Sign Language: Branded Messages and the Tourist Experience

ABSTRACT - This paper presents an investigation of the ways in which brand relationships impact the tourist experience. By combining global branding with tourism, the author and her companion explore the various ways brands speak to tourists to discover how brand relationships, fostered within a tourist space, construct social reality and affect personal identity. We use introspective reflection to explore the nature of branded communication for its impact upon tourist’s experience of metropolitan and residential areas in three European cities. The study contributes to the research streams of consumer-brand relationships and consumptionscapes by suggesting the presence of a global brand language.


Shay Sayre (2003) ,"Sign Language: Branded Messages and the Tourist Experience", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 2-8.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 2-8


Shay Sayre, California State University, USA


This paper presents an investigation of the ways in which brand relationships impact the tourist experience. By combining global branding with tourism, the author and her companion explore the various ways brands speak to tourists to discover how brand relationships, fostered within a tourist space, construct social reality and affect personal identity. We use introspective reflection to explore the nature of branded communication for its impact upon tourist’s experience of metropolitan and residential areas in three European cities. The study contributes to the research streams of consumer-brand relationships and consumptionscapes by suggesting the presence of a global brand language.

Come Fly With Me

Entering a strange city can be likened to a first encounter in a shopping centerBbrands act as guides through the maze of commercial space Particularly in the multi-lingual cities of Western Europe, tourists are greeted by a plethora of branded signage or "fast capitalism" (Agger 1989) that beckons them to lodging, restaurants, attractions and retail locations. These signs produce a visual and rhetorical narrative directed at travelers within a tourist space, which becomes a language of brands. Here, individuals must create their own order out of the signage chaos in a particular form of detraditionalization (Heelas et. al. 1996).

Various human senses contribute to how people confront environments, and tourists have a particular fascination with the sense of sight. Rodaway’s (1994) notion of "sensuous geography" suggests that people approach encounters with new places through an analysis of body, sense and place, each contributing to their orientation in space. Today’s tourists function in an "image economy" where objects and images are potential "mental souvenirs" or "camera material" (Sharratt 1989) stored for future reflection.

A special type of destination-oriented travel, tourism is often executed with a primary concern for the meanings that are created and communicated by tourists who move through geographical space (Dobb 1998). Tourism is one form of "worldmaking" (Goodman 1978) and self-fashioning. Integral to self-fashioning and personal identity, brands play a key role for tourists entering new spaces and places. Situated within global consumptionscapes (Ger and Belk 1996), the branded signage regularly encountered by travelers who cross-national boundaries speaks to them in various ways.

It is the contention of this study that brands have become socially and personally significant for experiencing place. By converging the literature of brand-consumer relationships with the notion of tourist consumption space, this study seeks to understand how the meanings associated with brands are used to construct experiences. As residential territories reflect the grammar of the inhabitants (Canclini 1990), tourist areas provide a propitious space for understanding the de-territorialization of culture, or meaning-making independent of a particular place (Thompson & Tambyah 1999). By 'walking the city’ (deCerteau 1988), this researcher-as-tourist conducted a personal reading of branded messages directed to tourists in metropolitan areas as well as brand messages directed to residents of nearby residential neighborhoods.

Three European cities provide the text for this analytical narrative of the tourist experience. Using a modified form of ethnographic participant observation, the author’s experience is inscribed in the context rather than in the reports of others. Here, my companion and I frame our travel experiences with two dominant forces in the global economyBtransnational brands and tourismBto investigate ways in which brands shape that experience in modern society. To better understand the tourist experience, we explore the relationship between brands and self as they develop within the 'sacred text of public space’ (MacCannell 1999). We assume a cultural awareness of the world as a tourist attraction through a "tourist’s gaze" (Urry 1990) to address the question, How do tourists use the textual discourse of brand signage to construct a social reality of place?

Love Me, Love My Brand

Marketing literature purports that brands are intangible assets, and that brands will always tend to build a reflection or an image of the consumer (Kapferer 1999). Brand images are created by experiences consumers have with brands, which develop relationships over time. As such, brands are valid at the level of lived experience (Fournier 1998) and may be central to one’s concept of self. Consumers use brands to simplify choice, to facilitate the completion of daily tasks, and to activate social interactions. The relationship between brand and consumer is frequently distinguished by the nature of the benefits brands furnish, such as identity functions, security, guidance and social support among others (Wiss 1974). Brand relationships exists within the context of other relationships (Parks & Eggert 1991) in what McCracken (1998) calls 'consumption constellations.’

When travelers visit a foreign city, they encounter multiple communications from spoken languages, architecture, open spaces, fashion and visuals in all forms of signage. According to Urry (1995), tourists possess a certain semiotic skill that enables them to interpret such signs. We may best understand how signs communicate meaning using Pierce’s model of semiosis where the traveler is the interpretant (Mick 1997). Brand names have become part of the language of the streets, and the streets have become "brandscapes" (Sherry 1998). The most tourist-friendly signage produces a narrative of brand names, icons and logos recognizable to those who enter the consumption space. According to Huang (1996), "the trans-regional brand-names of large companies impose themselves on the public’s experience and virtually assume the status of natural phenomena."

We suggest that branded signage is received not as a series of independent messages but as a collection of signs that become 'sets of stimuli’ for visitors to tourist spaces. Brand signage has come to act as a culture of printed messages, which serve to connect people over time and space. Tourists, like shoppers, enter a new space with the brand images they have collected in a variety of contexts. Although no two visitors may see brands in the same light, they will share a tendency to make an emotional response based on a priori codes resulting from their previous experiences. We further suggest that tourists use their pre-established brand relationships to make sense of a foreign landscape.

How brand images are integrated in a socio-physical context and how tourists decode them is the focus of this study. By understanding the nature of tourist reception to signage and how they make meaning of those messages, we can learn how a brand narrative characterizes the place in which it appears for visitors. We use Bakhtin’s (1991) definition of tourist as a person who "leaves a grounded region designated as 'home’ to come into contact with a cultural other, and to return with some sign of gain (or loss) reflecting the experience."

Within metropolitan areas we can identity certain places as tourist cultures (Shaw & Williams 1992), tourist districts (MacCannell 1999), or tourist spaces. As Featherstone (1995) maintains, a sense of place often gives way to the anonymity of 'no place spaces,’ or simulated environments in which we are unable to feel an adequate sense of being at home. Tourists entering such 'no place spaces’ look to signage to ground their identities during geographic transitions. Brands, perceived as familiar signage, may serve such a purpose.

For this study, tourist areas are characterized as places where the urban image is created by promotional factors (Mansfield 1990) in the forms of brand messages. Tourist encounters with brand signage usually invoke memories of past brand relationships through metaphors that appear as brand meanings constituted by the individual tourist’s knowledge. These context and symbolic renderings of places for popular consumption are enlivened here in a more active process whereby we researchers as tourists make our own sense of things and places (Crouch 2000).

Few academic studies in the behavioral sciences focus on tourist experiences. Sociological accounts are descriptive and a-theoretical; they address how the tourist industry affects local self-esteem and social change. Geographical studies use computations and spatial mapping to document images of tourist destinations (Pearce 1984). Marketers study the effects of tourism on material culture but ignore the impact of intercultural experiences on the tourist. To fill that gap, this study investigates the impact of branded signage on tourist experience. The effect of branded street vocabulary is yet unknown. If, as Foucault (1972) claims, streets are ecologies of knowledge to study place discourse, then textual discourse and the meanings they produce are of interest to marketing communicators worldwide for their implications on brand image.


Using introspective reflection that was pioneered by Morris Holbrook and Stephen Brown, my traveling companion Malcolm and I approached tourist spaces as participant observers, both independently and as a team. We used photography, audio field notes, and written field notes to collect impressions and data from each location.

We chose European cities for this study because they account for approximately 64% of all world international tourism arrivals and 60% of tourism spending according to the Howarth Book of Tourism. Because they were physically manageable, we selected three metropolitan tourist destinations: Zurich, a conduit for international travelers; Verona, a regional destination; and Rovinj, a getaway for Croatian locals. These cities were selected for their variety of appeal and difference in primary language. Tourist spaces were selected for their location near a point of entryBthe waterfront in Rovinj, a train station in ZurichBor the presence of a major tourist attraction Bthe Arena in Verona. In each city, we traveled on foot around tourist spaces and residential neighborhoods.

During our 14-day journey through Zurich, Verona and Rovinj, we photographed brand signage on both sides of the street adjacent to each city block we explored. First impressions of each city were recorded on audiotape. At home, we transcribed our observations and then compared notes audibly into a recorder. Using photographs as elicitation tools in a manner similar to autodriving (Heisley & Levy 1991), we recorded descriptions of each brand’s role in characterizing the areas we visited. Malcolm had never visited Europe, whereas I had been a frequent, extended visitor. Our dissimilar perspectives were ideal for eliciting narratives reflecting differing tourist experiences. Data consists of brand stories and first impressions of each city collected as narrative and photographs as summarized here.

Growing Up With General Motors

Prior to departure, we undertook a self-disclosed analysis of our brand relationships for three reasons. First, to ground them within the framework of relationship theory. Second, to provide the reader with some historical insight into the investigators’ perspectives. And finally, because sharing stories allowed us to become familiar with each other’s understanding of brands as well as to articulate our own subconscious biases. What follows is a summary of narratives recorded during an exchange of brand stories between Malcolm and me, told in the spirit of the consumption stories gathered by Thompson (1977).

Malcolm’s Stories

Having formed many of his brand impressions in the 50s during his youth, Malcolm’s stories were composed of committed partnerships between himself and the brands his mother and brothers taught him to use. For instance, he purchased Tide detergent, used Crest toothpaste, and wore Bass shoes because he was raised with these products. His stories and feelings about brands reflected what Matthews (1986) labeled a "traditional" brand relationship style.

Malcolm also felt strongly about rejecting some of the brands tied to his youth to pursue an identity apart from the one he had while living with his parents. For instance, he refused to buy General Motors products because his father claimed they were "cars of the people." His desire was to separate himself from 'the people’ by using brands he perceived to be associated with a better social class. Stories surrounding his professional life as a commercial real estate broker in San Francisco reflected a strong motivation toward brand images that were socially definitive. His stories contained images of Mercedes Benz, Armani and Rolex. This behavior was indicative of a "transitional" brand relationship style (Cushman 1990).

Author’s Stories

My stories are consistently postmodern in nature, reflecting a fragmented consumer living in a world of contradictions of her own making as described by Firat & Venkatesh (1995, p. 260). Rejecting brand loyalty, I speak of having multi-brand and transient loyalties that accompany multiple senses of being and lifestyle. For me, lifestyle constructs were complemented with appropriate brand signifiers. When sailing, I recall being careful to wear Topsider shoes to create an identity as veteran boat person. Other stories demonstrated rebellion, such as flaunting L.L. Bean outerwear in a Vail ski resort where fashion dictated more stylish and pricey brand attire. I tell of preferring product brands that are based on style, such as a MontBlanc pen or a pair of Mephisto sandals, rather than the presence of an identifiable logo or obvious demarcations like Nike or Chanel. I admit to wearing Levis in spite of their visible orange tag because they are more comfortable than other brands of jeans. Brand stereotypes make their way into my stories in references to Smirnoff drinkers as "plebes," Ford drivers as "workers," and Prada wearers as "wannabes." My brand-relationship style might be labeled "reactional."

Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away

What follows are greatly abbreviated slices of collective narrative taken from our recorded first impressions and photographs shot during our walks through tourist spaces and residential neighborhoods in each of the three cities. We use the present tense to reflect a stream-of-consciousness style indicative of our audiotaped monologues.

Zurich, Switzerland

Situated on both sides of the Limmmat River, Zurich has a tradition of intellectualism and artistic innovation that spawned the Dadaist movement in the early 1900s. Goethe described Switzerland as a combination of the colossal and the well ordered, and we find the county’s largest city running on minute-perfect time. We enter the city by train from the airport, arriving on the west bank of the river at the Hauptbahnhof station.

Outside, directional signage in French and German leads us to a thoroughfare of commerce and dining; Bahhofstrasse is a famous street built on the site of city walls torn down a century and a half ago. Zurich is characterized as a city of bankers in a country of banks, and we find the description accurateBhidden underfoot are bank vaults full of gold and silver. The adjacent Paradeplatz houses requisite banks as well as elegant shops and designer boutiques indicative of a high standard of living. Pedestrian-only areas line both sides of the river, adding testimony to Zurich’s grandeur.

Transit and taxi ads, poster kiosks and familiar watch brands dominant the landscape. In spite of the morning drizzle, smartly dressed men and women scurry in and out of banks as a group of Japanese tourists descend upon a Cartier shop. The street feels impersonal and cold, despite the colorful art exhibition posters and red Swiss Army crosses that punctuate gray shop windows.

Looking casual and out of place, posters advertise the Camel Reggae Festival, Checkerboard Brass Band, and Paul Simon concerts. Colorful graphics contrast stark gray architecture. A leather rhino stares out at me from a Credit Suisse window that is tucked into an ornate marble building. A fountain sends arcs of water into its center, splashing onto a deserted brick pedestrian square. German signs positioned outside Burberrys urge us to vote Nein or Ja on various ballot measures. Eight and ten story buildings ring tree-lined squares that respect rather than tempt shoppers. Busses whiz past, Bank Neumunster logos emblazoned on their sides.

The absence of outdoor cafes and street activity suggests that the action must reside within the formidable structures that house retail and service businesse. In spite of the plethora of familiar logos and signage, the city’s nonverbal language of architectural style is unfriendly. Like its building, the city’s inhabitants don’t smile, and everyone is in a hurry. The scene brings to mind deCerteau’s assertion: "Working people bring a city to lifeBthey write urban text without being able to read it" (1988 p.88). These folks may be able to read urban text, but they appear to have no time or interest in doing so. Streets have a freshly scrubbed look, glistening from recent showers and reflecting trench coat-clad pedestrians who cross beneath a glow of green traffic lights.

Our lodging, a fifteen-minute bus ride from downtown, puts us in the middle of a residential area. A Swiss-Deutsche sign for Visa Karte and mixed-language packaged good signs adhere to windows, adorn building walls and cling to smooth surfaces near the transit stop. Restaurants, cigar shops and supermarkets appear between apartment buildings that are six to ten stories high. No single-family housing exists in this block rimmed with wide streets and monotonous transportation vehicles.

Transit stops feature Flohmarkt and Radio Z posters. A brass plate announcing a Solarium and Bermuda Massage points to an upstairs landing. A shop window displays today’s specials: Ragout, Rindfleisch, Schnitzel. Displays of cosmetic products sit inside tinted windows as if to hide from an absent sun. Bingo signs flap in the wind on walls above shopping cards and abandoned paper sacks. A life-size billboard featuring five young people give onlookers a thumbs-up sign; an employment agency’s advert, we’re told. German language prevails, urging us to purchase Der Wein des Monats at der frische Supermarkt around the corner from our hotel. Colorful signage contrasts a gray day as we exit the neighborhood to catch a train for Milan.

Verona, Italy

Franzoni’s practical guide to the city stresses its tumultuous history that resulted in determining the urbanistic aspect of modern Verona. Developed within a circle of Veneto walls, the city’s military character is still visible in the ruins found throughout its expansion beyond the circle of walls. We enter the city through the best conserved of its Roman gates, Porta del Borsarai, built between 41 and 54 A.D during the reign of emperor Claudius.

Parking is difficult in the narrow streets around the Arena, so we park our rental car on a side street and walk toward Europe’s only working structure of its age, hoping to get tickets for an opera performance that evening. Built outside the original city walls, the amphitheatre has four concentric rings, the outermost retaining only four archways. Stairways lead up to the second and third spectator levels. Each of three ambulatories has an underground conduit once traveled by gladiators and matadors. Used for administration of capital punishment in the Middle Ages, the Arena featured trial by combat. By the 17th century, the complex returned to more entertaining functions that have grown into a panorama of performing arts. We were delighted by a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto in this open-air Arena.

Bounded by the Arena, the Piazza Bra provides a fabulous view of Verona’s neoclassical town hall. We are forced to transcend centuries as we cross the street into modern commerce. Streets radiating out in all directions from the Piazza are filled with retail shops and outdoor cafes. Brands surround usBall familiar, all global. Colorful and bronzed, charge and credit card banners and product displays urge shoppers to sample Italian fashions and footwear. Benetton, Fendi, Armani, Ferragamo, and Gucci brands blaze in the warm afternoon retail horizon.

The city blocks surrounding the Arena are lined with shiny motorcycles parked under white awnings that say Horseys in black and gold. Colorfully clothed cafT tables run the length of adjacent streets. Black and gold silk dresses adorn headless mannequins beneath Stefanel’s logo. Since my visit a few years prior, the stucco of old buildings has been camouflaged by fashioned marble and patina facades, and cobblestones have been replaced by patterned brickwork. Storefronts are emblazoned with gold and silver designer logos and multiple credit card window stickers. The clacking of high heels punctuates the muffled discourse of purposeful shoppers. No vehicles are allowed here.

Multicolored banners flutter above our heads to announce the festivity of commerce. We enjoy the mellifluous sound of Italian speaking waiters and engaged diners conversing in every language. Continuous commerce energized the afternoon’s activity in what we call "Piazza d’logo." During our meal served outside in view of the Arena, we meet a local writer who invites us to his home about a mile away. Situated near the river along the Via Scarsellini is his neighborhood of four-story living spaces that sit above retail stores. A small grassy park faces our new friend’s home above a florist shop. We recognize a Kodak brand, but most signage is in Italian. In direct contrast to the bustle less than a mile away, this neighborhood naps between one and three every day. Even the newsstand has its magazines locked up tight.

Electronics shops, florists and fruit stands begin to open as we turn a corner past a police station where rows of event posters are plastered unevenly on fences and walls. The same poster appears maybe fifty times in a checkered pattern, like rows of postage stamps with identical visages. We see no cafTs or eateries. Signage is directional or informational, with few products or logos visible in shop windows. Visuals of a pizza, flowers, and telephones are affixed to glass shop doors. After several hours of walking the neighborhood and its park, we cross the river by the Castel Vecchio and return to our hotel.

Rovinj, Croatia

We learn from our Insight Pocket Guide that Rovinj’s historical center owes its survival to the contours of land and sea. Founded on an island, the town was fortified during the Middle Ages. In the 18th century, the narrow channel separating it from the mainland was filled, and urban development extended beyond the walls. As a result, the old town, confined to a small peninsula, is still unspoiled.

We’re told that locals come here to escape the crowds of Dubrovnik and trendy coastal resorts. Vacationers from the former Yugoslavia and UK tourists also on holiday are here this third week in June. We disembark the ferry at Riva Pino and are greeted by colorful umbrellas and news stands with publications from major European cities. At the Viecia Batana cafT, locals sip their morning coffee and read the papers purchased from small stands where orange Marlboro signs pop out from between full magazine racks. A hilltop cathedral towers above the old city, and a three-story clock tower hovers above the pigeon-dotted shoreline. We enter the heart of the old town through a 17th century baroque archway known as Balbijev Luk, and climb the cobbled streets stretching toward the hillside cathedral. Remains of this St. Euphemia cathedral lie within a 6th century sarcophagus on display inside.

As a warm breeze tugs at rows of tired flags, we enjoy a cool drink on the seafront that is dominated by ice-cream parlors and restaurants. Tinted cafT windows sport adhesive ice cream cones. Wrought iron decks of the residences above are rusty with age. The square glass "T" in a blue and white Atlas sign on the building’s edge is broken; two plastic deck chairs cozy up to a solitary table anticipating diners. An orange and yellow Kodak logo hovers above a doorway where several patrons are gathered.

Graffiti marks the stucco walls and cement signage in an unfamiliar language, typical of gang markings I’ve seen in LA and Budapest. "Private rooms" says the sign adjacent to ascending stairs that lead to a bolted doorway. Awnings stripes sit atop a pub and glasses of beer advertise German beverages. Shopkeepers speak Slovenian; signage is limited to servicesBmostly rental cars and banks. Unfamiliar brands in Cyrillic alphabet characters flutter from green awnings above shops and eateries that also advertise "hot dogs" and American burgers. Indicative of a city struggling to retain its traditions yet forced to integrate visitor services for economic solvency, Rovinj has a unique integration of Eastern and Western signage

We stop for lunch at a delightful eatery to drink wine from traditional wooden mugs and share a plate of home-cured ham and goat cheese. After visiting the aquarium, we seek out a local version of desert. A silver, curved neon signBBAR CAF+Badorns the pink stucco building, luring us through its screened door. Renderings of ice cream cones, sodas and sundaes fill panels paralleling the entrance. We point to what looks like chocolate and strawberry flavors and settle around a small bistro table to indulge. Miami Beach, especially Little Havana, comes to mind; art deco flavoring in an unlikely place.

Buildings are orange, yellow and shades of gray. Paper illustrations on large billboards are in fragments, exposing several layers of messages, now unintelligible to viewers. Two small Lada cars wait for invisible drivers outside a building labeled Hertz. An abandoned ladder leans against a broken Kompas sign that sprawls above a curved archway. A faded "Vogue-esque" poster suggests that a hair salon hides behind pleated lace curtains.

After experiencing the main square, we follow a woman shopper through a stone archway to the urban space adjacent the port. A scarf-covered middle-aged female leads us down narrow streets and past winding alleys that disappear into darkness. Two and three-story neglected structures mingle with ragged posters, announcing dates for unknown performers. Here, wooden shutters are closed tight around a small sign saying "hot dog" and an orange awning promising Fast Food, unfranchised. Our nostrils quiver at the smell of burning fat.

Paper cutouts hang inside a shop window next to a mauve church adjacent to Frizerski’s Salon. Red, green, blue and yellow letters list drogherra in four languages on shiny plate glass. Varnish on doors and windows of a tabacci shop peels carelessly beneath loosely hung electrical wires. On the block’s south face, only graffiti attests to human inhabitants. Few signs are visible and we don’t recognize any brands here; the text of neighborhood discourse is sparse. Feeling somewhat intrusive among the unfamiliar surroundings, we wind our way back to the harbor and dine among other hungry travelers until it’s time to board a water taxi to one of many islands that make up the Rovinj archipelago.


Text analysis was completed in two stages. First we inventoried photographs of street visuals and image sets, which yielded five categories of signage: 1) informational/directionalBtraffic messages and subway arrows; 2) namingBstores, streets and generic products (ice cream); 3) announcingBevents and activities; 4) advertisingBcommercial and political brands on outdoor boards, transit, etc.; and 5) miscellaneous signsBposter art and graffiti. By assembling the photographs chronologically, we were able to reconstruct our trip and elicit detailed recall of the tourist experience.

The second phase of our analysis focused on transcribed data we recorded in designated areas of tourist spaces and geographically separate neighborhoods. This analysis was made to explore the ways in which brand signage contributed to our experience of place. Our intention was to understand how the presence or absence of brands in each physical location affected us, and to compare our experiences in each location. As travelers, we used our movements through space and time to digest brands that became baseline element s of urban communication (Adler 1987). Although the cities themselves are brands, and although we acknowledge that all five types of messages contribute to a tourist’s overall impression of a space, our interest here is restricted to advertising and branded street messages. This study supports the notion that tourists’ experiences are individualized by the meanings they bring to the brands they encounter. We understand that brands are interpreted independently by each traveler who encounters them; they are simultaneously universal and individual, a paradox rarely explored in consumer or travel research. We use Sherry’s (1998) notion of brandscapes to frame our findings.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Both Malcolm and I found brand signification to be part of the image sets that gave each place its own meaning. Context dependent, brands sometimes yielded multiple meanings. To Malcolm, Gucci symbolized style in Italy, denoted status in Zurich, and was a sign of decadence in Croatia. For him, this universal brand (Gucci) changed according to his image of the country where it was displayed; when separated from its country of origin, the brand took on new meaning. Malcolm believed that wearing Gucci brand in an economically thriving city was expected; seeing the brand being worn in an economically challenged city was in poor taste. This is just one example of how, for Malcolm, brands simultaneously infused meaning into environments and extracted meaning from them.

For both of us, the very presence of brands clearly signified commerce, the language of exchange. Malcolm found the reality of 'our money for their brand’ comforting. Having not previously visited any European cities, he felt relaxed in the presence of American brands and billboard signage in English. Familiar brand narrative relieved his travel anxiety by providing a visual welcome. He delighted at purchasing tickets for Herman’s Hermits and finding Coca-Cola at every cafT in Zurich. As Baudrillard (1988) suggested, disoriented tourists like Malcolm may secure a comfortable framework from familiar brands.

Only a few days later, Malcolm was disturbed by the ostentatious branding of every building in Verona that seemed to camouflage social status and confound his sense of identity. His characterization was akin to Zukin’s (1992) 'landscapes of power’ where signage visualizes the material and symbolic aspirations of the affluent. At the other end of the spectrum, the absence of familiar brands in tourist areas of Rovinj left Malcolm is a state of amazement, as if he had discovered something sacred and authentic. The Marlboro sign seemed out of place in a space where American brands were unsuitable to his perception of what was authentic Croatian.

The author found that brands often dissolved national character in areas where tourists congregate (Clark 1990). Areas adjacent to the train station in Zurich, around Verona’s Arena, and to a minor extent along the port of entry in Rovinj, featured international brands, language and signage. Tourists were urged to smoke Marlboro and Camels, wear Burberry, Stefanel, Bruno Magli, Gucci, Fendi and Benetton, drive Mercedes, enjoy Sony and Hitachi technology, check the time on a Patek Philippe and charge everything on Visa or MasterCard. Brand signage proliferated on transportation, buildings, shops, banners, kiosks, walls and clothing. Graffiti artists scrawled "I love you" across commercial spaces, constructing a true gallery of street narrative. Dense collages of brand messages welcomed, enticed, teased, surrounded, engulfed, and delighted the author. I read the language of international brands and enjoyed sharing this space with familiar logos, symbols and signs.

In tourist spaces, Malcolm’s experiences were conditioned by the presence of familiar brands, while the author’s were defined by the ecstasy of all branded communication (Baudrillard 1987). As we walked from tourist spaces through adjoining neighborhoods where brands were either absent or alien to us, the nature of our experiences changed.

Local Yocals

In tourist spaces the brand itself may lend familiarity. Conversely, the absence of brands may be alienating for tourists like Malcolm who wander into residential spaces. In an absence of familiar brands, native language words helped him to locate shops by their functionBsuch as tabacchi, bier, lavanderia, drogheria, and vetrebia. An iron dentista plaque told him where to go with a toothache. And although Swiss, Italian and Croatian brands such as Komm, Schade, Duham, Heer, Waat, Blick and Saia were strangers, they signified a familiar presence of consumption and commerce for Malcolm. Neighborhood signs for "bingo," a store boasting "fast food," a pizzeria, and a poster for a flohmarkt were more prevalent than brand signs. Most neighborhood signage contained product prices, event dates, political candidate information or other messages difficult to decipher without language skills. Malcolm felt a bit estranged by unfamiliar brand messages on posters, store windows, outdoor boards and transit stop signs. At times, he was distressed by his lack of language proficiency. And when brands disappeared, such as in the back streets of a Rovinj neighborhood, Malcolm was reluctant to trespass where commerce was absent.

The author’s recollection of areas absent of branded communication was punctuated by territorial graffiti markings. Rather than feeling unwelcome as Malcolm had, I felt somehow liberated from the monotony of global signs. And although local brands had no meaning for me, they contributed an element of uniqueness to neighborhoods and differentiated them from their metropolitan counterparts. The collage of indecipherable branding was, for me, a street gallery of signs and symbols that could be enjoyed in a different way than the familiar signs and symbols that dominate a tourist space. As a stranger in a 'no place space’ (Featherstone 1995), I experienced a welcome anonymity, appreciating an unbranded discourse in which I could embrace the color of sound as choruses of pale green dialog, and the noise of sight as the screaming reds and yellows of fluttering flags.


In order to read and understand brandscapes, consumers incorporate our own verbal and visual impressions into a brand’s commercial referent. A brand may be global, but its signification is context-dependent. Brand meanings for us are derived from their perceived social status and perceptions about their country of origin. Theories from marketing and psychology further explain our tourist experiences.

Definitive characterizations of tourist space emerged from our narratives. We explain Malcolm’s brand experience as a first-time tourist in three ways. First as referential signalsBSony’s name above a local shop helped him identify an electronics store in Rovinj. Second as signs of American intrusionBMarlboro’s presence in Rovinj where most other brands are local. Third as verification of commercial activity where he could expect to encounter buying and selling, such as he found surrounding Zurich’s collection of banks and shops.

In residential areas, the absence of commercial language signified an absence of dialog. We were surprised to find that this absence challenged his identity and kept him alienated from the culture. Without familiar brands, he could not characterize the surroundings; the condition resulted in discomfort and anxiety. In such instances where he transgressed brand-free spaces, Malcolm’s gaze was challenged by the mise-en-scene of the street (Aitiken & Lukinbeal 1996).

Relationship theory (Fournier 1998) explains that Malcom’s reaction to tourist spaces is based upon his personal brand encounters with products and preconceived images of cities. Patek Philippe worn in Zurich was understood as sophistication because it was congruent with his image of the city as brand. A Gucci brand was inappropriate when worn in Rovinj because it signified ostenation and was incongruent with his image of the city as brand; he wouldn=t flaunt a flashy watch to a city in economic transition.

In contrast to Malcolm, the author’s tourist experience is best explained in terms of postmodern theory. Embracing Bruno’s (1993) belief that women have acquired the traditionally male "peripatetic" gaze, I experienced signage as a flaneur. In the spirit of Benjamin (1999) who wandered through the arcades of Paris in the nineteenth century, I took in the street as "interior, as sitting room, as a dialectical reversal, as the last refuge of commodity" (p. 833). My position was one of a leisurely traveler who views brands as a collage of local craft and international artwork. Within this purview, local tourist art morphs into a global brand (Sayre 2000) and global art is once again local. For me, a branded mythology of discourse pervaded the space of tourism. The street was an art gallery, a "crazy quilt of signs" (Kimmelman 1996), and advertising was its narrative. Like Times Square, the ultimate work of public art, commercial signage in tourist space is a work crafted by multiple artists, with none of them knowing what the others were doing.

Advertising is the omnipresent visibility of corporations, trademarks, and social dialogue that invades everything with color and spectacle (Baudrillard 1987). I see the tourist space as a place where all street brands intertwine; forming a single collective that signifies human preoccupation with commerce. This bricolage, for me, is proof of hyperreal communication where all messages are equal. Brands are testimony to the condition of mingled past and present that pervades our postmodern existence.

Albeit our experiences were different, our past relationships with brands simultaneously influenced the way we interpreted the meanings of these brands within a new environment, further validating the theories of brand relationships. Identity theory, in the sense that we are what we embrace, also plays a significant role in explaining our individual readings of brand signage.

And the Beat Goes On

This study has used self-narrative to explore the relationship between brands and users and to understand how that relationship affects one’s experience in a tourist space. We presented the notion that a global brand narrative exists as a commercial language within tourist spaces. We also suggested that a local brand narrative exists as a private conversation among the residents of neighborhoods that are geographically separate from tourist spaces. We propose that once a destination is reached, tourists experience branded communication in four different ways: as extensions of their native language that produce a familiar, recognizable and comforting landscape; as characterizations of place projected by the presence of brands with negative connotations that produce anxiety and discomfort; as an absence of familiar brands that acts as a territorial boundary of estrangement; or as commodified sources of entertainment that produce enjoyment.

As travelers mesmerized by branded signs, we used that textual discourse to construct our social reality of place. In tourist spaces, the authentic sight is replaced by the simulacrum through mediated messages that secure a comfortable framework for disoriented tourists (Baudrillard 1988). The components of place image identified by Jenkle (1990) are recognizable in the author’s and her companion’s dichotomous interactions with street narrative.

The language of brandsBalbeit commercial communicationBfacilitates and grounds reality for visitors such as Malcolm whose relationship to brands has both/either a traditional and/or transitional style. Malcolm depends upon brand familiarity to maintain his identity within foreign territory. Gravitating to places where he could comfortably navigate the commerce of travel, Malcolm’s experience was defined by the presence of brand icons; tourists such as he are comforted by brands and advertising, the milieu of ecognition for consumers of Western media. As perfectly stated by Benjamin (1999), "At a cultural level the ad itself serves to lend familiarity. Relevance is that the form of advertising is familiar, and we recognize the form."

For more experienced tourists such as the author, brandscapes may become a tapestry of designs and messages open to infinite interpretation and meaning. Here, brand messages are stored as acknowledgements of a commercial presence, allowing the seasoned traveler to focus on other aspects of touring. The author’s experience suggests that branded communication may also assume a role of background noise that frees a traveler from the commerce that brands promote.

This subjective narrative of two tourist’s experience is offered as just one method of understanding brand discourse as it relates to the tourist experience. Certainly other investigations are needed to confirm or challenge the notions presented here. To continue the dialog about the role of brands for a tourist’s understanding of a foreign land, we welcome new studies of tourist-brand relationships and tourist narratives that use brand language to construct a social reality of place. The notion that brand narrative may be the true language of global travel points toward a new direction for consumer and communication research.


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Shay Sayre, California State University, USA


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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