religious organizations, charitable foundations, and government entities.

Gary Fox, a strategy and innovation consultant, defined brand promise in the following way

A brand promise is a value or experience a company’s customers can expect to receive every single time they interact with that company. The more a company can deliver on that promise, the stronger the brand value in the mind of customers and employees.

Gary Fox

I wholeheartedly agree with Gary’s definition. In other words, the promise creates the potential trust between the organization and the recipient. Without the trust the promise is null and void.

This is all based in the linguistic theory of Semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. Symbols are important to our understanding of the world.

What is Semiotics?

As human beings, we retain knowledge and memories through the use of language and symbols. The mind maps symbols and the extra-symbolic relationships amongst them to specific meanings. For example, when we experience a bear for the first time and it charges at us, we reasonably classify the symbol of the bear with danger, not innocence as with a teddy bear.

Semiotic is the study of signs and symbols. This theory was introduced by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure proposed that symbols were made up of two parts

  • Signifier: the physical form of the sign or symbol such as a sound, printed word, or image
  • Signified: the meaning or idea expressed by a sign, as distinct from the physical form in which it is expressed.

Let’s take an example of the heart symbol. If I say the phrase “my heart hearts”, how should the symbol of heart be interpreted? It could mean that my heart physically hurts or that I feel sad. If we look at physical symbol of a heart we can see how the same symbol can be interpreted in different ways.

Semiotics - What is a brand promise?

How should we interpret this symbol? There are multiple ways right? One possible interpretation is “I love nature.” Another interpretation is ”love is light.” A third possibility is that “love is natural.” There are multiple ways to interpret the symbol.

Now we look at another symbol with the heart. The colors and extra symbols give another possible meaning to the symbol. Here we have the same heart symbol but it is red and has a white torch in the middle. One possible interpretation is “there is hope in the heart.” A torch is a popular symbol of hope as it gives light in the darkness. So we see that symbols can be somewhat complex in nature.

What does Semiotics have to do with a brand promise?

Roland Barthes was a leading theorist on the theory of Semiotics. Barthes argued that when the context is removed from the sign or symbol, the meaning is removed as well.

So for example, the thumbs up symbol in many countries is a sign of approval. However, in several countries in West Africa and the Middle East, including Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the gesture has the connotation of “up yours!” It’s used the same way the middle finger is in the US.

In order for your brand to communicate effectively your brand promise, you must have an understanding of the context of the symbols used in your messaging.

I have yet to verify if it is true but the story goes that when Chevrolet was marketing the Nova car line in Latin America they had a hard time selling the car because “no va” in Spanish means “it does not go” implying that the car was a junker. Chevrolet didn’t realize the context of the brand name in Latin America.

It’s important then to understand what surrounds your brand. If you try and reappropriate symbols that have a long-standing context you will have a difficult if not impossible time expressing your brand promise. Your trust will be lost and your reputation will be damaged.

Jacob Billings
PhD Candidate - Complex Systems

I am a software engineer, linguist, and researcher of Complex Systems. I hold a bachelor's degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Utah, a Master’s degree in linguistics from Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala City, and I am a doctoral candidate in Complex Systems at the Polytechnic University in Madrid, Spain.

Software Development: I bring over 20 years of experience in developing software for multiple clients in various environments. I have a solid knowledge of PHP, Javascript, MySQL, NoSQL, Python, and Java.

Over my career, I have had the opportunity to work on projects for some of the most recognized brands on the planet. Brands like Marriott Hotels, Microsoft, Ashland Chemical, Capital One Credit Cards, Cadbury Schweppes, GE and more. This has given me an in-depth understanding of my client's challenges as they grow. I know how to get a company from startup to maturity with technology. My specialties are in E-commerce(specifically Magento), process automation, and security.