Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We are symbols and inhabit symbols.” While that might seem a little intense, he makes a valid point. Symbols start out as meaningless illustrations, objects, sounds, etc. that humans assign meaning due to repeat exposure and values association.

Brand symbols allow consumers to inject meaning into a memorable and timeless visual representation.

Robbie and Bobby Dove Symbolism Cartoon Jason Poland
We all have symbols in our lives and these symbols remind us of our beliefs, loyalties, and accomplishments. Symbols, like stories or memory-anchored pictures, serve us in very powerful ways.

People are hardwired to create shorthand using symbols. For example, poison, infinity, Bluetooth and restroom. We understand them instantly because they are used universally and we have seen them time and time again. We use symbols as shorthand – making everyday communication a breeze.

bluetooth infinity poison bathroom restroom symbol

This has worked for eons. Clearly, the caduceus symbol for medicine no longer requires its ancient Greek, Roman and Old Testament roots in order to be read. There are so many understood symbols like this that are packed with meaning.

Caduceus medical medicine symbol sign

You might ask – well, what’s the difference between a logo and a symbol? In truth, symbols are empty vessels that we pour meaning into. Logos are not necessarily designed to function as a symbol but can turn into one.

A logo’s purpose is to signify the brand. A symbol’s purpose is to tie meaning to a brand.

Nike is a perfect example of an effective brand symbol. The legendary swoosh was designed to convey motion in its design as well as symbolize the wing of Nike – Greek goddess of victory. Nike’s symbol draws meaning from history as well as our collective subconscious. Consumers, therefore, associate the notion of history, victory, strength, speed and movement with the brand. The brand is so well known that the symbol is often shown without the logo – something far less common.

LOGO vs. SYMBOL

nike brand logo nike brand symbol

If done correctly, symbols resonate in the unconscious mind and draw associations between a company’s values and the symbol’s connotations.

So how do brands create and utilize their own symbols to elevate their brand?

Consider the influence of pop culture, the endurance of long-standing human ideas, and the pervasiveness of our collective subconscious. How will your brand symbols factor into these concepts?

People will be more receptive to particular symbols depending on the situation they find themselves in. We live out the influences of collective unconscious whether we realize it or not. Take for example, superstitions or unquestioned traditions. People put Christmas trees in their homes year after year without ever once questioning the odd tradition. You want your brand to be that tree – understood as a universal symbol and mass purchased by almost every type of consumer.

Pop culture influences the meaning and connotations of particular symbols. However, outside of pop culture, something deeper lies within our collective subconscious. All humans have instincts and unspoken understandings. For example, archetypes represent recurring symbols and situations over the history of humans. When experiencing certain situations in life, people pull from this collective pool to infer meaning.

So how do you know your brand symbols will stand the test of time? Think of it this way – would someone get it tattooed on their body? When a person decides to get a tattoo, they understand it will permanently be on their body. A tattoo is a commitment that lasts a lifetime. It is an expression of personality, values and a way of being. For someone to permanently mark their bodies with a symbol, they are acknowledging the timelessness of its meaning and design. The symbol needs to be packed with meaning. It must signify something more than a brand – it symbolizes a lifestyle.

If they’re tattooing your brand, you’ve reached cult status.

nike harley davidson yves sait laurant coco chanel symbol logo tattoo

These symbols represent something more than just the brand. Nike’s logo represents determination and athletics, Harley-Davidson’s logo represents a hardcore and badass lifestyle, and luxury brands like Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel represent style and class. When people mark themselves with a brand’s symbol, they intertwine their own personality, purpose and values with those of the brand.

A brand does not need to limit itself to one symbol. Think of symbols associated with some of the longest standing brands. The symbols for Harley-Davidson, for example, include tattoos, eagles, rings, chicks on flame-covered bikes, and the roar of the pipes. Just as visuals can be symbols, so can sounds, tastes, smells and textures.

Symbols give brands meaning beyond their basic business value proposition.

Symbols can be distorted by time without losing integrity. Starbucks’ origin story is rooted in Greek mythology and the legend of Moby Dick. This origin story pulls from historic literature, ancient mythology and pop culture, embedding the company into the history of time. Their siren symbol has been tweaked tremendously over the years, yet its integrity and meaning remain intact. Consumers still connect the brand to the image and feel the same tug of purpose because of its familiarity and deep-rooted meaning.

starbucks siren brand symbol logo transition change

Symbols create unity, relay meaning, evoke emotion, transcend time. Symbols allow your brand to penetrate the collective human subconscious and amplify the brand experience.