| February 27, 2013
An article in Slate magazine, from 2010, suggests that signs are “the most useful thing you pay no attention to.” I would argue that the best brands are like the best signs. They are easily visible, instinctively understood and unambiguous. You do not have to think about what they stand for, you just know it.
Today, everyone is trying to find their way in a complex and fast changing world, and signs help us do that. In her article, Julia Turner states:
When (signage) works well, it tells us where we are (as when an Interstate marker assures us we're on the right highway) and it helps us to get where we want to go (as when an airport banner directs us to our gate). When it fails, we miss trains, we're late to appointments, we spend hours pacing the indistinguishable floors of underground parking garages, muttering to ourselves in mounting frustration and fury.
When you think about it, brands perform a similar role to signs. They act as a reference point, something familiar and reassuring, but they also direct us toward a goal. We buy brands to perform a job for us. The job might be trivial, like buying a packet of peanuts to stave off hunger, or it might be more important, like choosing a car as your primary means of transport for the next three years. The more clearly a brand signals what it stands for and what it can do for you, the more likely you are to buy it.
Of course, brands have it easy compared to signs. They get more than one chance to establish what they stand for. Brands can use multiple touch points to tell their story and establish what they stand for, but they still need to trigger the right ideas and associations when people see them. The more easily recognized they are and the more strongly they bring positive impressions to mind, the stronger they will be.
There is another similarity between brands and signs. In her article, Turner notes:
For years, designers have been developing graphical symbols to help non-natives find the bathrooms, the baggage claims, and the Bureaux de Change, and, in the process, they've been inventing a global language, a kind of pictorial Esperanto.
These days, brands are also part of that universal language. For instance, you may not be able to read what it says on a bottle of Coca-Cola in China, but it is difficult to mistake it for anything else.
So what do you think? Is comparing brands to signs a useful analogy or not? Please share your thoughts.