Symbols transform abstract concepts, ideas and beliefs into tangible things that we can touch, see, hear, taste, smell and understand. Symbolisms bring power to the abstract concept, and also to the object that symbolizes it.
Symbols are objects, characters, or other representations of ideas, concepts, or abstractions; they are the universal language in a culture. Symbols have been used for thousands of years, they help people communicate and interact with one another. Thus, as a representation, their meaning is neither instinctive nor automatic.
The culture’s members must interpret, and over time reinterpret, the symbol… Symbols convey meaning and occur in different forms, such as: verbal or nonverbal, written or unwritten, words on the page, drawings, pictures, gestures…
They are things which act as triggers to remind people, in the culture, of its rules, beliefs… Symbols can also be used to indicate status within a culture. Every society has evolved a system of symbols that reflects a specific cultural logic; and every symbolism functions to communicate information between members in much the same way as, but more subtly than, conventional language.
Without knowing and understanding each culture’s individual symbols and symbolisms; there is little likelihood that a business engagement with the culture would be successful.
In the article “Symbols in Organizational Culture” by Anat Rafaeli and Monica Worline write: Symbols take on important meanings in organizations; meanings that are defined by cultural and social conventions and interactions. In our definition, symbols are things that can be experienced with the senses and used by organization members to ‘make meaning’.
Symbols are noticed through sight, sound, touch, and smell, and their impact has significant organizational consequences. Our broad message is that an important part of understanding organizational culture is the careful reading and analysis of organizational symbols. Our analysis suggests that symbols serve four functions in organizations:
They reflect underlying aspects of culture, generating emotional responses from organization members and representing organization values and assumptions. They elicit internalized norms of behavior, linking members’ emotional responses, interpretations to organization action. They frame experience, allowing organization members to communicate about vague, controversial, uncomfortable organization issues. And, they integrate the entire organization in one system of signification.
Organizational symbols have the power to facilitate or hinder smooth organizational functioning, and their neglect may lead to a lack of shared interpretative codes among organizational members. This is perhaps easiest to see when a product does not match the quality symbolized by its brand, and therefore loses out in the market. Organizational symbols relate to the physical environment and the conversations, thoughts, emotions, and actions of organization members, and the symbols can provide a deep, rich, and worthwhile understanding of organizational culture.
In the article “Cultural Symbolism” by Cynthia Chan writes: When developing message that target ethnic groups, “there are symbols and design that you want to hone in on as far as culture is concerned.” For example, within the Japanese culture, placing a check in a box indicates that this is an item that is being declined, rather than selected. Another example is phone numbers, which should be chosen with care when targeting Chinese prospects.
While using lucky numbers will help prospects remember your contact info, bad luck numbers, such as ‘4’, would turn them off. Make sure to thoroughly research and test within your target market to ensure that your carefully crafted message is not thrown off track by culturally misleading symbols…
In the book “Symbolism of Popular Culture” by John Fraim writes: Symbolism is one of the most powerful yet least understood concepts. The challenge is to provide a modern understanding of it, without trivializing its ancient heritage. Reverence is close to a lost concept today, but if anything deserves reverence; it’s the concept of symbolism.
While symbolism may, in fact, be the key behind the greatest products of popular culture, symbolism itself should never be viewed as a product. In 1957, Vance Packard wrote a ground breaking book called ‘The Hidden Persuaders’. It was one of the first books to discuss symbolism in advertising and products. Back in those years, symbolism was called ‘subliminal persuasion’ probably with a tip of the hat to the dominating Freudian psychology of the times.
Today, Packard observes the incredible evolution of product symbolism noting that ads for; ‘watches’ have nothing to do with watches; for ‘shoes’ that scarcely mention shoes. It used to be the brand identified the product. In today’s advertising the ‘brand is the product’. Modern advertising has an almost total obsession with images and feelings and an almost total lack of any concrete claims about the product and why anyone should buy it.”
I’m puzzled, he continues; “Commercials seem totally unrelated to selling any product at all.” Seeing symbols within culture may help revitalize an ancient science and place it into a modern perspective. It could help make the study of symbolism a ‘science of the day’ rather than a ‘metaphysics of the night.’ Modern symbols might then be seen in such products of popular culture, such as; films, television programs, music, celebrities, toys, books…
The elusive ‘zeitgeist’ or ‘spirit of the times’ might have a direct relationship to dominant media forms and technologies. Emerging technologies such as the Internet might provide a modern symbol for the ‘zeitgeist’ of the collective unconscious…
In the article “The Power of a Symbol” by Kevin Eikenberry writes: We all have symbols in our lives and these symbols remind us of our beliefs, loyalties, accomplishments… Whether physical like a flag, symbolic like a story, or memory-anchored like a picture these can serve us in powerful ways. Although this may not seem particular important, on the contrary, these symbols can be used to our advantage as individuals and leaders.
For example: The Rock. The ‘Rainmakers’ organization in Indianapolis began a tradition, at their events, where the leader brings a ‘rock’ and writes on it “Be More, Serve More” (a part of their mission and purpose). During their meeting, all participants sign the rock then, at some point in the meeting, that rock is presented to someone in the group who has made a difference; lived the Rainmaker’s ideals or is in some other way deserving of the recognition.
Started as a way to reward and recognize without breaking their budget, it now is a powerful part of the organization’s culture. It also is a highly valued award, meaningful in many ways to each recipient.
We can draw much from this, and many other examples: First, notice how symbols can serve as; recognition, reminder, or both. The symbol need not be elaborate or fancy, as long as the meaning and message attached to it is valuable. The same is true in organizations, the ‘physical representation’ doesn’t have to be glossy, shiny or valuable; i.e., a ‘rock’…
The power comes from the meaning and message. Symbols are powerful, and can aid us personally and organizationally as we attempt to improve or move toward valuable goals: Understand them and use them wisely and sincerely, and this underutilized tool could become instrumental in your future success.
In the article “What Do You Mean? The Power of Symbols” by Miss Mellie writes: Symbols enrich our lives by standing as reminders of philosophies, dreams and achievements we hold dear. They are mini-billboards of our thoughts, feelings, emotions and values. They serve a shorthand method of communicating at a glance something which could take several sentences, pages or books to explain in words.
The old adage ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words’ has long-held fast in our lexicon due to its multi-generational truth. Symbols can be powerful… but, they can also be confusing. The confusion can set-in when two or more people interpret the symbol differently, and the meaning can change over time; either intentionally or unintentionally.
Consider how powerful at one time the Enron logo was: Their symbol once indicated a large, strong, powerful company at the peak of corporate health. Nowadays, even a fleeting impression of that very same symbol indicates scandal, theft, shame and a whole host of other negative feelings. Symbols are nice, as long as their representations are accurate and truthful… they can indeed boost self-esteem, rekindle warm feelings and bring joy to our souls. But symbols are just that: symbols…
They themselves are not the substance of what’s being represented. Plenty of folks wear wedding rings, wave their country’s flag and publicly attend church while living their lives as turncoats against that to which they claim devotion. If the devotion is there, no symbol is needed; if the devotion is not there, no symbol will engender it.
In a world where people and companies are more readily recognized for what they represent, then for who they are; symbols, symbolisms, and brand are ‘essential assets’. According to Sebastian Guerrini; Symbols can be used to exploit the most unconscious-level of human desire, thus when incorporated into a brand, symbols gracefully create associations between a company and that which the company would like to represent.
From a psychoanalytical perspective, brand is a representation of symbols and symbolisms, and creating brand (branding) is linked to understanding how humans communicate and express their feelings. It’s a matter of understanding very basics of human communication and how our minds work to create, within us, a sense of satisfaction. Successful business relationships are developed by understanding and respecting the symbols, symbolisms, and brands of cultures...
The best leaders… almost without exception and at every level are master users of stories and symbols. ~Tom Peters. We are symbols, and inhabit symbols. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson