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The Upside of Symbols

How to leverage symbolism.

Anywhere you look you’ll see many symbols: political, religious, social, and commercial symbols. However, today they’re used almost exclusively by marketing. Companies understand the economic value of having recognized brands and the relationship we have with them. When you think of a brand, you have an image, a perception of its quality, and its service (among other things). Here’s a thought: Symbols are necessary. Nations have all sorts of symbols like national anthems, holidays, and their coat of arms. Even States have symbols such as the State’s bird, rock, fruit, motto, etc. Could we be ignoring the power behind symbols? What happens to people without symbols? We’ll see why we need to tap into the upside of symbolism.

There is no doubt that branding is the main focus in modern times. Branding in a nutshell is about symbols that serve as communication pathways. Logos are symbols that associate the qualities of a product or service in the mind of a consumer. Symbols are visual representations that are packed with meaning and value. The McDonald’s golden arches quickly communicate to me that there is free Wi-Fi and clean standardized burgers at an affordable price. Notice that McDonald’s goes beyond the logo. They’ve created an icon out of their brand. The Golden Arches icon = McDonald’s value + function.

Throughout history, humans have leveraged the power of symbols: families, tribes, empires, nations and now globalized and local commerce. The question is why don’t we? Do families still have any symbols? Or have we outsourced all of our symbols entirely? I’m talking about the symbols that have been lost. Symbols that represent the family’s (or personal) values, strengths, skills, etc. This insight is about dusting off the symbols that you may have picked up from different workplaces, family, spiritual traditions, and the educational institutions you may have attended. But it’s also about developing your own. Once you uncover these symbols, you can tap into the same benefits that global companies do!

A) Brand

You can leverage symbolism to improve confidence. I believe that confidence is more a byproduct of belonging and deliberate practice. Having a sense of belonging is extremely important to become part of any learning curve. Without a sense of belonging, it’s hard to see a mistake as a learning process. We can more easily become fixed-minded. Belonging means you feel part of a community and represented by it. You achieve this by anchoring in your symbols. For instance, your nation’s flag reminds you where you’re from. But you can also promote belonging in any circumstance if you develop your brand by proactively finding how you can add value anywhere—communicating who you are, and what you are about. This is how Mickey D’s is able to thrive anywhere in the world. Ask:

  • Which things give you a sense of belonging wherever you are?
  • What value can you provide wherever you are?
  • What do you represent personally and professionally?

Capture your strengths and values that your grandparents, parents, or significant others have passed on to you. Companies figure out how they can provide value through a product, then they develop their brand name. In the same way, figure out what values, skills, and strengths you have learned and developed personally. If you say: “I’m from [your city]. I’m a [your denonym]”. What does it mean? What do people from there do? No need to reinvent the wheel. You already have many powerful traits.

B) Icon

Symbols are about packaging meaning in such a way that it helps establish a connection. Brand icons quickly work to visually help you relate with them both in what they are and their function. Think about In-N-Out burgers and how they have crossed palm trees that form an X marking the spot! Anywhere you see those palm trees you recognize the iconic experience. Once you build your brand, the next step is to create your own icon(s). Your icon = your skills + your idea.

  • What icons capture who you are?
  • Are there any symbols in nature that inspire you?
  • What could your personal/family/community rock, beverage, music, and tree be?

Find how all these sources of strength can serve a function and back up the value that your brand provides to yourself and others. What symbol can you create that packs all of that meaning together? This could well be the beginning of your start-up. Find the things that you are proud of. Like the stars on the US flag, or the eagle eating a snake on the Mexican flag, icons tell a story without needing words. Find your strengths and pack them into something iconic. Discover your “golden arches.”

C) Story

All companies have stories about how they were born and how they became or are becoming successful. Why is it so hard to have an exciting personal story? Where you work shouldn’t be your only story. Family stories are underrated. They communicate values and incredible things your parents/ grand parents did. Ask family members which stories they are really proud of, and work on expanding your own ongoing story.

In Meaningful: The story of ideas that fly, Bernadette Jiwa says: “We don’t have to follow the pack, conventional wisdom or a growth hacking trend of the moment. We each get to choose how we show up in the world and how our businesses are run and our stories are told.” The ability to anchor in your stories and turn them into something symbolic, can give you the guidance and energy in how you work and run any project you set to do. If having a story is so powerful and yet underrated, then there’s a gap to fill. Jiwa says: “As the structure and social fabric of our towns and cities change, there is a huge opportunity for local businesses to fill some of the void that a lack of belonging to a community has created.” Begin with your story, then you will be able to expand.

This insight is about recognizing the power in some symbols for the collective good and yourself. You can leverage them to improve your sense of belonging, tap into the power of your ideas, and your stories. So are we really leaving symbols behind? I’m not sure. Certainly the world has become extremely noisy. We are flooded with information, images, and agendas of others. It’s becoming necessary to rediscover your symbols so that you can navigate with a sense of purpose. Not everything is worth keeping, especially limiting labels or offensive symbols. The symbols you choose should be bigger than yourself. Without symbols, we become superficial and are left to blindly follow symbols imposed by others. What’s stopping you from creating your own brand? What projects could you lead with proper symbols? How much easier could you grow knowing what symbols you stand behind?

Juan F. Diaz

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