Symbols and Brand Perception: An interview with Dr Sidney Levy

Symbols and Brand Perception: An interview with Dr Sidney Levy

The pharmaceutical industry hardly concentrates on brand building, instead it concentrates on new molecules for survival feels Tarun Gupta. Thinking aloud, he says this could be eating into a company’s intrinsic costs. He feels the pharma guys are stuck in a bind and need to get out of it. While on a visit to the US he had a tete-a-tete with Dr Sidney J Levy the Coca-Cola Professor of marketing and head of the Department of Marketing at the University of Arizona’s College of Business and Public Administration. The professor’s article ‘‘Symbols for Sale’’ was published in the Harvard Business Review in 1959. It is still referred to because of the continuing interest in the symbolic meanings associated with marketing exchanges. The professor gives his views on various perceptions about brands and symbols.

Face to face

On What the Mercedes Benz Symbolises

Mercedes Benz in the US also symbolizes high financial networth, success, and elevated position. It is an expensive luxury car, a high class product of German workmanship, among the top in the hierarchy of cars. There are probably also some subtle variations in meanings that would emerge from closer study. For example, there would be differences among Mercedes-Benz Cadillac, Lexus and Jaguar, which are all high status cars.

On Brands maturing with age

I believe that brands do evolve over time. Coca-Cola probably still symbolizes the epitome of a mainstream, All-American beverage, its imagery of soft drink potency and a bit of mystery making it widely attractive to people ranging in age, social status and gender across the globe. But it probably seems somewhat more mature, less glamorous than it used to be, more the old-time champion facing many competitors who are more contemporary, with the movement toward more virtuous beverages such as water, tea and juices.

Consistency across cultures with symbols

Maintaining consistency across cultures requires sensitivity to the variations in societies. Being consistent does not come merely from doing the same thing, but from appealing to similar values with the appropriate means. For example Benetton advertising that demonstrates its radical social consicence is accepted in some cultures but was banned in Germany. There they would need to show their theme in another way.

On brands that make a statement

All brand selections say something about the user. Even choices of common brands indicate a degree of conventionality or non-caring, or are part of one’s facade of conformity. When the consumer finds the story compelling, the choice will be an important announcement. Some symbols affirm: yes, I can afford this house, this car, this school, this beverage. Other symbols make claims that may or may not be true: this book says I am smart, this dress says I am sexy, this restaurant says I am a gourmet.

Can symbols differentiate a brand

All the differentiation that occurs among brands is symbolic as well as pragmatic. A round container may be practically necessary, but is also likely to convey greater relative sweetness, softness, femininity, etc. Similarly, names, pricing, colours, designs and messages, representatives, etc all work to indicate the character of a brand. These features have the greatest impact when they are strongly suited to their purpose or surprise with the connections they enable us to make. Budweiser Beer used draft horses and talking frogs to make an impact. The horses express sturdiness, strength, service and basic origins and the frogs relate to fun, entertainment, leisure and the absurd grossness of drinking beer.

Where do symbols work?

Symbols work on the mind in all the ways that the mind functions. That is, the body uses all its senses to receive stimuli and to interpret them. This process is both conscious and unconscious. We are commonly not aware of how we came to have some particular symbolic understanding. The human organism seems to experience the colour red as exciting. Red objects are then interpreted as exciting, whether clothing, cars, or packaging. Other things are interpreted with reference to standards that we have learned and that may change. Big diamonds are expensive and fabulous. Some things get too big: giants, ostentations hosues, inefficient conglomerates. Big sports utility vehicles (SUVs) became fashionable. Now they are becoming seen as unweidly, greedy, dangerous and stupid. h

Tarun Gupta is Managing Director and CEO of Lifeon Paediatrics Ltd. at Mumbai