Semiotics of brand equity george rossolatos brand equity,semiotics

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Page Towards a semiotics of brand equity: on the interdependency of meaning surplus and surplus value in a political economy of brands George Rossolatos «The commodity achieves its apotheosis when it is able to impose itself as a code, that is, as the geometric locus of the circulation of models, and hence as the total medium of a culture (and not only of an economy)» (Jean Baudrillard, For a critique of the political economy of the sign, p.206) Introduction To announce a semiotic approach to branding and by implication to the study of brand equity is equivalent to a tautology. And yet, it is through this tautology that semiotics emerges as one of the proper fields of research for brands as marks or σημεία/semeia and branding, as process whereby products (commodities) assume meaning in acts not only of financial, but even more foundationally of semiotic exchange. The focal points of this paper rest with (i) demarcating branding discourse as a field of marketing research through the metalanguage of semiotics, (ii) the delineation of the signs and signifying practices of this discourse and its key terms, such as brand, differential brand positioning, intended and received positioning, brand elements, primary and secondary brand associations and brand equity in semiotic terms (iii) applying semiotic key terms, such as sign and code to the study of brand equity and revealing their potential operational value in managing brand equity (iv) explaining in semiotic terms why brand equity is equivalent to surplus of

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brand equity,semiotics

Transcript of Semiotics of brand equity george rossolatos brand equity,semiotics

  • 1. Towards a semiotics of brand equity: on the interdependency of meaning surplus and surplus value in a political economy of brands
    George Rossolatos
    The commodity achieves its apotheosis when it is able to impose itself as a code, that is, as the geometric locus of the circulation of models, and hence as the total medium of a culture (and not only of an economy) (Jean Baudrillard, For a critique of the political economy of the sign, p.206)
    To announce a semiotic approach to branding and by implication to the study of brand equity is equivalent to a tautology. And yet, it is through this tautology that semiotics emerges as one of the proper fields of research for brands as marks or /semeia and branding, as process whereby products (commodities) assume meaning in acts not only of financial, but even more foundationally of semiotic exchange.
    The focal points of this paper rest with(i)demarcating branding discourse as a field of marketing research through the metalanguage of semiotics, (ii) the delineation of the signs and signifying practices of this discourse and its key terms, such as brand, differential brand positioning, intended and received positioning, brand elements, primary and secondary brand associations and brand equity in semiotic terms(iii) applying semiotic key terms, such as sign and code tothe study of brand equity and revealing their potential operational value in managing brand equity (iv) explaining in semiotic terms why brand equityis equivalent to surplus of meaning and why brand stretching or brand extensionsasa brands combinatorial possibilities can be accounted for by means ofa theory of the code(s) (v) discussing why and how the conceptual rigor of semiotics may contribute to brand equity research, thus constituting an indispensable brand management tool.
    Overview of inter-textual transfers between branding and semiotics
    The bulk of research in the wider field of marketing semiotics has been concerned with advertising and not with branding, even though the latter constitutes the starting point for making sense of advertising. Based on the assumption of the autonomy of the sign, advertising messages have been analyzed extensively by drawing on their dimension as cultural signs and by implication by drawing on brands as cultural (eg. McCracken 1986, Williamson 1978, Stern 1996;1998), rather than commercial products. Despite the unquestionable validity of such readings from within cultural theory, media theory and semiotic perspectives, and the plethora of resourceful insights that have been generated in the process, interest on behalf of marketing researchers in operationalizing semiotic concepts in addressing various marketing phenomena has been limited, with the exception of Hirschman and Holbrooks The Semiotics of Consumption, Jean Umiker Sebeoks editing of the collective work Marketing Semiotics (a collection of papers on various applied semiotic approaches to marketing, such as consumer behavior, advertising, corporate image, new product development), Micks and McQuarries extensive publications on semiotic approaches to decoding and processing advertising messages, J.M.Flochs Smiotique, Marketing et Communication. At the same time, applied semiotics agencies have been flourishing over the past twenty years, providing insights to marketing practitioners and generating interpretive models by drawing on semiotic concepts.Yet, no uniform branding theory has appeared so far with the inter-textual import of a robust conceptual framework drawing on particular semiotic theories.Despite the operationalization of semiotic concepts in discreet areas of marketing theory and practice, such asFlochs (1990) application of Greimas semiotic square in positioning studies, Kawamas (1987) application of Peirces topline tripartite conceptualization of the sign as index, symbol, icon into the process of product design and coining of a Color Planning System, Kehret-Wards (1987) application of the Saussurean concept of the syntagm in what he calls syntagmatic marketing research aiming to unearth latent syntactical similarities in the way products are used and in their promotion/advertising, while pointing to its operational value in the field of new product design, cross-promotions and shelf strategy in retail outlets,McQuarries (1989) interpretation of how ads resonate meaning through the employment of figurative speech that transforms the relationship between signifiers and signifieds in instances of verbal and visual signs, by drawing on Barthes Rhetoric of the Image, none of the existing semiotic approaches to marketing phenomena has attempted to provide a conceptual platform for operationalizing the concept of brand equity, which is the focus of this paper. Needless to say that the orientation of the inter-textual grounding of a theory of brand equity in semiotics in the context of this paper is foundational and by no means exhaustive as to the conceptual and methodological implications of a full-fledged semiotic theory that is yet to come. As preliminary methodological remarks in such an endeavor as a semiotic theory of brand equity Micks following words of caution are taken on board:
    First [], there is a troubling tendency on the part of marketing and consumer researchers to use terms such as semiotics or semiology in a flippant manner [] Unfortunately, all too often these words [my note: signs and communication] are raised in marketing and consumer research without a reasonable discussion of which particular semiotic tradition or concepts the research is drawing on, and even sometimes without any accompanying references to major semioticians. Second, it is equally important that researchers strive for greater rigor in applying semiotics. All too often semiotic concepts and analytic approaches are not adequately clarified before their implementation. As a result, the value of using semiotics is ambiguous (Mick, in Brown 1997:244).

    Brands as signs
    A brand is a sign or more particularly a super-sign in Ecos terms: Super-signs must be considered as strictly coded expression-units susceptible of further combination in order to produce more complex texts (1976:231) . A logo as the sign of a branded product or the brand identity of a brand name is a super-sign, as its components (eg. curves, lines, fonts, words, colors) do not make senseoutside of its strictly coded context. Individual components as signs themselves may be tokens of different types, but in the context of super-signs they do not assume meaning as tokens of general types, but as semantically hierarchized components in the structure of the super-sign as sign system(eg a curve may be reproduced in an exactly identical fashion as a curve employed in the sign structure of a super-sign, however it may not produce the meaning of the super-sign inductively simply by assuming the place of an elementary component within the syntax of the super-sign). We might say that individual signs making up a brands identity may be hierarchized semantically based on their synecdochic potential of evoking the brands name in the absence of all other signs. For example, Nikes curve is a hierarchically superior structural component of the brand Nike, as super-sign, as in the absence of all other elements synecdochically it may stand for the super-signs name. By implication, a colored shoe without the Nike curve could by no means connote the brand Nike. Would the same hold for the standalone presence of the curvy M sign indicative of McDonalds? Perhaps, but in afuzzier sense, as the yellow and red colors are inextricably linked with the curvy M. But amid a range of interpretive possibilities it would stand a better chance of recognizability. Brand identity is not equivalent to branding and certainly not homologous to brand equity, but it is a crucial component of a brands architecture. What brands as super-signs point to is that brands function as cultural units in a semiotic space as strictly coded gestalts or assemblages or constellations of signs that are not meaningfully reducible to their elementary components, but wherein combinatorial possibilities are allowed for. The semiotic secret of brand names lies in the fact that they are not simply indices but also symbols and icons. As an icon it evokes mental images of the possible qualities of the product that are expected to be present in an item purchased with the brand name. The quality of a brand is also a symbol that is associated with our knowledge, experiences and our contact with that product (Nth,2010).
    A further qualification of brands as signs is yielded by Nth (1988:4) who contends that the system of commodities forms a semiotic system par excellence, insofar as each product category, as well as the ensemble of products as what Baudrillard would call a system of objects, is structured like a language.Nth proposes a threefold classification of brands as signs, which he calls prototypical frames, viz. the utilitarian, the commercial and the sociocultural frame, while adding a tentative fourth frame, viz. the psychological one, which is not operationalized in Nth s approach.Throughout the multi-frame approach he retains the Saussurean/Barthesian bipartite nature of the sign as consisting of two planes, viz that of the signifier and that of the signified, the former denoting the signifying form of the commodity, while the latter its concept(s). The utilitarian commodity sign is associated with features related to its practical use-value (Nth:op.cit.). Semiotic features of the utilitarian sign comprise technical reliability and economy. The commercial sign signifies the [financial] exchange value of a commodity in relation to other products of the system of commodities (Nth:op.cit.). The most direct indicator of this value is price. A brand functions as a sociocultural sign when its consumer associates it with the sociocultural group(s) to which he belongs. Most importantly, the frame to which a brand may be assigned is not a matter of some sort of inherent properties. As Nth observes, the category to which a product prototypically belongs is not inherent in the product itself, but empirically observable from the predominant mode of consumption and from the genetic or historical primacy in the evolution of the commodity (Nth:op.cit.).
    In parallel with framing brands under three prototypical categories, Nth (1998) also distinguishes brands (and product categories) based on the Barthesian distinction between syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes. While the paradigmatic axis of a language refers to the possible (e.g. lexical or semantic) alternatives of and oppositions to a sign, the syntagmatic axis refers to its syntax, the rules for the combination of the signs (op.cit.,italics in the original text). Barthes himself exemplified this dual function of brands as signs alongside the paradigmatic and syntagmatic dimensions by reference to the product category of furniture (among other categories) in his Elements of Semiology, by stressing that the language of furniture is formed both by the oppositions of functionally identical pieces (two types of wardrobe, two types of bed, etc.), each of which, according to its style, refers to a different meaning, and by the rules of association of the different units at the level of a room (furnishing) (1968:17).
    The distinction between the syntagmatic and paradigmatic dimensions of signification is an important theoretical tool in applied and theoretical approaches to marketing semiotics . As Kehret-Ward points out, in paradigmatic strategy the ad focuses on attributes which serve as signifiers of the category in which the product is positioned and in syntagmatic strategy the ad focuses on the product's ability to combine with related products in use (in Sebeok, 1987:219).
    Differences and similarities between brand value and brand equity
    Branding is an ongoing process. Brand equity is the periodic culmination of this process in terms of brand value and the aim of the brand building process, viz added value for the producer and shareholders, in terms of superior to the competition financial returns and the consumer, in terms of increased satisfaction from the use of the brand. Brand equity is not necessarily correlated with superior to the competition financial returns, but with a higher probability of superior returns on the assumption that a differential positioning will translate into differential mindshare and enhanced saliency, hence greater probability of choice.
    What is the relationship between brand value and semiotic value?
    Brand value is not the same as brand equity, rather brand equity is the plenum of different types of value. How may value be defined in terms of a semiotics of brand equity? By addressing it as the outcome of different levels of semiotic exchange that occur in tandem, based on a brands partaking of different prototypical semiotic categories (utilitarian, commercial, sociocultural), as above defined by Nth.
    The concept of value has been extensively scrutinized among semioticians and consumer behavior theorists alike. Saussure in his Cours de linguistique gnrale offered a path breaking analysis of why value is not inherent in a sign but to determinants of the sign system, insofar as it opens up to the process of signification and the vertical relationship between signifiers and signifieds to horizontal relationships between signifiers and signifiers and signifieds and signifieds. [] a word can be exchanged for something dissimilar, an idea; besides, it can be compared with something of the same nature, another word. Its value is therefore not fixed so long as one simply states that it can be exchanged for a given concept, i.e.that it has this or that signification: one must also compare it with similar values, with other words that stand in opposition to it. Its content is really fixed only by the concurrence of everything that exists outside it. Being part of a system, it is endowed not only with a signification but also and especially with a value, and this is something quite different (Saussure 1959:115 ). The value of a brand as a sign, therefore, is accordingly determined by its environment (ibid:116) in a system of langue and based on relationships of similarity and substitutability, prescribed by a system of horizontal (syntagmatic) and vertical (paradigmatic) relations.
    Thus, value as financial value may be defined by allocating a price to a brand as a commercial sign, as a plenum of intangible assets (such as practiced by Interbrand and Brand Finance), by comparing and contrasting it to other brands in the same system of signs; value as the relative utility of owning and using a brand as a utilitarian sign by consumers or a brands use or functional value that gives rise to and is in turn determined by primary brand associations, in Kellers terms, by comparing and contrasting its use value against similar products; but also sociopsychological value or the intangible aspects exchanged in the act of owning and using a brand, which give rise to and are in turn determined by secondary brand associations, in Kellers terms (which may arise even in the absence of actual brand ownership, through mere exposure to brand communications, packaging and word-of-mouth communication), and all sorts of hypotactically attributable to the above value territories, which are indirectly reflected in brand valuation and evaluation processes in brand image scores.
    It is unlikely that one will encounter a pricing scheme stricto sensu for the aesthetic value of a soap brand (which forms part of the sociopsychological value of a brand), yet this value is reflected as part of a more general equivalence inscribed in the exchange value of the hypothetical soap brand. The sum of these latent equivalences constitutes the overall stature of a brand in terms of brand image. Such composite or aggregate image scorings, in combination with methods of importing perceptions of price elasticity, culminate in overall brand values, not directly in financial terms, but as relative utilities that reflect an overall psychological value of each brand and its standing or differential positioning vis a vis the competition, as a langue or system of brands or differences and oppositions to itself.
    Brand equity stands for the differential or surplus value between a brands book and market value, in accounting terms, which difference resonates the differential positioning of a brand in a langue as its semiosphere (as a plenum of primary and secondary brand associations, in Kellers terms), which resonates in its psychological value, thus qualifying Nthsfourth prototypical category as an aggregate of utilitarian, commercial and sociocultural values, attached to it by consumers. Thus, surplus of meaning is reflected in surplus financial value in the concept of brand equity.
    The concept of brand equity is equivalent to a promise of safety for consumers and superior future financial returns for shareholders. From a semiotic perspective, though, safety opens connotatively to a promise to consumers that the layers of meaning either currently held by a brand or potentially taken on board and making up its value, will not erode. What is called in the respective literature "brand equity erosion" denotes precisely the phenomenon of a brand's losing its semiotic salience among consumers.
    The potential of acquisition of equity by a brand as surplus of meaning, as it will be shown in the ensuing sections, is incumbent on their successful leverage of Code(s).
    Code as the necessary and sufficient condition for the production of brand meaning
    A code is [] the set or system of rules and correspondences which link signs to meaning [] Coded realizations of meanings can themselves be recoded [] Socio-cultural norms and conventions can, rather generally, be thought of as codes, such as dress codes, politeness codes and institutional codes of practice (Cobley 2001:170-172).
    In essence brand equity stands semiotically for the ability of a brand to capitalize on a code or on a multiplicity of codes, as necessary conditions for the production of signs (Eco, 1978). In fact, as it will be demonstrated, the vantage point and at the same time destination for unlocking the conceptual potential of brand equity and concomitantly putting it to work in its multifarious operationalizations, consists with an elucidation of the semiotic concept of a or the code .
    The extent to which this semiotic transformation will be attained is incumbent on the degree of fit of a cultural code, as depth grammar or always already ordered cultural practices as texts, with brands and their producers, as addressers of signs and consumers as addressees and partakers of a code or consuming subjects.
    Thus, the code as an oblique point of reference at the intersection of signs and subjects as instances and instantiations of the code, constitutes a meaningful surplus that overdetermines the degree of semiotic fit between addresser and addressee.The conceptual reflex of this intersection at the level of brands potential for leveraging code(s) is imprinted in brand equity, insofar as it is concerned with the same surplus, as financial value purporting to measure meaning surplus. Therefore, the concepts of brand equity and the code are interdependent.
    Brands as dynamic semiotic entities erode in terms of their equity not because of or at least not necessarily because of their functional and/or non functional attributes, as indices and symbols erode, but due to the fact that codes mutate, sediment, transgress their boundaries and the relative appeal of their combinatorial configurations changes. In an era of proliferating new product development mortality rate and easiness of copying brand attributes and elements, the only source of sustainable competitive advantage and hence guarding against equity erosion, may be yielded by attending closely to codes. The invaluable import of brand semiotics as a bona fide standalone field of research lies primarily with its being attentive to the systemic function of code(s) as the underpinning of brand equity.
    In order to understand the allegedly cryptic nature of the notion of code as used in semiotics (which use varies among semioticians themselves, as amply illustrated by Nth 1990:206-221) and disentangle the concept from its more often than not uncritical employment in common parlance it is deemed mandatory to differentiate between the mode of discourse of semiotics in toto from that of cognitive psychology, on which brand equity related marketing research has largely drawn thus far. Whereas at the center of cognitive psychology lies the subject as processing unit of external environment stimuli, as a stable substratum underpinning meaning making processes, at the center of semiotics lies the subject as an already coded carrier of cultural patterns, value and belief systems. Even though the application of a mechanistic , Cartesian outlook of the subject as non localized , a-contextual mind machine is useful in the face of the demand for analytical rigor and the compartmentalization of various strata of message elaboration, semiotics assumes a more dialectic outlook on the formation of the subject, as an assemblage of given cultural patterns and as the outcome of an ongoing enculturation process.
    The epistemological and ontological assumptions embedded in these vastly divergent paradigms surely lie beyond the focus of this paper, however it is crucial to account for them even at such a sketchy level, which will enable us to make sense of the notion of the code, of a codes giveness and why, as aforementioned, insofar as brand equity points to the limit of a brands potential (its added value), its inherent excess is tantamount to the excess of the code as brand meaning surplus.
    Prior to drawing further parallels between brand equity and the concept of the code, the latter must be demarcated conceptually and its structural properties must be qualified, otherwise the concept is operationally of limited value and risks being reduced to an empty signifier. In order to elucidate the concept I shall draw on three thinkers who have dealt either directly from within a semiotic paradigm or indirectly, by employing semiotic concepts in the context of their theoretical constructs, viz. Baudrillard and his early to mid period writings, Derridas oblique reference to the code in the context of his reply to Searles criticisms as appeared in Limited Inc and Ecos qualification of the concept in his early to mid period writings. For Baudrillard,
    what happens in political economy is this: the signified and the referent are now abolished to the sole profit of the play of signifiers, of a generalized formalization where the code no longer refers back to any subjective or objective `reality,' but to its own logic. The signifier becomes its own referent and the use value of the sign disappears to the profit only of its commutation and exchange value. The sign no longer designates anything at all. It approaches in its truth its structural limit which is to refer back only to other signs. All reality then becomes the place of a semiological manipulation, of a structural simulation. And whereas the traditional sign... is the object of a conscious investment, of a rational calculation of signifieds, here it is the code that becomes the instance of absolute reference" (1975:7). There is no end to the consumption of the code (1975:10).
    The key concept underpinning the function of the code, as may be inferred from the above extracts, is self-referentiality and the absence of an originary signified to which signifiers are attached. The abolition of the signified and the reduction of the latter to the plane of the signifier in the context of the political economy of the sign or commercial discourse as part of a langue of brands, contrary to the initial qualification of the function of brands as signs by reference to the planes of the signifier and the signified (as would be postulated by Saussure) constitutes a valid operative hypothesis in this paper, and has also been endorsed by Eco, as will be illustrated in due course. The code may be likened to an abstract machine, to use Deleuzes metaphor, which produces signifiers that make sense in the context of the codes own structural limit, which is limitless. There is no autonomy in the object qua referential reality outside the signifier qua epiphenomenon of the code, save for a social logic (Baudrillard 1981:68) that is responsible for the generation of codes as models responsible for the production of signifiers.What Baudrillard calls social logic as a sort of informal logic responsible for the production of signifiers without any need for rooting in a system of objects outside the code resonates a common place across various semioticians and semiotic theories, from Saussure to Greimas and from Eco to Leeuwen and Kress, viz that signification or how sign-vehicles assume meaning is a matter of social conventions, which confer relative stability between a set of signifiers and the sign in which they are inscribed. Baudrillard does not qualify further the determinants of this social logic in his For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. However, in The Consumer Society he stresses that in the logic of signs, as in that of symbols, objects are no longer linked in any sense to a definite function or need. Precisely because they are responding here to something quite different, which is either the social logic or the logic of desire, for which they function as a shifting and unconscious field of signification (1998:77). Thus, the kind of social logic to which Baudrillard alludes may be conceptualized in Derridas terms as structural unconsciousness, as will be demonstrated in due course.In terms of brand equity language, Kellers secondary brand associations may, thus, be rendered as secondary non functional signifiers attached to brands as super-signs without any necessary relationship to primary, functionally related signifiers. Baudrillards employment of the example of the refrigerator is indicative of this crucial difference:
    1. The refrigerator is specified by its function and irreplaceable in this respect. There is a necessary relation between the object and its function. The arbitrary nature of the sign is not involved. But all refrigerators are interchangeable in regard to this function (their objective "meaning").
    2. By contrast, if the refrigerator is taken as an element of comfort or of luxury (standing), then in principle any other such element can be substituted for it. The object tends to the status of sign, and each social status will be signified by an entire constellation of exchangeable signs. No necessary relation to the subject or the world is involved. There is only a systematic relation obligated to all other signs. And in this combinatory abstraction lie the elements of a code.
    3. In their symbolic relationship to the subject (or in reciprocal exchange), all objects are potentially interchangeableThe symbolic material is relatively arbitrary, but the subject-object relation is fused. Symbolic discourse is an idiom. (1981:68-69, my emphases).
    What the above passage makes clear is that the product as brand, once dislocated from its strictly speaking functional usage and inserted in a general economy of signs, not only may take upon any sort of signifiers, but, as a sign it is exchangeable with other brands qua signs, for the same sort of signifiers. In this instance Baudrillard retains the fundamental elements of the Saussurean model of value, viz that signs are exchangeable for similar (other signs) and dissimilar (eg signifiers) things, but not only overturns the model in terms of the relative importance of signified versus signifier as constituents of the signifying relationship (cf ft.3), but does away with the signified altogether, while allocating what would be exchangeable at the level of the signified to the combinatorial possibilities of the code. The exchanges that take place in such a political economy of brands or objects as symbolic materials that are exchanged for concepts or abstract signifiers (eg luxury, based on the above quoted example) are prescribed as possibilities through the code as horizon of signifying possibilities.Moreover, the above passage opens up another dimension of the political economy of brands. Insofar as there is no necessary relationship between sign and signifier, and given that signs may be exchanged for signifiers, brands may be exchanged for any signifiers or secondary brand associations. But also, different brands may be exchanged for the same signifier, which is why a political economy of brands does not amount only to a general economy of signs, but also a general economy of signifiers.
    Additionally, even though there is no necessary relation between the sign of the refrigerator and its signifier, but this correlation is a matter of cultural contiguity, hence the validation of the arbitrariness of the sign, that assumes a necessary status through repetition and through a genealogically traceable giveness of the code to which it belongs, the distinction between necessary and systematic relation Baudrillard draws is operationally useful from a semiotics of brand equity perspective insofar as it points to the fact that brand differentiation in essence does not occur at the first level of semiosis in the context of a signs practical usage, but at the secondary level of semiosis, where a sign enters the semiosphere of abstract signifiers in a system of interchangeable objects. In a similar vein, this may also explain why Floch, by reversing Kellers hierarchy between primary and secondary brand associations (not explicitly so, insofar as Floch did not establish a direct dialogue with Keller), contends that base brand values, or primary brand associations, do not consist of utilitarian, but of sociocultural ones (thus anchoring his argumentation in Nth s prototypical categories classification; cf. Floch, 1990:131). It seems that the more removed from its function as a utilitarian sign a brand is, thus opening up to the possibilities of being invested with abstract conceptual signifiers making up the semiosphere of codes, the more it is capable of investing itself with higher equity, thus rendering the horizon of appropriation of the signifying limit of the code equivalent to the possibility of higher equity. Thus, brand equity is tantamount to the approximation of a high semiotic threshold.
    In this context, what is interchangeable is not necessarily a salient set of directly competitive signs, but indirectly competitive signs according to a predominant social logic based on which codes are woven as contingently necessary amalgamations of second order signifiers. Thus the value of the product does not rest solely with the exchange financial value of the sign, but, even more importantly, with the exchange value of the signifier, which is determined through a systematic relation with other signifiers. This value system as set of systematic relations is the code and given that systematic relations ramify endlessly the code is the limitless limit of itself or its own surplus value. By analogy, and this is perhaps the closest Baudrillard gets to drawing parallels between the concept of the code and the notion of brand equity, the commodity achieves its apotheosis when it is able to impose itself as a code, that is, as the geometric locus of the circulation of models, and hence as the total medium of a culture (and not only of an economy) (1981:206). The surplus or added value denoted by the concept of brand equity concerns precisely this potential of a brand to institute a code, to overdetermine this code as a set of differentially relating signifiers and not necessarily differential signifiers, while at the same time delineating a horizon of semiosis over and above what is already given in a semiotic structure. It is the specific weight of signs that regulates the social logic of exchange (1981:66).
    Baudrillards most forceful expos of the systemic function of the code with reference to a particular product category appears in Symbolic Exchange and Death, where he equates fashion with the enchanting spectacle of the code (1990i:87-99). Why choose fashion as the most eminent exemplification of the systemic function of the code and reduce the relationship between the code and its constituting the necessary and sufficient condition for the production of signifying units as encountered in various product categories to the relationship between the code and fashion? They [note: all product categories] are all haunted by fashion, since this can be understood as both the most superficial play and as the most profound social form- THE INEXORABLE INVESTMENT OF EVERY DOMAIN BY THE CODE" (1990i:87). In fashion "as an entirely self referential cultural field, concepts are engendered and made to correspond to each other through pure specularity" (1990i:91). Whereas in the case of verbal semiosis the code emerges through signifiers as a reflex, in the case of fashion the code emerges simpliciter as depth grammar and surface structure at the same time, thus constituting an exemplary simulacrum of infinite semiosis itself. Interestingly, Baudrillard equates fashion with mode in the sense of trope(it should be noted that la mode stands for fashion in French). Fashion, thus, constitutes the cultural inscription of the logical category of modality and in general the field of modal logic and the intersection of rhetoric, or at least its tropical aspect, with formal logic; as faon it is phenomenologically similar to the Heideggerian concept of mode-of-Being (in fact if one substituted Being with Code, Heideggers existential analytic might as well function as a semiotic analysis of the systemic function of the Code) or a Wittgensteinian aspect of seeing, which do involve specularity at their very semantic core. There is no longer any determinacy internal to the signs of fashion hence they become free to commute and permutate without limit (1990i:87). It exercises an enormous combinatory freedom (idem) and thus constitutes, one might argue, the ideational limit of brand stretching. Baudrillard seems to be suggesting that whereas it appears as a pure play of signs, it affects deep structures such as sex, status, identity, which corresponds to the aforementioned chain of signifiers making up the semiotic fabric of a brand, which allows for inter product category comparability.In fact, deep structures are projections or redundancies brought about by the play of signifiers on the surface structure: not a matter of investing an a priori signifier with determinate signs (eg status with a suit) but of feigning the reduction of the pure play of signs into immobile signifiers- the ideational expressive fixation or sublimation of cultural praxiological content.
    Another crucial point raised by Baudrillard concerns the epistemological status of the dissemination and reception of signs. Baudrillard employs instead of traditional analytical cognitive categories, that are typical of approaches in the more general field of the philosophy of Mind, interpretive categories, such as fascination (in For a critique of the political economy of the sign),enchantment of the code (in Symbolic exchange and death), passive magic (in Simulation and Simulacra),in an attempt to encapsulate the fact that the appeal of signs and the formulation of judgments about their truth value and pragmatic relevance is not necessarily the outcome of a rational calculus, but the outcome of habituation and enculturation into codes, reminiscent of a Bourdieuan Habitus at play.
    It is the cunning of the code to veil itself and to produce itself in the obviousness of value. It is in the "materiality" of content that form consumes its abstraction and reproduces itself as form. That is its peculiar magic. It simultaneously produces the content and the consciousness to receive it (just as production produces the product and its corresponding need). Thus, it installs culture in a dual transcendence of values (of contents) and consciousness, and in a metaphysic of exchange between the two terms (1981:119, my emphasis).
    Consciousness, instead of constituting the immobile substratum/processing unit responsible for the compartmentalization of an illusory signified under analytical categories, according to Baudrillard, is itself a product of the code, just like the content that is processed through it.
    A similar point regarding the epistemological status of the code was drawn by Derrida in his response to Searles performativity theory, as formulated in Limited Inc, where he claims that there is no such thing as a code - Organon of iterability - which could be structurally secret. The possibility of repeating and thus of identifying the marks is implicit in every code, making it into a network [une grille] that is communicable, transmittable, decipherable, iterable for a third, and hence for every possible user in general (1988:8).A key property of the code, thus, is iterability or its ability to appear as such implicitly through its manifest marks. In alignment with Baudrillard, it is not some sort of an a priori depth grammar that conditions the possibility of identifying a relative constancy between signs and signifiers, but an a posteriori inference based on patterned and recognizably so recurrences of signifying chains. However, that might constitute a precarious reconstruction of Derridas relatively unqualified argument. As himself stressesI prefer not to become too involved here with this concept of code which does not seem very reliable to me" (1988:10). He returns to the notion of the code by using it as the condition of the meaningful iterability of a performative utterance by posing this rhetorical question "could a performative utterance succeed if its formulation did not repeat a "coded" or iterable utterance?". Derrida seems to be setting forward this point assertorically, yet indirectly in a questioning format, perhaps in order to avoid a sort of reductionism of the code, hence appearing as liable to criticisms against inherentist structural properties of texts, against which much of his deconstructiveattempts are oriented. Also, the bracketing of the lexeme /coded/ seems to aim at retaining its meaning in suspense, as a yet non identifiable sign, whose metatheoretical import purports to elucidate as a heuristic device the fact that utterances make sense by virtue of their iterability in discrete contexts. Assuming this bracketing as interpretively valid we are compelled in turn to qualify the sense of this extra-linguistic, perhaps conventional codedness as condition of the possibility of sense making of performative utterances. Is codedness in this instance to be perceived as semantic codedness or as a contextual codedness? Let us recall that for Derrida there is no such thing as univocal meaning, save only for contexts (without anchorage). Furthermore, Derrida contends that oratio obliqua would not be possible to be excluded. In fact, he reverts to oratio obliqua in order to "elucidate" the isotopy between iterability of the code and cultural ordinariness, by the cryptic assertoric proposition that "ordinariness shelters a lure" . Thus,indirectly Derrida lays claim to the function of ordinary language as inevitable polar attractor, as, what he calls "structural unconsciousness", which prohibits any "saturation of the context". Bearing in mind that for Derrida there are only contexts, and that the notion of the code, if possible, would imply a radical non closure and a radical situatedness, then insaturability would amount to the impossibility of laying bare the code as arche-context, which may also be read as the impossibility of presencing of the prefix "cum" that comes alongside the text.Even more interestingly, he employs a similar to Baudrillardrhetorical stratagem in his oblique reference to the code as lure sheltered in ordinariness, rather as an analytical principle conditioning the appearance of phenomena. Etymologically, lure includes the seme decoy (based on Webster lexicon) and in Middle Higher German it used to denote bait. Also, its derivative allure denotes to entice by charm of attraction. Both of the above, which resonate Baudrillards predication of cunningness of the code, are included in his argumentation on how signs function through a logic of seduction and lay claim to the manner whereby the code constantly transposes itself or abduces itself in an attempt to pin itself down deductively, hence its insaturability.
    In so far as constellations of signs, using Benvenistes term for signifying units, signify by virtue of the exclusion of other constellations, that is by their exclusion and their negation, the horizon of signifying possibilities may be likened to an horizon of absolute negativity. The surplus of meaning as abstract potentiality for appropriating more signifying constellations is tantamount to the possibility of appropriating the entire horizon of negativity, hence becoming all inclusive, at the ideal limit where all signs and constellations will have been syntagmatically juxtaposed, none left out. The concept of brand equity points precisely to that horizon of negativity as potentiality of appropriation of surplus meaning. Differential positioning, thus, constitutes a difference in itself, or provisional identity, as the springboard for opening up to absolute difference and the appropriation of the surplus of meaning. It is of no surprise that brands with high equity provide meaning even through extreme cases of polysemy, whereas for small brand players this would amount to a diffuse positioning and an inability to carve a distinctive mindscape.The higher the equity, the closer a brand to infinite semiosis, and the closer to instituting itself as code, the more likely it is to keep surfacing as univocal depth structure underneath the play of surface signs, therefore the higher its exchange value (not only in financial terms, but also in terms of the security shelter- provided by the very partaking of the code that lures).
    Despite Baudrillards and Derridas insightful descriptive remarks on the systemic function of the code, it is not yet clear what is meant by the concept /code/, other than a heuristic metaphorical device capable of pointing obliquely to the limit of semiosis as combinatorial possibilities among signs, and how brands assume equity qua potentially instituting themselves as codes. Thus far it appears that the notion of the code constitutes an ostensive sign, that is a sign that is pointing towards an abstract horizon of combinatorial possibilities, which in itself constitutes a step forward compared to the as yet unaddressed issue of the relatedness among signifiers making up the fabric of a brands equity, yet being wanting in operational terms.
    The theory of Code(s) according to Eco and how it contributes to a semiotic approach to brand equity
    Ecos conceptual contributions are instrumental in elucidating the above. Throughout his Theory of Semiotics he employs the Hjelmslevian dyadic semiotic model, by equating signs with sign functions, connecting two functives, that of content and that of expression. A sign is everything that, on the grounds of a previously established social convention, can be taken as something standing for something else (1976:16). Signification, for Eco, does not necessitate the realm of the signified and is exhausted in the multifarious relationships between signs (or sign-vehicles, which terms are used interchangeably by Eco) and signifiers, stretching throughout the planes of denotation and connotation (even though the former is reducible to the latter in the context of infinite semiosis).
    The function of the notion of the code in Ecos theory is systemic. It constitutes a meta-sign, standing for the cultural glue that unites sign-vehicles into cultural units.Despite the fact that no coherent definition of the code is offered throughout the Theory of Semiotics, while the concept is constantly elaborated as the argumentation progresses through various areas of research within the general field of semiotics, certain definitional patterns allow for a sketchy classification of definitional approaches to the concept of the code, which appears occasionally like a deus-ex-machina in various instances of syllogistic aporias, veiled in what Derrida called the inevitability of oratio obliqua.
    A code is a set of signals ruled by internal combinatory laws or a syntactic system, a set of notions, a semantic system, a set of possible behavioral responses (1976:36-37). Eco embarks on the definitional journey of the code by opening it up to all aspects of a messages transmission process, spanning an initial state of a set of signs as a semantic system, the explicit or tacit rules allowing for the combination of sign vehicles into meaningful gestalts and the addressee of these gestalts as an already coded recipient of meaningful gestalts (reminiscent of the codes ability, according to Baudrillard, to provide both the content and the consciousness for its interpretation). By virtue of the codes all encompassing nature, one can thus alter the structure of both the content and the expression system, following their dynamic possibilities, their combinatorial capacities- as if the whole code by its very nature demanded continual reestablishment in a superior state, like a game of chess, where the moving of pieces is balanced out by a systematic unit on a higher level (Eco 1976:161). However, such an all-encompassing definition risks meaning nothing or at least not being operationally useful, while being reducible to stating the obvious. A preliminary qualification regarding the semantic dimensions of the code is yielded by Eco by differentiating between Code simpliciter and system-codes or subcodes (henceforth denoted as s-codes). An s-code is a system of elements, such as syntactic, semantic and behavioral ; a code is a rule coupling the items of one s-code with items of another (1976:37-38). In La structure absente he also refers to code (simpliciter) as Hyper-code (1972:111; he also employs the descriptor Ur-code in the same work, 1972:203), a descriptor, which disappeared in the Theory of Semiotics. In order to render the nature of the s-code more concrete interpretively let us take for example the s-code or the consumptive occasion called family table. A family table is an s-code, there is a manifest syntax (ordering of spoons, forks, knives, plates, seats) that signifies an intrafamilial bonding occasion as consumptive occasion and certain modes of comportment of the participating members towards the elements of the syntax. Based on Ecos theory this is a structure or a cultural unit. It is an elementary unit of analysis insofar as it is self-subsistent with its particular combinatorial rules and semiotic boundaries, eg if someone danced on the table instead of eating cereals, he would not be perceived as partaking of the s-code called familial table. If the forks were placed in the vase they would still not be perceived as parts of the syntax of the familial table. The existence of a set of plates on a table by itself is not suggestive of an instance of the s-code called family table. It is the plenum or gestalt of the (i) individual sign-vehicles (ii) the tacit rules for their ordering (iii) the manifest syntax of their ordering (iv) the pre-reflective, automatic comportment of the participating subjects towards the requirements and background expectations of the occasion,that confer to this semantic system the nature of an s-code. This set of background expectations also justifies Ecos assertion about the giveness of the code , which might as well be rendered as a pragmatics of the code, as a matter of learning and enculturation, rather than a matter of inherent semantic properties of elementary signifying units. In comparison and contrast to a cognitivist approach, such as Husserls, the forks and plates on the family table do not assume meaning due to a transcendental egos intentionality that appropriates for itself as yet unformed stimuli from some sort of unqualified materia prima by bracketing phenomena through epoch, but due to the pre-phenomenological giveness of s-codes as intersubjectively shared and subjectivizing conditions. S-codes are systems or structures that can also subsist independently of any sort of significant or communicative purpose (1976:38). It is a relational concept, which appears only when different phenomena are mutually compared with reference to the same system of relations (op.cit.). These systems are usually taken into account only insofar as they constitute one of the planes of a correlational function called a code. Through this distinction between code (simpliciter) and s-codes, Eco seems to be suggesting that the latter is some sort of overarching Ars Combinatoria that allows for the multiple disjunctions, conjunctions, intersections among the various s-codes. A semiotics of the code is an operational device in the service of a semiotics of sign production (1976:128). Codes provide the rules which generate signs as concrete occurrences in communicative intercourse (p.48), the conditions for a complex interplay of sign functions (1976:57).
    Eco recognizes that the notion of the code is an operational device in the service of the production of signs. Insofar as signs by themselves do not signify (at least in the context of commercial discourse, in which brand equity is situated), unless they are conceived of as parts of one or various s-codes and given that s-codes consist of combinatorial rules for the production of signs, we may infer that signs constitute combinatorial entities. If signs may not be conceived of apart from their combinatorial ordering in various s-code syntaxes, signifiers, as their structural properties, are also dependent on s-codes. Also, insofar as code (simpliciter) allows for the constant redistribution of signs among sign systems and the reordering of s-codes, signifiers also open up to the plane of infinite semiosis .Additionally, insofar as code (simpliciter) stands for a surplus of meaning as an inherent multiplicity of combinatorial possibilities among s-codes, and having established that brand equity is equivalent to the code as added value or the surplus in the exchange of a brand qua coded product, then the higher the equity the more open a brand is to the plane of infinite semiosis as combinatorial possibilities among s-codes and by implication as intra s-code combinatorial possibilities among signs making up an s-code.
    In order to render the notion of the code more operationally concrete and relevant in the context of a semiotics of brand equity, allusion to the derivative notions of overcodedness, undercodedness and extracodedness is of particular interpretive value.
    Overcodedness is tantamount to the closure of meaning or to the maximally elaborated coded interpretation of a constellation of signs. The operations of overcodedness, when completely accepted, produce an s-code. In this sense overcoding is an innovatory activity that increasingly loses its provocative power, thereby producing social acceptance (Eco 1976: 134). Overcodedness is a necessary condition for the recognition of the interpretive stability of sign-constellations and it operates as a stabilizing social force or a dominant social logic.
    Undercoding may be defined as the operation by means of which in the absence of reliable pre-established rules, certain macroscopic portions of certain texts are provisionally assumed to be pertinent units of a code in formation, even though the combinational rules governing the more basic compositional items of the expressions, along with the corresponding content units remain unknown (Eco 1976:135-136).
    Extra-codedness lies in between over and undercodedness and includes the extra semiotic and uncoded determinants of an interpretation.The as yet unfamiliar to a code elements are potentially inscribed in a given code (or manage to institute a wholly new one) primarily through a play of inferential probabilities, which correspond to the logical operation of abduction. To continue with the example of the family table, dancing on the table may initially seem awkward. However, upon the potential inscription of such a set of gestural signs in movies or ad films a certain sort of familiarity of the representation is established or what has already been called the security offered by partaking of the code (which lures subjects into recognizing the giveness of a constellation of signs as meaningful in context). At first, some early-adopters of cultural insignia may try this at home and thus initially marginally and perhaps progressively (as an indication of a special achievement to be shared with the rest family members or as a ritual of passage) institute this sign-vehicle in the constellation of signs making up the s-code of the family table. In fact, a genealogical approach to cultural practices would surely point to such instances of extra-codedness, where what initially appeared as alien to an embedded cultural practice became its entrenched component. Let us not forget that repetition lies at the heart of a codes coding. Thus, extra codedness isan indispensable condition of a codes expanding its combinatorial possibilities, towards higher levels of synthesis, as Eco stressed. Abduction represents the first step of a metalinguistic operation destined to enrich a code (1976:132). Extra-codedness is a necessary condition for brand meaning enrichment. It may be claimed that it occurs as an initially destabilizing social force or an emerging supplement to an existing social logic, which is necessary for innovation, brand stretching and the sustainability of brand equity.
    It is by virtue of subcodes that signs assume meaning as cultural units. In order to understand more clearly why codes are of the essence as explanatory devices for the meaningful production of signs one should have to look at limit cases of sign and code production or instances of extracodedness and undercodedness and instances of signs below the semiotic threshold. Such instances constitute limit cases as transgressive of boundaries and generative of types. An anthropological approach, such as Levi-Strausss, points to the fact that every cultural system is based on a set of prohibitions and it might be claimed that a cultural order subsists as such precisely due to a system of formal and informal sanctions that lie at the very center of a cultural order as exchange values for transgressing its boundaries. Prohibition as the failure to ascribe meaning betrays the dependence of sign production in general on codes and the compulsory character of the latter, as a system of rules. Everything that lays claim to a certain compulsoriness exhibits a dependence on the dictates of the pragmatic-political code (Frank 1989:396).
    The imposition of a sanction as a semiotic act implies the prior enactment of destabilization in the interpretively shared correlation between the levels of content and expression, and appears as the outcome of a transgression either at the level of content or expression or both. It denotes that the semiotic act of circulating a transgressive sign or a code was not meant to be or that the initiated sign may not be exchanged for one or more signifiers or that the proposed exchange has already been instituted as prohibited. A mild system of prohibition embedded in an act of exchange consists in buying a pack of candies and claiming social status due to that packs possession. The claimant is prohibited by a cultural order the tacit correlational rules of which bar the institution of such a correlation between the functives of the sign. There is no subcode in the context of which such an exchange would be recognized. A heavy system of prohibition consists in the transgression of a traffic sign, in which case a sanction is imposed not because a correlation has not been instituted as such in a subcode, but because of a formally instituted correlation between sign and signifier (eg red light being monosemically correlated with the signifier stop) has been breached. There is no transcendental operation or intentional positing in making sense of such phenomena or reducing them to non-sense. The responses as social logic are inscribed and evoked automatically in a subjects comportment towards the signs, they are part of common-sense. However, continuing with the mild prohibition example, which is of direct relevance to a brands differential positioning and equity, such a correlation (between candy and status) exists as a combinatorial possibility within the code of status, should one wish to approach this market phenomenon through this subcode (let us recall that coding is an operation that is largely dependent on the coder, there is no metaphysics of codes). A premium quality candy may be produced, in premium packaging with premium pricing, distributed in premium delicatessen outlets. The rate of adoption, repurchase rates and quantified loyalty potential may be gauged among subjects who buy into the respective code. Upon launch with the requisite marketing mix such a premium candy may in fact acquire high equity, or be recognized as of added value or of surplus meaning within its niche. What this example is intended to demonstrate is that equity is (i) isotopic in a cultural narrative to added value as the excess of the code instituted in an act of a semiotic exchange (ii) isotopic in a cultural narrative to surplus of meaning as overcoded semiotic act (that is as an act that synecdochically points to the limit of a code)What is lacking interpretively is the establishment of how such a semiotic act is effected on behalf of a subject in the face of a relatively undercoded incidence of a code. The answer lies in the leveraging of existing sign types and their respective structural components of other products that partake of the same code. The enchantment of the code assumes functional value not because it is put at play in some sort of metaphysical necessitas, but because of the sussessful re-cognition of the new brand as a token of a general economy of the code, including types of products with similar structural components. Thus, the depth grammar of the code is evoked through the surface structure of the signs, as a recursivity of the same signifiers inscribed in different product categories. And at the same time, the signifying social logic of a code is enriched by the production of new brands or brand extensions, which points to the dialectical relationship between code enrichment and the production of signs.
    How brand meaning assumes value in the context of a semiotics of brand equity perspective
    Signs assume value as functives in a function that relates a plane of content with a plane of expression. The plane of content includes the chain of signifiers to which the sign is attached (having already established why the plane of the signified is reducible to the plane of the signifier in a political economy of brands), while the plane of expression includes its manifest attributes (logo, aesthetic elements, music, gestural elements in a commercial etc). Returning to the initial conceptualization of brands, as signs ordered both horizontally/synchronically, based on their syntagmatic similarity with other brands and their substitutability as signs exchanged for abstract signifiers based on their signifying function on the vertical/diachronic paradigmatic axis, we may equate the content of the sign function with the paradigmatic axis. Given that the code includes both the syntactic aspect of signs ordering and the paradigmatic aspect as set of notions or signifiers (or semes falling under a brand name as sememe), both paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes are ways of translating aspects of the code.
    Now, in order for a super-sign as a configuration functioning on both paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes to assume differentially superior meaning, hence equity, to the competition, it must establish itself in a system of differences or differential values alongside all three prototypical categories, that is as a utilitarian, as a commercial, as a sociocultural sign. What will determine the value of these functions is the degree to which they are successfully exchanged for a set of signifiers or a set of brand image scorings. As already discussed in the context of Baudrillards political economy of the sign, the value of a product does not depend on its difference from other products as objects, but as already coded signs, based on the social logic prescribed by a code and moreover on the way these signs are related or configured. Therefore, value and by implication brand equity are dependent on the diachronic/paradigmatic axis. Also, we have already established that such a value judgment may be made by pointing to the limit of the code, which is by definition limitless, based on the principle of infinite semiosis, but which maybe pinned down temporarily from a notional point of view in a set of signifiers, otherwise it would not be of any operational value, which it is, as a condition for the production of signs.
    All of the above attain to clarify how brands assume meaning and differential value in a semiotics of brand equity perspective underpinned by a theory of code(s) and constitute valid descriptive propositions. But what are the implications from a brand managerial point of view or how does the assertion that the establishment of equivalences between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic axes give rise to differential brand meaning and value?
    Brand managerial implications of the semiotics of brand equity
    As a provisional answer to the above question this paper will conclude by addressing the applicability of the approach of a semiotics of brand equity, by laying bare how the aspects of the theory of code(s) may aid in the generation of brand equity, which spans aspects of the invention of a code or a sign, and the sustainability of brand equity, which spans aspects of the selection of signs or codes.
    For the sake of clarity the argumentation will draw on what I call the The Generative Matrix of Equity Potential, displayed in Diagram 1.
    Diagram 1 - The Generative Matrix of Equity Potential
    Based on this generative matrix every brand semiotic possibility may be mapped out based on configurations of a brands (i) level of codedness (ii) level of novelty as sign-function. Codedness is split into the already explicated three levels of over, under and extra codedness, while novelty level consists of a brands as sign function heritage in its respective product category (which implies either the extension of an existing established brand name, but as a different sign-function to the mother brand or as an existing brand, which is not established as sign-function).
    In order to render these configurations as differential aspects of equity potential more concrete let us address each one in turn:
    • Discontinuously new sign function at the level of undercodedness

No familiarity with the brand-name and its expression plane; regarding the content plane, no familiarity with its function as a utilitarian sign, and limited familiarity with its function as a sociocultural sign, hence great uncertainty regarding its function as a commercial sign and at first sight of limited equity potential, as hurdles must be overcome on all code-related fronts, viz as syntax, as notions, as potential behavioral responses. Point of entry: Leverage sociocultural aspects of dissimilar brands by drawing on latent analogies and semantic contiguities that may be discerned by combining subcodes through the operation of the Ur-code

  • Extension of existing sign function at the level of undercodedness

Not leading brand in terms of familiarity, but not wholly new either or an extension of a leading or a non-leading brand in its category; limited potential as a commercial sign and need for leveraging different combinatorial possibilities as a utilitarian and sociocultural sign. Medium equity potential.

  • Established sign function at the level of undercodedness

This configuration may be portrayed as a case of diversification, that is extension of a well familiar brand in a given category in another category where either no combinatorial rule exists in terms of an inter-category fit and where substitutability of signifiers in a paradigmatic fashion is initially of limited potential. In this case it is very important to capitalize on potential similarities in terms of surface structure similarities at the syntagmatic level either by addressing structural components of brands as utilitarian or sociocultural signs or both. Let us recall that undercodedness (just like every level of codedness) does not concern necessarily all aspects of the code.

  • Discontinuously new sign function at the level of extracodedness

No familiarity with the brand-name and its expression plane; regarding the content plane, no familiarity with its function as a utilitarian sign, and no familiarity with its function as a sociocultural sign. This constitutes an imaginary limit case of configurative possibilities, an ex nihilo creatio, which lies beyond the limits of semiotics. As Eco stresses, there is no ex nihilo or ex novo creation.

  • Extension of existing sign function at the level of extracodedness

Neither leading brand in terms of familiarity, nor wholly new , or an extension of a leading or a non-leading brand in its category; limited potential as a commercial sign and need for leveraging different combinatorial possibilities as a utilitarian or sociocultural sign. Medium equity potential.

  • Established sign function at the level of extracodedness

This may be a case of either brand extension or diversification, but the combinatorial logic driving them must be wholly new, hence augmented effort for justification of the brand proposition.

  • Discontinuously new sign function at the level of overcodedness

No familiarity with the sign-function, but high equity potential due to the strictly closed meaning of the code in which it aspires to be embedded. The decision lies more with the selection of brand elements as semes at the content level and their credible, unique, appealing transformation into the level of expression.

  • Extension of existing sign function at the level of overcodedness

Not leading brand in terms of familiarity, but not wholly new either or an extension of a leading or a non-leading brand in its category; ample potential as a commercial sign and need for leveraging different combinatorial possibilities as a utilitarian and sociocultural sign. High equity potential.

  • Established sign function at the level of overcodedness

These brands constitute usually not only established brand players, but with high equity. They stand synecdochically for codes and occasionally constitute codes themselves.
The principal aim of the mapping of the above configurations rests with providing an exhaustive set of interactions among brands as super-signs that may be defined based on the three prototypical categories provided by Nthand their level of novelty (in terms of their familiarity and resonance with distinctive addressees or target groups) and of the level of codedness that accompanies each configurative possibility with view to the potential of generating and sustaining brand meaning and brand equity.
Insofar as branding is a dynamic process and brands are dynamic objects, the achievement of high brand equity (as obtained in a historical snapshot of metrics) in itself is no guarantee of a brands sustainability. From a managerial point of view, sustainability of brand equity may be achieved by constantly scrutinizing the potential opened up through the various configurations of the above illustrated Generative Matrix of Equity Potential.
The optimal way to approach the potential for equity generation is to address how codes emerge in the first place. Eco addresses the issue of emergence not in the context of codes, but in the context of individual signs (even though at its most radical , that is invention, the process is equivalent to the emergence of codes), but the method reflects the mode of a codes enrichment, as already exposed in the context of the potentiality of inscribing a set of gestural signs as dancing as part of the subcode of a family table.
The initial stage of the selection of signs as sources of brand equity (and by implication as brand communications stimuli, which constitutes a further research area) is the most critical one. Unless a clear understanding of the systemic function and the operational value of code (simpliciter) and subcodes has been established first, the possibility of making a meaningful selection of signs as sources of brand equity and by implication their ability to constitute meaningful gestalts in the exchange of brands qua super-signs in different contexts and circumstances would be an impossible task. This impossibility is a genetic, so to speak, determinant of the very nature of the sign as member of a system of differences and oppositions. The mode of selection of a sign does not stem from some sort of univocal and linear relationship to a signifier , but in the context of a semiotic judgment, which amounts to an existentialist judgment, viz the endorsement of a course of action [or a semiotic act] among a theoretically infinite number of possibilities. It is by virtue of excluding other signs in a system of differences and oppositions that a sign is selected, which act by itself does not lead to the closure of the selected signs or sign systems meaning as intentional projection on behalf of a brand owner of a set of semantic markers onto semiotic space, but rests with the addressee.
Each time I confer a semiotic judgment I predicate a seme of a sememe, or I add a signifier to the potential value set of a sign, as added content or another sign as an enrichment of its plane of expression. In essence, its predication consists of an added value. However, this addition takes place at the level of the addresser or the brand owner and as already illustrated this initial action does not assume meaning unless inscribed in an act of exchange or a semiotic act during which the sign assumes value (value emerges only in acts of exchange). It is at the very juncture of this act that a sign becomes an interpretant (in Peirces terms) for a consumer or a consumer segment, and assumes meaning. In the act of exchange the sign is transformed into an interpretant or a brand related association. In terms of the modalities for effecting these transformations Eco (1976:75) suggests three routes, viz (i) by pure phonic analogy (ii) by homology or cultural classification (iii) by the ability to combine various morphemes with the same lexeme.
From a decoding perspective there are various quantitative and qualitative methods for describing (eg associative networks) and quantifying (eg through measuring the links from node to node and from node to links in a network) associations, but these methods do not address the modalities whereby transformations from signs to associations are effected in the first place, save for stating descriptively the fact that such associations emerge. Ecos remarks on how signs give rise to associations are pathbreaking, but they require elaboration prior to becoming operationally useful. In an attempt to elaborate on these remarks the following should be taken into account by each class of transformative modality:

  • Pure phonic analogy

2. Homology or cultural classification 3. The ability to combine various lexemes with the same morpheme From a semiotic point of view (i) and (iii) are of limited potential, as they concern purely linguistic aspects, which do form part of a nexus of analogies and abilities, but are not reducible to phonic analogies and morphematic abilities from a semiotic perspective (and Hjelmslev himself has argued extensively against a linguistic reductionism to phonological elements). It is (ii) that opens up the encoding horizon, while delivering it from the strictly speaking isomorphic dimensions of (i) and (iii) to isotopic possibilities, by rendering a brand qua super-sign capable of occupying through the functions of homology and isotopy the same semantic markers in a semiotic space through the employment of different lexemes and sememes or, simply put, to connote the same signifiers through the alternating employment of different signs, sign systems and classes of signs. How is this homology established? By leveraging given subcodes, inventing new ones or transforming existing ones. To this process another crucial dimension should be added, that of discursive genre, which concerns more the stylistic and syntagmatic aspect of a sub code as cultural classification, rather than the signifier that is connoted isotopically through the variable investment of a super-sign with other sign-vehicles (its enrichment). And homology as constitutive of a signs assuming meaning through its inscription in various subcodes concerns the transformative aspect of a sign by leveraging an existing or various subcodes. It does not explain or render interpretively clear how a brand ultimately crystallizes as code. The latter may be interpreted by reversing the process whereby signs assume meaning by leveraging subcodes, which furnishes the proposition that codes assume meaning by leveraging signs. The more central the function (either on a content or expression plane) of a sign in the operation of a code within a cultural system the more the sign becomes synecdochically homologous to the code and in more codes it attains to function centrally the more it assumes the value of an Ur-code (to use Ecos term from La structure absente). The modality is still the same, homology, but the centrality of the brand qua super-sign in a semiotic tree (that would comprise both supersigns and subcodes) changes from hypotactic to hypertactic. Insofar as such an interpretation addresses the definitional aspect of a subcode as syntax and as combinatorial component, but leaves unaddressed the aspect of combinatorial rule we may extend the function of homology from semantic component in an order of objects to its rule-like function delineating the combinatorial possibilities surrounding it. As an example, a McDonalds burger, as a subcode itself, is a rule delineating the combinatorial possibilities with other signs (fries, salad, drink), insofar as due to its centrality it determines what other products may be stringed with it in its combinatorial scope, whereas a bottle of wine is determined by the main course, as a non-central combinatorial component in the courses combinatorial scope.These constant interpretive transformations or recontextualizations constitute whatEco describes as aphenomenology of modes of sign production.
Having thus far described the mutually presupposing nature of brands qua super-signs and subcodes as the condition of their meaningful inscription with signifiers and Code as a generic Ars Combinatoria among sub codes, let us briefly dwell on the marginal case of radical sign invention, which corresponds to the configurative possibility (iv) in the Generative Matrix of Brand Equity Potential (Graph 1). This case, which was described as per definitionem impossible, points to the limit of the code, which has already been postulated as its own limitless limit of production and may be linked to absolute exteriority, beyond the upper semiotic threshold as a reduction ad absurdum pointing to the limits of the code.
The aim of this paper was to lay the conceptual foundations for a semiotics of brand equity. In the course of the argumentation an attempt was made to demonstrate the interdependency of the financial value of a brand on three prototypical value territories, which account for brand meaning, thus constituting the semiotic value of brand that is reflected in accounting terms in the difference between book and market value. The generation and sustenance of brand equity as meaning surplus and surplus of exchange value embedded in complementary meaning dimensions is dependent on semiotic codes and the latter are enriched by the constant production and stretching of brands. The Generative Matrix of Brand Equity potential was introduced as a portrayal of the multiple interdependencies between aspects and levels of codedness and the relative novelty of a brand as sign, while pointing to the various stages of building brand equity up to the point of a brands instituting itself as a code.
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