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Why brands need to be like road signs

by Nigel Hollis | 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. 


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  1. Alasdair Allen, March 03, 2013
    Hi Nigel, I think it's a useful analogy in many ways. Going back to a bit of university semiotics: obviously, road signs have very strong and explicit denotative meaning, but a re oight on connotative meaning (to avoid being vague), whereas brands are much stronger on connotative meaning.
    As you say brands do have some advantages over signs, but signs have some advantages too: there is typically much less competition in the road sign market - imagine three signs telling you three different ways to the airport. And signs have a real advantage in that their audience is already actively engaged with the message - they are inherently useful. Brands are largely speaking to people who don't really care what the brands are telling them.
  2. Alison Smith, February 27, 2013

    I think this is a really useful analogy and one that planners and brand teams should bear in mind when they are thinking about how all those touch-points feed into the brand's signposting. While you may need to communicate multiple messages, you don't want them to all point in different directions and muddy the waters about what your core meaning is! I think this one may work its way into my conversations about brands in future.


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