When you use a product because of what it communicates about you you are using that product as a symbol.
Using products and brands as symbols
Researchers and marketers usually differentiate between a product's (or brand's) rational features and its emotional benefits. For us, the distinction should really be between rational features, emotions and symbolic benefits:
Emotions are things like joy and fear. For example, some people feel safer when they are in a large 4-wheel drive than in a smaller sedan style car. That sense of safety is an emotional benefit.
When a product or brand is used partly or wholly to communicate something about that person, then the product or brand is working as a symbol. We have developed a framework as the basis for our research into symbolic products, with some examples below.
A simple example - status symbols
Someone may buy a 4-wheel drive because it conveys that they belong to an aspirational generational cohort or social 'tribe' (or because they think it does). Fellow members of the tribe know this code well and easily decode the symbols they see among their peers or wannabe peers.
While status symbols like the 4-wheel drive tend to be expensive, many low-cost products - even water - can be used symbolically. The water bottle you are seen with can convey much about your personality to others who share your values, though people outside this social circle may be oblivious to its meaning.
Often these low-cost symbols tend to be more transient, as they more easily-replaced by something else. People may also use a cluster of products all conveying the same message.
Some symbols are public - you telling others that you belong. Others are private - you are telling yourself that you belong, or are worthy, or are 'young for your age' for example. If part of a product or brand's appeal is that it reflects well on your self-image, then it is a symbol for you. The 'for you' part is important as you do not need anyone else to decode it. These symbols can become obsolescent as you change and what matters to you changes.
Symbols on packaging
We can also think of symbolism in terms of the symbols used on packaging, or of course emoji. Please check out or en_symbol page for more on this form of symbolism.
The question we ask
What social role does this product or brand play, and what could replace it and why?'