Elephant Symbolism in Asian Consumer Psyche and Marketing Potential

Elephants have been on the planet for over 50 million years, and have one of the largest, most complex brain of any land mammal. It is three times larger with more neurons than a human brain (though only a third are present in the cerebral cortex compared with humans). Not surprisingly, they are some of the most intelligent, social, and empathic animals. They display forethought, teamwork and problem-solving just like us. They also live long and cherish familial bonding — especially elephant mothers and daughters (being matriarchal as per Scientific American). They can distinguish our gender, age, and ethnicity based on a person’s voice. Like us, they mourn their dead by interacting with the bones of the deceased, and engage in a period of deep thought and reflection. Though they thrive in packs, studies have shown elephants do have a sense of self, and individualism (University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K.).

Perhaps ancient Asian civilizations knew these facts much prior to modern researchers, evidenced by their prominence in Asian cultures, religion, mythology, iconography, relics, paintings and scriptures. Chinese character for ‘luck’ has the same pronunciation as that for ‘elephant’. In Korea, elephants symbolize wisdom, and considered to bring prosperity. In Vietnam, elephants historically graced royal courts, just as royal families did in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. Laos calls itself the Land of a Million Elephants, and the elephant symbol is on their flag. The elephant (Chang) is the national symbol of Thailand, where ancient kings used to ride on white elephants to war.

Buddhism regards the elephant to embody the Buddha himself, since Buddha’s mother, on the eve of his birth, dreamt of a white elephant that presented her a white lotus from its trunk. Hinduism reveres Lord Ganesha (that has an elephant head) before starting anything auspicious. Religious rituals and ceremonies commonly involve washing and anointing elephants with special oils and colors to be blessed with luck and good will. Hindu theology associates elephants with rain and water, and are often a vehicle of gods. Hindu Cosmology purports earth being supported (and guarded) by mythical world elephants, and Sanskrit literature attributes earthquakes to the shaking of their bodies.

Elephants are even embedded in Eastern astrology and ‘elephant dreams’ have specific meanings! Quite obviously, gestures of elephant do too. For instance, trunk pointed downwards means overcoming obstacles by staying grounded. Upward pointed trunk stands for energy, prosperity and delight (that’s how elephants greet friends). Many Asian communities keep a lucky elephant at home entrance to invite the good. Evidently, the elephant has shaped the Asian world (and psyche) by its symbolism, since often what is revered is emulated. Asian cultures somewhat mirror traits of the elephant, in being gentle, having a quiet confidence and power about them, yet preferring to keep a low profile. They also listen (symbolized by large elephant ears) more than they speak, and perhaps the predominantly vegetarian South Asian diet reflects the herbivores elephant.

From a marketing perspective, visual properties of stimuli are known to influence visual attention, and attention influences brand choice. Thus, cultural encoding of an elephant icon on a brand can potentially influence decision process, consumption behavior and brand preferences. Brands with elephant icons could be a neural predictor of winning consumer trust at a subliminal level. Interestingly, South Asian Insights logo of an elephant was not born out of rational brainstorming. It came about rather instinctually, yet gradually but surely manifesting the embedded symbolism of a raised elephant trunk.