Branding as Communication

by Susan B. Barnes (Author)
©2017 Textbook XIV, 204 Pages
Series: Visual Communication, Volume 5


Once only a sign, technologies have helped to transform brands into symbols that we constantly encounter in our natural and mediated environments. Moreover, the branding of culture marks a commercialization of society. Almost everywhere we look, a brand name or logo appears.
By combining a scholarly approach with case studies and examples, this text bridges the worlds of communication and business by providing a single vocabulary in which to discuss branding. It brings these ideas together into a coherent framework to enable discussions on the topic to occur in a variety of disciplines. A number of perspectives are also provided, including brands as signs and symbols, brand personality, history, communication, cognitive factors, loyalty, personal branding, community, and social issues.
Providing a comprehensive overview of the branding process – from the creation of brands to analysis of their messages – readers will begin to understand the communicative impact of branding.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Brands All Around Us
  • References
  • Chapter 1. Branding Sign and Symbol
  • Connotative and Denotative
  • Signs
  • Symbol
  • Branding
  • Summary
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter 2. History of Branding
  • Ancient Brands
  • Medieval Brands
  • Brands in the United States
  • Branding After the Civil War
  • The Rise of Advertising
  • Creating Brands
  • Branding and the Depression
  • Branding and American Economics
  • Television and Branding
  • Branding in the 1960s
  • Branding and Culture
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter 3. Branding as Communication
  • Rhetorical Model
  • Laswell Model
  • Case Study: Keds
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter 4. Creating Brand Images
  • Creativity
  • Creativity and Maslow
  • Creating the Brand
  • Creative Documents
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • References
  • Chapter 5. Branding and the Mind
  • States of Mind
  • Visual Intelligence
  • Two Minds
  • Measuring Unawareness
  • Metaphors and Research
  • Participation and Awareness
  • Pattern Recognition
  • Belief Systems
  • Mental Distractors
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • References
  • Chapter 6. Emotional and Relationship Branding
  • Relationship Marketing
  • Economics
  • Relationships
  • Brand Loyalty
  • Lovemarks
  • Trust
  • Influencers
  • Communicating Emotion
  • Brand Experience
  • Emotional Design
  • Sensory Experiences and Branding
  • Color
  • Taste
  • Scents
  • Stimulating Senses Through Experience
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • References
  • Chapter 7. Brand Personality
  • Personality
  • Issues with Personality Development
  • What’s in a Name?
  • Logos
  • Tag Lines
  • Telling the Story
  • Self-Identity
  • Brand Expansion & Extension
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • References
  • Chapter 8. Brands, Personal Branding, and Community
  • Personalization
  • Personal Branding
  • Personal Branding Paradox
  • Selfies
  • Brand Community
  • Companies in the Community
  • Tribal Marketing
  • Ethnographic Research
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • References
  • Chapter 9. Brands Become Icons
  • Icons
  • Cultural Brands
  • Cultural Blunders
  • Products as Icons
  • Cultural Myths
  • Myth Making
  • Myth Markets
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • References
  • Chapter 10. Branding in a Digital World
  • E-Commerce
  • Branding Online
  • Websites
  • Blogs
  • Online Communities
  • Interactive Branding
  • Social Networks
  • Brand Metrics
  • YouTube
  • Viral Marketing and Branding
  • User-Generated Marketing
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • References
  • Chapter 11. Brands and Cultural Concerns
  • Culture Jamming
  • Digital Media and Anti-Corporate Activists
  • Commercial Exploitation of User Data
  • Exploitation of User-Generated Content
  • Sex in Advertising
  • Social Responsibility
  • Coca-Cola and Social Responsibility
  • Environmental Advertising
  • Cultural Heterogeneity
  • Branding and Culture
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • References
  • Chapter 12. Social Branding
  • Brand Expansion
  • Social Benefits: The Promise of Branding
  • Branding Critics
  • Political Branding
  • Non-profit Branding
  • Destination (Place) Branding
  • The Last Word on Brands
  • Summary
  • Exercises
  • References
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Glossary
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


The momentous sign of the rise of image-thinking, and its displacement of
ideals is, of course, the rise of advertising…. In fact it has meant a reshaping of our very concept of truth.

—Daniel J. Boorstin, 1987, p. 205

Fish don’t know they are in water because they are surrounded by it, which makes it impossible to see. Similarly, people are so surrounded by branding that it is something that we do not notice. Today we live in a branded world. Branding influences many aspects of our lives, whether we know it or not. The reason for this is part cultural, part emotional, and part economic.

While window shopping at the airport, a travel bag captured my attention because it was my favorite color. The bag was simple and of lightweight material, the kind that is good for travel. The price was over $100, which was a surprise, because I had just bought a fancy leather bag the week before. That bag was Western style, with bronze leather handles, a huge buckle, and rhinestones. It cost $50 and was purchased at a Western clothing store on an Indian reservation near my home. This made me think: Why was the cloth bag so expensive? ← vii | viii →

In comparing the two items, my first observation was that I did not know the brand name of the Western bag. However, something very similar was on sale in a catalog for a higher price. (The Western bag is sold through a number of different outlets.) The cloth bag had a designer name and a tag with that name on it—something that lets other people know that you own so-and-so’s bag. In contrast, it is the beauty of the design of the Western bag that attracts one’s attention, not a name.

This experience reinforced for me the fact that “No-name” items are less expensive than branded ones, a concept central to the economics of branding. How do we know this? Is it read in a book or discussed on TV? In advertising courses I learned that the cost of advertising is incorporated into the price of a product. That is why a no-name can of fruit is less expensive than Del Monte or Libby’s. Otherwise I learned this information in the course of cultural interactions.

Brands All Around Us

Brands surround us as we navigate our daily lives. A number of academics have attempted to make us aware of this fact, but we still need to be reminded. One reason why scholars have not focused on the communicative aspects of branding is because the term is often confused with the terms brandname, trademark, brand, and copyright, and many times they refer to the same thing. A brand is described as “a name, term, symbol, or design, or a combination of them which is intended to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers” (Sacharow, 1982, p. 19). Tantillo (2010) states: “The formal definition of a brand is a ‘name, term, symbol, or a special design that is intended to identify a product’” (p. 45). The purpose of the brand is to make it easier for a consumer to identify products and to differentiate them from those of other merchants. Levine (2003) argues further that a brand is never an accident.

However, terms used by scholars to describe branding, advertising, and commercial messages may seem arbitrary. Advertising terms are not consistent. Different scholars have used different terms to describe the influence of commercial messages. For example, Jacques Ellul (1973) describes commercial messages as “propaganda” rather than advertising or branding, a term that makes sense for a European scholar. In Europe, left-wing artists, especially those of the Bauhaus movement, embraced graphic design as a means of social reform. Visual design was viewed as an agent of social change—and ← viii | ix → thus a form of propaganda. Other scholars have used different terms. When deployed for political purposes, visual design can indeed be used as a form of propaganda.

In the United States, Daniel Boorstin (1987) coined the term “pseudo-events.” Douglas Rushkoff (1999) refers to advertisers as “persuaders.” Stuart Ewen (2001) argued that we live in a “consumer culture.” Herbert Schiller (1989) used the term “commercial culture.” Matthew McAllister (1997) contended that American culture has become a form of commercialization. In contrast to examining commercial culture, others have examined the images themselves. For example, Ernst Sternberg (1999) labeled branding the “economy of icons,” and Gavin Fridell and Martijn Konings (2013) edited a text that examines how icons promote political agendas. These books examine how individual images persuade.

In 2007, the Journal of Consumer Research published an article entitled “Writing with Pictures” by Linda Scott and Patrick Vargas. The purpose of the article was to argue that images could communicate declarative statements. In contrast, the advertising literature on the impact of visual imagery on culture tended to describe images as sensory data. Scott and Vargas argued that advertising research needed to discuss visual images as a function similar to verbal language (an argument that has been made for years by visual communication scholars, especially Foss [1982, 1993]). Because of the academic confusion about whether or not images communicate messages, visual communication is a rather new topic of research. Scholarly and practical authors engaged in research on branding often come from a number of different disciplines that tend not to look at each other’s literature. As a result, there is no common language in which to discuss the influence of visual communication, icons, or branding on individuals and society.

Boorstin (1987), for instance, identifies public relations and advertising procedures as pseudo-events. Pseudo-events are “the new kind of synthetic novelty which has flooded our experiences” (p. 9). Pseudo-events emerged with the graphic revolution: “man’s ability to make, preserve, transmit, and disseminate precise images—images of print, of men and landscapes and events of voices of men and mobs—now grew at a fantastic pace” (p. 13). Boorstin claims that pseudo-events cost money to create and that they are planned events. For example, these are events that public relations firms and designers produce for commercial purposes. An example would be the branding of sports events. These events are often turned into news stories. Consider the controversy faced by Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles ← ix | x → Clippers basketball team, over racist comments he uttered. The story ran for days on CNN and involved Magic Johnson in the reporting. The owner of a basketball team does not influence politics, American culture, or individual lives, a fact that renders this a pseudo-event.

On the other hand, the legal dispute involving the Washington Redskins football team is news, because this story has legal and cultural consequences. The controversy that resulted in the taking away of the Redskins trademark or visual brand is newsworthy, because the trademark is offensive to Native Americans (Randazza, 2014). The government revoked the branding of the team. “This case was about a trademark, and the primary purpose of trademark law is to protect the public so that the public can accurately know the source or origin of goods and services” (Randazza, 2014). According to Native Americans, Redskins originally meant dead Indians. Native Americans have been fighting against the term “redskins” because they feel it is offensive to their children. Moreover, many people consider the term to be racially offensive. When is a sports team worthy of the same coverage as a war, murder, or natural disaster? Answer: when the team is involved in an issue that has cultural consequences. In contrast, when did entertainment become as important as a national election? Studying the impact of branding can help to answer these questions.

Ernst Sternberg (1999) identified branding as the economy of icons and how they create meaning. Each of the authors mentioned above described a different aspect of advertising and branded messages, but all of them have one thought in common: an acknowledgment that the rise of visual imagery as a means of communication corresponds to an increased use of cultural branding.

Boorstin warned us in 1987 that public relations firms manufactured many of the events broadcast through mass media and that those events weren’t really news at all. A perfect example is the wedding of Kim Kardashian to Kanye West. CNN had it on the news as a major story. For numerous newscasts, reporters speculated on what designer created Kardashian’s wedding dress. However, the answer to this “newsworthy” question was not answered with the same hype as the story. Today we are so accustomed to hearing entertainment news mixed in with world news that we accept these pseudo-events as being the same and real as actual events. This point relates back to the opening quotation of this introductory chapter. As argued by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), how do we know the truth when reality is mixed with entertainment?

Following the entertainment argument, Stuart Ewen (1976/2000) argued that consumerism has become an idiom of social life and that we now live ← x | xi → in a consumer culture. “The enormous growth of the advertising industry and the commercialization of art that it entailed took place along with the gradual depletion and demise of traditional expression and localized culture” (pp. 61–62). Ewen is correct that local cultures have blended into a national one. Every major city in the United States has a McDonalds, a Walmart, a Home Depot, and a Sears, which tend to look the same. While the landscape looks similar across the country, local news is stressed more on television than national events. A foreign graduate student once asked me why our news is about local happenings and not world events? The answer is that television stations capture better ratings with local stories than international ones. Many of these stories are pseudo-events. Moreover, marketers place stories about pseudo-events on satellite feeds for local stations to use as filler in their programming. Stories and images of products and services fill our news broadcasts on slow news days. Additionally, when sporting events are broadcast, numerous brands are often displayed.

Think about how many stadiums and sports teams are associated with a brand, or how many participants in the events wear clothing with recognizable logos. When Tiger Woods plays golf, what clothing brand is he wearing? Nike? When the National Basketball Association (NBA) makes a press statement, its backdrop displays a commercial logo along with its own—for example, the NBA logo alongside the KIA logo. Similarly, the Yankee brand is associated with Volvo. The visual association connects Tiger Woods with Nike, and the cars with the Yankees. There is no escaping the brands displayed in our mediated and physical environments.

In addition, corporate messages dominate communication in the United States. Schiller (1989) argued that corporations have infiltrated every aspect of our lives. This is especially true with the proliferation of branded images. Consequently, public expression has been overshadowed by corporate messages. The proliferation of commercial messages through advertising is so ingrained in our daily lives that we tend to ignore its influence on a conscious level. For example, advertising banners that circle a racetrack or hockey rink are reminders of a commercial culture. While we watch the sporting event, advertisers are always present in the background. On the Internet, many pages display logos and brands for other companies alongside the content. Often these images are for types of Internet software. Many sites include the Facebook and Twitter logos so as to promote these services as a means of communicating with the company. A manufactured product example is the slogan “powered by Intel” placed on different companies’ products. By including the ← xi | xii → logos of other companies on a third-party creation, the branding is spread and made more recognizable.

Logos and branding are used similarly on many fashion items. Consider the number of T-shirts that display images of rock groups or brands of beer. In 1999, Sternberg described the economy of icons and how commercialization creates meaning. He described how consumers began to express themselves through possessions. Fashion is a clear example of this. Designer names and logos appear on all types of clothes and handbags. The status of wearing a designer label or holding a designer handbag are perfect examples of how this works. Just look around in public spaces and see how many women carry Coach handbags. It’s easy to tell, because the “CC” logo is often embedded into the fabric of the bag. When Coach switched to making sneakers, the logo fabric identified the brand, turning casual footwear into a designer label.

Designer handbags are so much in demand that knockoff versions of these bags are available. In the course of my travels I have personally observed several instances of this. In the Caribbean, knockoff Coach handbags can be purchased at a fraction of the cost of the real item. Similarly, outdoor markets in Asia have handbags that duplicate those of famous designers such as Prada. On the street the bag has no logo, but after purchase, a fake label is attached to make the bag look very much like an original. The counterfeiters may also stamp the leather of the bag to read “Made in Italy,” and the name of a designer can be embossed. These fakes look so real that only an extremely small tag saying “made in China” proves that the fake is not in fact a real designer handbag.

Douglas Rushkoff writes and creates video programs on how commercialized messages dominate culture. He argues that “It wasn’t until the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, as Americans moved toward movies and television and away from newspapers and radio, that advertisers’ focus shifted away from describing their brands and to creating images for them” (Rushkoff, 1999, p. 171). Again, the rise of visual branding corresponds to the increased use of visual media. In addition to the rise of images, marketers at the turn of the century also shifted their focus from speaking to the intelligent mind to arousing the primitive one. In the Frontline special The Persuaders (2004), Rushkoff interviewed Clotaire Rapaille on his methods for uncovering the primal reptilian mind, the oldest and smallest remnant from our primitive past. Rapaille contended: “The reptilian always wins.” Marketers are increasingly turning to the subconscious rather than the conscious mind to find methods for influencing consumers (as detailed in Chapter 5). Associative rather than logical thinking is part of the brand’s message. ← xii | xiii →

Another reason why branding may not be a scholarly subject is that most books written about the topic are from practitioners rather than scholars. These books often use a personal approach rather than a scientific one in describing how to create a branded product. David Ogilvy (1983) has described the brand image of a product or service as the “personality of the product.” He argues that the personality is “an amalgam of many things—its name, its packaging, its price, the style of its advertising, and above all, the nature of the product itself ” (p. 14). To support this idea, Ogilvy uses examples from advertising. Of course, many of these ad campaigns are from his own advertising agency.

Another example is the book The Harvard Business Review on Brand Management, a collection of essays based on case studies drawn from the experiences of people and companies (Harvard Business Review, 1999). Footnotes or references are sparse in these articles. Their format does not follow the general guidelines for an academic paper dealing with a topic in the social sciences, because it relies on observing actual examples rather than citing the work of others or conducting experiments. These differences in approach—case studies versus sourced scholarly works and research—demonstrate how different fields tend not to reference each other.

Branding books are based on observations about how brands perform in the marketplace. The academic approach to examining observations is ethnography. However, the creation of a brand is a team effort, and team members may represent different companies, making a study of branding difficult. Moreover, the number of consumers involved in the process makes the study of branding by means of an ethnographic method a complex endeavor.

As a result, the concept of branding is studied in the business school and generally ignored in the communication department. There is an irony here, because brands fill our natural and communication environments. Branding is a message that we cannot ignore in today’s digital world. However, it is rarely examined as a communication message. Both images and words communicate information. Brands communicate information on both a logical and emotional level. Many times the emotional aspect of the message is ignored because it is more difficult to understand.

We currently have no single vocabulary for discussing branding. Moreover, different disciplines discuss the topic in different ways. By combining a scholarly approach with case studies and examples, this text attempts to bridge the worlds of communication and business. The goal is to merge these ideas into a coherent framework to enable discussions on the topic to take place in a variety of disciplines. ← xiii | xiv →


XIV, 204
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XIV, 204 pp.

Biographical notes

Susan B. Barnes (Author)

Susan B. Barnes (Ph.D., NYU) is a communication professor. She has taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Fordham University, and Jamestown Community College. She is the author of eight books including: An Introduction to Visual Communication: From Cave Art to Second Life (Peter Lang, 2011) and Social Networks: From Text to Video (Peter Lang, 2013). Prior to joining academia, Susan was a professional graphic designer. Currently, she runs an art gallery in Cassadaga, New York, where she teaches classes.


Title: Branding as Communication
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