WHAT IS A BRAND? / Distinction, quality and a sense of belonging

In our last article we addressed brands as signs that evoke a universe of significance; signs which are the result of a construction. Later on, we will refer to the process of brand confection within the frame of culture, but first it is necessary to explore some more ideas on what a brand is.


“When you surround yourself with certain types of objects, they become a public statement of who you are”, Malcolm Gladwell.

Previously referred to brands as signs. So then, what is a sign? Saussure, in “Course in General Linguistics”, [1] states that linguistic signs are the smallest units of meaning, being at the same time, positions that are interrelated within the language system.

The interesting part of Saussure’s proposal is that each sign has a negative value, given by its differential opposition with the rest; and positive significance, given by the position of the sign in the system. Thus the identity, in terms of Saussure, is relational, not essential: it is defined through and by relationships and oppositions with other signs of the system and its position in it. That is, if no other signs exist, no identity is possible. Or, in this case, if no other brands exist, no identity possible. Consequently, it could be said that he established a dialogical relationship between Communication and Identity.

In the same way, Hegel [2] develops the dialectic identity-otherness in his book “The Philosophy of Right,” explaining that an identity is constructed by and not in spite of the differences: it is in the exchange with an ‘another’ that establishing an identity is feasible.

Today, the outlook for brands seem to be a bit daunting when it comes to account the huge amount of brands competing for consumers’ attention in an increasingly active market, who are better informed and have more demanding requirements. In addition to the increase in supply, the new ‘economy of abundance’ is characterized by a constant consumer dissatisfaction. In this scenario, brands themselves become commodities.

However, this context also presents a great opportunity for those brands who prove to be able not only to distinguish themselves from others, but also to differentiate their products, services and experiences offered to customers and users. The competition is now between discourses, not products. The ideological component of consumption (“I am what I consume”) presents the possibility to stop responding to needs in order to begin offering added value, generated by fostering expectations, building relationships and connections with those to whom the speeches of brands are directed: people.


By mentioning any brand -Coca-Cola, Chanel, Nike-, it seems inevitable that an almost unconscious process of associations is awoken in the mind of everyone of us. Fun, freshness, elegance, sophistication, prestige, movement, vitality …

Each brand has an image built around itself, with which it is associated and identified. The image is the symbolic promise of the brand leading to the formation of a universe of values. Values ​​that the brand itself does not have, but that actually add something more than differentiating it from the rest. Dress in Chanel and get an elegant, sophisticated and classic look. Drink a Coke and let happiness flow. These refer to the ‘added value’ that every brand has or aspires to have, and that relates directly to their symbolic dimension. How much does it cost to wear Chanel?, or should it be: what would a woman give to wear Chanel? Working on the basis of added value, it happens that brands set themselves in the centre of the Communication process, awakening and mobilizing the mechanisms of desire on the other side.


“Branding is the profound manifestation of the human condition. It is about belonging to a tribe, a religion, a family,” Wally Olins.

The process of Identity construction responds to the need to belong to something and not being excluded. The mechanism of identification is defined as the establishment of a correlation between the image that we have and what it is in reality. As a result, an identity is constituted by the sum of images that we recognize as its own, which are symbolic representations of what it is. Freud [3] points out that an identity is weak and needs and depends on the image for its constant construction. The order of the imaginary shapes the relationship we have with the surrounding world, and subjectivity is always playing a part throughout this process.

Freud referred as ‘partial identifications’ to those processes by which the person appropriates an image that gives them a partial identity. This is for example, mass phenomena like “I’m Argentinian” or “I’m an engineer.” They are mobile identities sustained by the need of individuals of belonging to a particular group, and evidence the human condition of dependence on the image, to which we attribute a particular meaning.

Through the creation of values, brands build an image that the subject can ‘pick and place’ to piacere, providing an open space for everyone who wants to fill it and allowing its partners to identify and empathize with them.

By establishing this relationship between brands and people, both sides interact in multiple ways: they develop a bond, exchange ideas, give opinions, report reviews, anticipate change, design needs, influence, relate, connect, share, celebrate, respect, participate, activate, fall in love …

[To be continued …]
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[1] Saussure, F. “Course in General Linguistics.” John Wiley, 1987.

[2] Vasquez, E. “Fundamental Philosophy Traits of Right, or Compendium of Natural Right and Science of State.” Madrid, Routledge, 2000. Translation: Hegel, F. “Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts”, 1821.

[3] Freud, S. “Complete Works”. Routledge Publishers, Routledge, 2000.


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