Why do we call our semiotics technique en-symbol?

We call our approach to cultural insight en-symbol to capture two crucial ideas.

1. ‘En’ stands for ‘ensemble’ 

We use an ensemble of techniques, specifically semiotic analysis combined with discussion-based qualitative and /or ethnography. We do this because we understand that people's perceptions and attitudes have been shaped by their culture in ways they will not be aware of, so we need some form of implicit culture-based research technique to reveal them. We also know that qualitative research gives marketers and product developers the depth of understanding about how products and services fit into people’s lives that semiotic analysis doesn’t provide. In sum, we don’t fight silly ‘semiotics’ versus ‘qualitative research’ turf wars; we use both together.  

 2. ‘Symbol’ stands for ‘symbolise’

The ‘symbol’ part of the name helps us work out how to design the packaging and communications.  When a product or brand is used partly or wholly to communicate something about a person, then the product is a symbol.  Some of the behaviours we look for are:

  • Is this product used in a ritual, like tea?
  • Do people make an overt display of this product, essentially using it as a membership badge for an aspirational social group?
  • Does using or being seen with this product enhance self-image?

These insights may come from cultural analysis about stories and myths, while some comes from observation, some from projective techniques and some simply from talking to people.

An example – designing a ‘natural’ product

This example is drawn from our work with sensory semiotics. If a manufacturer wanted to market a new product such as biscuit or a juice as ‘natural’, say, the first step we recommend is for the client’s R&D team to create product prototypes to represent different manifestations and levels of ‘natural’ as the R&D team understand it.  Focus group participants can then rank order these prototypes on how natural they seem.  Sometimes, R&D succeeds in creating the perfect prototype straight away. More likely though is that participants will say ‘something is missing’, and that none of the prototypes is ‘natural enough’.  The problem is it is hard for them to describe what they mean, so difficult if not impossible for R&D to know which direction to go in.  

This is where semiotics comes in, as we will have first conducted a cultural analysis to reveal different multi-sensory standards and codes of natural from the culture at large.  From this we develop  galleries of ‘natural’ sounds, textures and images to present to the focus group participants to help them articulate what they mean in a language that R&D can use.

From a symbolic perspective, we talk to participants about how these natural products fit into the way people live their lives in a practical, emotional and a symbolic sense - how do people use ‘natural’ products to express their self-image for example?

Please check out or en_symbol page for more.