The days following the atrocities in Paris have thrown the power of symbolism in to sharp focus. If you log on to Facebook you will see a flood of blue, white and red, facilitated by the flag filter made available by the social media platform, with the intention of showing support for the country and the victims of Friday’s events. However, what many see as a symbol of solidarity and compassion, others define as corporate opportunism or discrimination. So how can one symbol, designed with a single purpose in mind, be so open to interpretation?
First and foremost, this is not a politically or religiously motivated piece. What we’re looking at here is the power of symbolism to convey meaning and the different ways in which it can be interpreted.
In an article for The Independent, Lulu Nunn describes the act of applying the French flag to your profile as an act of Western white supremacy, prioritising European lives over those of victims from other countries. Others have cited the flag filter as a social bandwagon that people are all too ready to climb aboard. The flip-side of course is that people view the use of the flag as a symbol of support and empathy.
Symbols are part of our everyday lives, often in the form of brands. We engage and support these brands and display their logos on our clothes, cars and social networks. By aligning ourselves with these symbols we are saying something about ourselves as people. They help to form a visual representation of our tastes, choices and values.
For many, the Apple logo represents innovative technology, fashion and modern lifestyle, but some view it as an all-consuming corporate machine. To you, the Starbucks logo may signify a quality cup of coffee, whereas others may associate it with tax avoidance. It comes down to our personal loyalties and opinions, as well as society’s need to ‘classify’ each other. Which camp are you in? Which side do you support? Are you Mac or PC? Symbols give people an opportunity to feel that they belong to something, or don’t belong to something, a community of like-minded individuals or an organisation that understands them perhaps. From such things is loyalty grown.
So what does this mean for business? Well, think about your brand and your symbolism. What does it stand for? Does it embody the culture of your company and the people within it? Like it or not, your brand stands for something and people will interpret it one way or another. The key is to stay true to your values and have a clear purpose. Follow through with marketing that reinforces your position and communicates it to the wider community. If your audience can identify with you then they are more likely to support you and feel a sense of loyalty towards you.
Our actions say a lot about us as people and indeed businesses. What we do defines us and we align and distance ourselves from causes through our choices. Symbols are visual manifestations of the things we wish to support or avoid. They encapsulate all that they are. In a branding context they are badge of honour, a sign of membership and a demonstration of support. As businesses, and as people, we will be judged and categorised by the symbols we support, so let’s make sure that those choices are conscious and informed ones.