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Everywhere a sign: What signals is your business giving out?

Rowan Dean
Smarter Writer

Rowan Dean is an award-winning creative director, social media commentator and advertising guru

Rowan Dean
Smarter Writer

Rowan Dean is an award-winning creative director, social media commentator and advertising guru

Businesses don't just thrive on the quality of their products or services. It is crucial that every aspect of your brand is sending out the right signs, as Rowan Dean explains.

Next time you’re looking at your accounts and trying to figure out how to improve your bottom line, give a thought to Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist and philosopher who is regarded as the father of modern semiotics – the study of signs. Every small business runs on signs.

cartoon man in dress shop

Read between the signs

There are the obvious ones – the one above the door, the one on the business card, the one on the side of the van. These signs should reflect what your business is all about, whether it be a graphic of a water drop coming out of a broken pipe, or an image of a steaming cup of coffee.

These aren’t the only signs your business relies on. There are hundreds of other, not so obvious ones. The way you greet customers. How your shopfront or website is organised. The choice of magazines in reception. Cleanliness. Individual style and appearance.

This study of subliminal messages and signs has the fancy name of “semiotics”. It gets thrown around a lot in the planning and marketing departments of large businesses, but don’t just leave it to the big boys. Small businesses can also benefit from the science of signs.

How magazines can teach you about your own business

Successful brands recognise that it’s not only overt messages that attract customers, but subliminal ones, too – the look of the staff, the lighting, music, decor, smells. Even the ease of using a website. First impressions can be the difference between success and failure.

This is why the Apple stores, for example, are designed the way they are. Every component screams modern, stylish and individual – three of their key brand propositions. Nothing is accidental – everything is carefully designed to enhance the brand’s personality.

To develop a feel for semiotics, go through a magazine tearing out photos or words or colour schemes that intuitively feel right for your business and place them in a pile, while creating another pile for things that definitely feel wrong.

The questions that any serious business owner should be asking themselves

Think of what key words sum up how you want your business to be perceived. Put together a playlist of music that matches the “feel” of your business. If your business were an animal, what would it be? Or if it were a famous person, who would it be and what friends would it have? What car would it drive, and where would it live?

Is your brand retro or uber-contemporary? Stylish or funky? Cool or rustic? Futuristic or delightfully old-fashioned? Loud and crazy or a place of calm and reflection? Individual and quirky or generic and reassuring? Understated and discreet or brash and fun-loving? None of these are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – they should be honest appraisals of your values.

Now, does every aspect or design element of your business fit in with those key words or thoughts? Does every aspect live up to the qualities of the animal, famous person, or words and styles that you have identified?

Just be yourself - Advice for successful businesses

Once you have determined what key phrases, look, and feel epitomise your business, apply them to every decision you make from now on. Treat every object you purchase for your business as a subliminal “sign” that promotes the skills, qualities, tastes and choices your enterprise aspires to deliver. Right down to the style of the coffee cups in reception or the type of benchtop the till sits on.

Semiotics doesn’t necessarily mean spending more money – although it can. More importantly, it means knowing and understanding your brand right from the start and applying more rigorous thought, time, and care to every decision you make. Every part of your business – every touchpoint with the consumer – is a sign of how your brand behaves. The trick is to make sure that it’s a positive and accurate one.

Do's

  1. Know the tastes of your target audience. The type of people you attract onto your premises also sends out messages to other potential customers.
  2. Be consistent. Every aspect of your speech, image, music, style, and mannerisms should be consistent with your brand personality.
  3. Ensure all your processes live up to your brand identity. Returning a call within five minutes, no matter who or when, screams “efficient”.

Don'ts

  1. Try to be all things to all people. You’ll end up standing for nothing, and that’s the signal you’ll be sending out.
  2. Assume that people don’t notice the small things. Or the things you can’t really be bothered about. They do.
  3. Sacrifice your brand values to save money. Nobody will value your brand if you don’t value it yourself.

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