How to use semiotics

The Esomar publication RWConnect has been a running a series of articles on semiotics (the RWC Semiotic Serieswritten by some of the world’s leading commercial semioticians. They have described the work they have been doing and its relevance to marketers. It certainly shows that semiotics is alive and well across Europe, in the UK and USA.

As we are now almost half-way through the series, it seems the right time to run through the main points that have emerged so far.* The series demonstrates that marketers and marketing researchers will get most benefit from semiotics when they use it

•    For Problem Child brands
•    To give brands cultural relevance.

Problem child brands

Let me introduce marketing’s problem children: the stale brand and the brand with a personality crisis …

Stale brands

You know when your brand has gone stale

Marketers know when their brand has gone stale. Quant salience scores, and perceived modernity and relevance scores are falling away. In qual, all consumers do is complain about how old-fashioned your brand is. Consumers will be happy to tell you what is wrong with the brand, but it can be the devil’s own job for the moderator trying to get consumers see beyond the staleness to what ‘could be’.

It’s the culture that has changed

One of the reasons that consumers struggle with what ‘could be’ is that it isn’t the brand that has changed, but the culture around it.  As this quote from Panos Dimitroploulos says: “the relationship between brands and consumers is constantly being renegotiated to fit new conditions. These are related to changing socio-economic and political parameters …”

The inevitability of change is one of the key principles of commercial semiotics. Unlike consumers who only see the world they live in and their immediate past, semiotic analysis is based on the premise that marketers can learn both from history and from other categories and cultures.

A Christmas example

Lynne Freeman from UTS and I have studied how Christmas is changing in Australia and the UK using qual combined with semiotic analysis. As we say: “traditional food is important but what ‘tradition’ means has changed. Traditions are no longer passed down the generations. Instead, they are learned from celebrity chefs, the modern day oracles.” However, some things don’t change: the message to women from the media that we studied was clear: “if you don’t put in the effort, you won’t be rewarded with family togetherness.”

And one from Calvin Klein

Greg Rowland in his RWConnect piece described semiotics as “an ideas factory”. His case study is on how semiotics helped launch a new Calvin Klein fragrance. Calvin Klein was, according to Greg “limping towards exhaustion” because the brand had forgotten what it stood for. Greg’s firm conducted a detailed semiotic audit of successful and unsuccessful product launches ultimately recommending that the brand use the Modernist codes that were part of its heritage.


When your brand has a personality crisis

Youth culture is hard to pin down

Joshua Glenn shared a case study of a personality crisis brand which had lurched from one expression of ‘youth’ culture’ to another every new campaign launch. Something as intangible and esoteric as ‘youth culture’ can be difficult to pin down if you have no framework to use, so executions can veer from one side of the culture to the other. Accordingly, the semiotic audit revealed that the brand was no longer conveying a consistent brand experience.

Why semioticians excel at this

Semiotic audits like this track the history of the brand, analysing the codes of past and current above and below the line marketing. This is not the kind of task anyone would give a consumer - it would most likely to be conducted by the brand team or the ad agency. The reasons why semioticians excel at this kind of work though are two-fold:

First, semioticians have unique skills. Semioticians know how to analyse visual and verbal texts. We have the language and the conceptual frameworks for it; we understand how symbolism works, we understand codes, and we understand context. Many semioticians bring expertise from studies in art history, language and anthropology to their interpretation of a brand’s communications.

Second, like all researchers, semioticians have the objectivity to bring fresh and independent thinking to the brand.

Enhance your brand's cultural relevance

Cultural cred

Street cred, nerd cred, any kind of cred

All brands need some kind of cred. It could be street cred, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be ‘nerd’ cred, ‘mum’ cred. What I mean is: does your brand have an authentic voice for the target market of tomorrow?

What ‘premium’ and ‘simplicity’ mean

Consumers in qualitative research can tell us if the brand has cred and authenticity now, but they lack the conceptual parameters to advise brand mangers on how to maintain that voice for the future.  For example, Chris Arning, described in his RWConnect work he has done on the meaning of ‘premium’ for chocolate, and the meaning of ‘simplicity’. Think about it: how does a brand visualise and verbalise contemporary notions of simplicity?  Marian St Laurent put it beautifully: semiotics helps clients “leverage change before everybody finds out about it.”

A pharma example

One of semiotics’ key strengths is that it has a tried and trusted methodology for analysing cultural change. There are lots of semiotic methodologies. The one used often comes down to the personal preference of the semiotic analyst. For example, Krzysztof Polak shared a case study using the semiotic square to help create a culturally-relevant product portfolio for a pharma brand in Poland. In Poland as elsewhere, OTC pharma brands tend to be organised in product form terms. There are lozenges, syrups, tablets, ointments and so on and so. Krzysztof’s client wanted to break away from all that, so Krzysztof’s company conducted a semiotic audit of illness and wellness in Poland, analysing among other things compendia about health, medical advice in magazines, websites on healthy living, popular texts and blogs.  I loved Krzysztof’s point that “there is no straight road from illness to health in today’s culture”.

The semiotic square

The semiotic square is one of the advanced tools in the semiotician's tool kits - other tools include narrative analysis, metaphor analysis and archetypes. I think of it as a hybrid of a basic semantic differential - eg a scale running form 'masculine' to 'feminine'  - with a perceptual map.  Rather than analysing something on one simple bipolar dimension 'masculine' to 'feminine', the semiotic square takes into account 'not masculine' and 'not feminine' as well. The end-result is a grid (that's why it's like a perceptual map). It's great great great for understanding complex values like 'natural' and 'healthy'.

Giving brands cultural relevance

Brand as symbol

More than emotional

In qualitative and quantitative research, it is common to talk about how consumers use products and brands to fulfil emotional needs. That’s OK but the word ‘emotional’ can cover a multitude of very different emotions all elicited in different ways. As Laura Oswald says in her in book Marketing Semiotics, semiotics’ is a field of investigation that is based on the proposition that goods often transcend their functional purposes and have symbolic value for consumers.’  She also points out that “brands become symbols for cultural ideas and myths”. 

The immortality myth

These cultural ideas are in many cases ancient ideas which contemporary society has found – or needs to find - a new way to express. For example, Chris Arning refers to his work on myths of immortality for his work on a beauty serum.

So how is it done?

The RW Connect series was the brainchild of Martina Olbertova. For instructions on how semiotics is actually done, we should go no further than her own article which describes how semioticians study brands - in context, because “no brand is an island”

Analysing in detail how your brand currently communicates and has communicated historically in all its manifestations.

Studying the category context – the communication and marketing activities of your competitors. As she says “together, your brands and its competitors create a system of expression, codes and dominant message that define the look and feel of your market category and/or your industry.”

Understanding the cultural context “explores and strengthens the cultural relevance of your brands via its cues to popular culture, lifestyle trends or cultural specifics of the local market.”

Oliver Perrin describes a similar process, making the point that while the process is important it is also the “rich set of tools” that semioticians for this analysis. Semioticians reveal the visual and verbal codes, symbols, narratives and metaphors in these communications

 Semiotics in Australia

Susan Bell Research has unique skills to help you in the Australian market. We are AMSRS researchers with extensive practical and strategic understanding of research, marketing and social marketing and we also have deep semiotic knowledge and experience as a thought leader in commercial semiotics, and can connect easily to semiotics partners around the world.

Give us a call…

If you are client-side, we we’d love the chance to have an obligation-free chat about semiotics with you.

Look out too for more articles in  the RWC Semiotic Series!

* This summary covers 8 of the 12  articles published at the time of writing. All 12 are really interesting, and I expect to refer to the 4 that I have not covered here in a later piece.



Tags: Semiotics