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The Power of Symbols

What if the value of a product is mostly symbol-based? To refine a product or service idea, play this game: imagine that what motivates a person to choose one product over another within a category is purely the meaning that it conveys beyond its immediate practical value. Imagine that we buy things because they symbolize a value system, a kind of person, or a particular lifestyle. Now look at your product or service idea again. What symbols might it convey to different social groups? Adjust the idea so that it conveys the right values, identities, and aspirations.

For an early look into how symbols drive consumer behavior, read Sidney J. Levy’s "Symbols for Sale" in the Harvard Business Review. In that article, he quietly started a revolution in consumer research by deftly laying out a new decree: people should no longer be understood as homo economicus, or rational actors engaging in sober calculation when interacting with consumer products. Instead, he implored researchers to understand that people see products as conveying a way of life and a self-identity that go beyond simple utility.

Here are some of his pioneering ideas:

A symbol is appropriate (and the product will be used and enjoyed) when it joins with, meshes with, adds to, or reinforces the way the consumer thinks about himself.

[M]odern goods are recognized as essentially psychological things which are symbolic of personal attributes and strivings.

If the manufacturer understands that he is selling symbols as well as goods, he can view his product more completely. He can understand not only how the object he sells satisfies certain practical needs but also how it fits meaningfully into today's culture. Both he and the consumer stand to profit.

These statements capture some of the interesting cultural aesthetics of the time period:

The movement toward informality has been a fundamental one in recent years, governing the emphasis on casual clothes, backyard and buffet meals, staying at motels, and bright colors (even for telephones). 

Consumers understand that darker colors are symbolic of more "respectable" products; that browns and yellows are manly; that reds are exciting and provocative. The fact that something is "scientific" means technical merit, an interest in quality, and (probably) less enjoyment. Theatrical references imply glamour and suspension of staid criteria.

The value of a testimonial may depend largely on whether there is an association (logical or illogical) between the man and the product. For instance, people think it is appropriate for Winston Churchill to endorse cigars, whiskey, and books.

In America there has been complaint that some of this differentiation is fading; that women are getting more like men, and men are shifting to meet them, in a movement toward homogeneous togetherness.