Evolution of corporate symbol’s system of signifiers - the non-arbitrary transfer of the signifying relationship

In the autumn of 2012, Brad Pitt, the celebrated movie star who was nearly 50 years old, became the first male brand spokesperson of Chanel No. 5. As soon as the news was released, people in the fashion community was immediately fascinated, creating a new round of heated coveting for Chanel products. From Marilyn Monroe through Catherine Deneuve to Brad Pitt, each celebrity endorser has contributed to the communication of the brand image of Chanel No. 5, constructing the myth of sexiness that is exclusively that of Chanel and magnetizing fashion- chasers to the product in idolization and worship. As a perfume, Chanel No. 5 has remained the same in aroma but with the product image played out by different brand spokespersons, the same perfume has been exerting different appeals of sexiness. In accordance with this mechanism, we can experience Chanel’s image appeal today from the endorsement by Brad Pitt, but it is highly probable that tomorrow he would be replaced by another celebrity. In the context of mass culture in which celebrities are produced in quick successions, celebrities are produced in large quantities like products on an assembly line. Of course, each celebrity has his or her unique style and an enterprise would replace the “signi- fier” of its products any time it wants by finding the most influential and the most commercially valuable celebrity endorser. In this way, more charismatic “signified” can be effectively communicated.

It is true that the brand endorser or spokesperson can be adjusted or changed at any time, but other signifiers like the logo of a brand, its packing, and the corporate symbol are also subject to constant change and adjustment. The infinite extensibility of the symbolic system determines that its system of signifiers cannot be self-enclosed, static or fixed. Instead, it is diverse, open and dynamic. While the signified remains constant, an enterprise can change its signifier in accordance with the needs of the social development, the changes in the public’s aesthetic taste and a full range of other, related factors. All these are designed to arrive at the optimal communication effect. Take Apple Inc. as an example; its logo is constantly renewed, and its products are constantly upgraded, generating a long line of products ranging from iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, iPhone4S, iPhone5 and so on. All these are illustrative of the changes that are continuously happening in the company’s system of signifiers.

The purpose of introducing changes into the system of signifiers is either to bring the signifier ever so closer to the signified or to convey a new signified, that is, the meaning. Those changes are designed to create new relationships of signification in the particular ideological framework of the general public. They represent purposeful and non-random choices, or what might be called “motivated” choices. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure has already pointed out that, for any sign of language, “arbitrariness” constitutes the most fundamental principle of the combination between the signifier and the signified, a relationship that is conventional and unverifiable. But when we examine the evolution of the corporate symbols, the marriage between the signifier and the signified has obviously violated this principle of arbitrariness. In developing corporate symbols, a whole set of regulations has been artificially established, which subsumes a multitude of historical, social, economic and cultural factors and forcibly creates a new “relationship of contract.” As a matter of fact, Saussure was sensitive enough to perceive the mandatory nature inherent in a linguistic sign, stating that “the signifier, though to all appearances freely chosen with respect to the idea that it represents, is fixed, not free, with respect to the linguistic community that uses it.”1 8 Even for the seemingly naturally formed signs of language, a fixed and mandatory element exists. For the corporate symbols which are much more highly socialized, the mandatory nature is all the more salient. The truth is that, under the publicity impact of the mass media, such a kind of mandatory nature and motivation has been camouflaged in the lyrical narratives of advertising so that, for all categories of symbols, the process of expressing meaning has become so natural, spontaneous and persuasive, totally beyond any reasonable doubt.

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