Flags are flying in the news right now.

In the MixView the images on any news outlet, and you’ll no doubt see American flags, Confederate flags, or pride flags causing a stir. These pieces of cloth are symbols in the middle of heated debates among people who see differing meanings in them. The emotions evoked by flags are proof that symbolism is alive and well. I have always been fascinated by the power of symbols and the meanings we place behind them, and these flags are perfect examples of how humans use symbols to communicate important messages.

Symbols depict underlying meanings in a simple way, and one would think that they would be more effective communication tools than written words, right? Judging from the recent flag controversies, though, it is obvious that symbols can mean different things to different people. When you think about it, it’s impossible for any symbol to mean the same thing to everyone because every person brings different beliefs, experiences, perceptions, and in some cases different perspectives on history, to the table. One thing is clear, however. Symbols evoke strong feelings – sometimes good and sometimes, very bad.

The power of symbols ties in directly to how we market to large audiences. With the growth of electronic media, face-to-face and written communication has become sparse, and the use of symbols to express meaning has increased. When it comes to marketing, we must thoughtfully consider the symbols associated with our communications and how they depict our organization. Symbols become our “face.” They are a memorable way to communicate a lot about us very quickly, so paying attention to audience perception is critical. Here are two areas where symbolism plays a key role.

Building Your Brand
Creative design is how our symbols become our brand. Take a logo, for example. All of the facets of the logo (color, font, shape, etc.) affect how our audience perceives its meaning. The colors and images we attach to communications will also evoke a reaction from our audience, and we want it to be a positive, enduring one. But every person brings something different to the table, so we need to know our audience in order to design pieces that resonate positively with them. After all, our symbols will appear in countless venues…on business cards, direct mail pieces, marketing collateral, emails, websites, and even as emojis.

Communicating Your Message
Creating a brand is important, but it’s the way we use it in our communications that really brings it to life. Our audience is going to respond emotionally to our brand if the symbols remain constant no matter what the context. In multi-channel marketing, a consistent brand across channels evokes our audience’s trust and cuts through the marketing noise with an impactful image of recognition. The same image that appears in marketing brochures and emails will grab attention on fast-paced social media. Consistent, memorable images are key in all forms of communication because they remind our audience that they know us.

Symbols are powerful communication tools. They’re like brand shorthand and using them right makes our job as marketers easier. But they are also strong reminders that we must know our target audience and be conscious of differing perceptions when developing campaigns and communications so we can make sure our message is correctly communicated…especially when we let symbols do the talking for us.