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Playing with symbols Image Credit: Outlook Business
Playing with symbols Image Credit: Outlook Business

Playing With Symbols

My first job post MBA was with Ogilvy & Mather and my first client there was Unilever (then called HLL). We had to design packaging for various tea brands. That’s where I learnt about the meanings of different colours: gold, for example, signified premium and had to be used sparingly. So did black, but it was not popular in India at the time. Brown and red were favourites for tea. Green connoted freshness — and so the list went on.

Hamsini Shivakumar And Pranab Bobo Dutta

This made sense intuitively — and many of us, in marketing, do make use of semiotics in an instinctive way.

The narrative and tonality are significant, too. It may be the same cream but the narrative, when sold to men, may be different from the narrative used to sell the product to women. The tone may be more masculine and sporty for a men’s face cream, while softer, more feminine for women.

The science of symbols, narratives and colours is referred to as semiotics. In their book Signs, Symbols and Marketing Effectiveness, Hamsini Shivakumar and Pranab Bobo Dutta — both veterans of the communications world — have created a beginner’s guide to semiotics born from their own interest in the topic.

Appropriate to a book on symbolism, this book is filled with images to tell its story. Rather than explaining the differences between, say, a premium razor and a cheap disposable, the authors will show you the same. And once you see it, of course you’ll realise that you have known this all along but perhaps not thought it through consciously. The book encourages the reader to make these connections for themselves, which is a great approach because you can then easily apply it to your own portfolio of products. There are simple frameworks that help you understand what makes one brand stronger than another. There is a snappy analysis of Reebok and Nike from a semiotics viewpoint, attempting to determine which of the two is str


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