Applying Semiotics to Marketing and Brand Research
Culture plays a significant role in consumer thinking. Very often, consumers don’t just purchase products, what they pay for are success, status, or a lifestyle that they associate with the product. This is driven by their subconscious perceptions and emotions related to the brand or product.
Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, helps to explain those subconscious elements at work and is integrated more and more into brand communications and market research as time goes by. Semiotics helps brands to subtly communicate with customers. In this blog, we’re going to explore the basic concept of semiotics, its relevance to brands and consumers, and best ways to apply semiotics to marketing and brand research.
What is Semiotics?
Semiotic is the research and study of symbols and signs, which has far-reaching application in our culture, social norms, consumer insights, and brand analysis. It is an investigation into how meaning is created and communicated.
In a broad term, everyone is a semiotician, because we are all constantly unconsciously interpreting the meaning of signs in daily life — from design of crisps packaging to colour of beer bottle, the shapes of pastries, the architecture of buildings. The study of semiotics explores how people act based on the signals given from the situation they’re in, and this has a lot of application to marketing and brand research.
Important Concepts in Semiotics
The signifier: Any material thing that signifies. For example, words on a page, a facial expression, an image. In consumer culture, visual, audio and verbal messages all reveal certain meaning through shapes, sounds and inferential symbolism. Brands, logos, packaging designs, tag lines are all symbolic in the way they convey meaning.
The signified: The concept that a signifier refers to. Brand designs signify not only the product and product attributes, they also signify a value — the brand equity — that is created by way of symbolic meaning where meaning emerges from a personal, social and cultural context.
Sign: A sign is anything that conveys meaning. A sign is a recognizable combination of a signifier with a particular signified. The following image explains the relations between the three.
Connotation: Connotation is the secondary, cultural meanings of signs; or “signifying signs,” signs that are used as signifiers for a secondary meaning, for example, the word “rose” signifies romance.
Codes: Collections of related connotations can be bound together by many ways, one of the most common methods is through codes. Codes are a set of shared understandings among users about the relationship between signifiers and the signified. It functions as a general map of meaning, belief systems about oneself and others, which implies views and attitudes about how the world is and/or ought to be. Codes are where semiotics, social structure and values connect. The cultural code defines how sets of images connect to our stereotypes.
Semiotics in Action
Take the 2019 advert from Dolce & Gabbana as an example. It taps into a classic “luxury” code-baroque architecture in the background, evening dress with fur coat, golden jewelleries, etc. The campaigns are shot in the fashion capital Milan’s glamorous downtown, in turn celebrates beautiful Italian craftsmanship — from brocade to men’s tailoring to sequins to leopard print.
Whereas the codes are different in their recent campaign. They’re about inclusivity. Dolce & Gabbana’s Love is Love campaign aims to shows its support to #TheTrevorProject, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ people.
Clothes are more relaxed and expressive, suggesting a desire to express individualism, freedom and passion. Although luxury is still a hint, it’s not the main theme.
These two ads demonstrate the evolution and flexibility of codes through time. There are three types of codes prevalent in both semiotics, that help insight teams track the changes in cultures and apply that to how individuals and brands communicate with those cultures.
Semiotics in Market Research
Semiotics is used in market research to help the researcher understand how and why individuals use their current environment to make decisions. It is most useful when trying to understand the reasonings behind certain actions and decisions. Using semiotics, brands can tailor their products better to what the consumer is looking for, both consciously and unconsciously. It offers a deeper layer of interpretation and analysis to qualitative and ethnographic research. As researchers interview and observe study participants within the rich world of consumer symbolism, an eye toward semiotics may increase our understanding of how brand value has deep meaning for consumers.
Semiotics can be particularly helpful with brand development, brand positioning and ongoing brand management. Viewing brands in a social-cultural context also helps with consistent communication choices and strategic planning. Furthermore, taking the approach of semiotics may help to identify problems and provide solutions for brand re-positioning.
When to Apply Semiotics
In qualitative research, semiotics solves a variety of practical problems and adds depth to the analysis of qualitative data. For example:
- Client has an ambition to express complex human emotions through its FMCG packaging. It seems like a tall order and they don’t know where to start making recommendations.
- After collecting ads in a specific business category, researchers want to explain how ads are different in a way that goes beyond surface description.
- Brands want original insights on a well-worn topic to develop a new, engaging campaign.
- There are a lot of transcripts generated from qualitative research and researchers want to get past reportage and uncover the psychological and social dynamics in consumer talk.
Semiotics is not just a solution to problems that arise from conventional market research but a complete research method in its own right, and is most famous for its unique ability to decode visual images. While its focus on consumer culture overlaps with related methods such as discourse analysis and ethnography, semiotics is the only research method to have emerged that provides a systematic, reliable and culturally sensitive method for saying what visual images mean, not just at the level of individual semiotic signs but also at the level of complex visual messages that involve multiple signs working together. This results in better ads, websites, social media content, retail store design and merchandising.
Semiotics collect samples of data from consumer culture and uses these to infer social and cultural structures such as cohorts (e.g. millennials, gen Z), systems of social class, political systems including identify politics and special interest groups. This helps brand owners and marketers to design brands and communications that speak to specific audiences.
A semiotic analysis usually starts with collecting signs from a category (e.g. brand logos, advertising and other communications of fast food, alcohol, banking etc.), culture (e.g. photos, digital, print and other media of different geographic regions can provide rich data to identify patterns), or art, literature, movies.
Next, semioticians need to sort the signs into icons, symbols and index and then categorises them into several themes. For example, nature and the environment, money and finance, feminism, etc.
We can then use following methods to analyse the themes:
- Denotation — e.g. dictionary and literal meaning of the theme
- Connotation — e.g. overlaying potential individual meaning and/or utilising qualitative or quantitative research to understand cultural, generational, target audience and other meanings
- Myth — e.g. religion, astrology, Chinese zodiac, mythology, cultural trends and society rules, laws and morals
Narrowing the themes to the key differentiators allows a clear impression of the category or culture to be built, and mapping allows the key themes to be better interpreted by defining axis to visually present the category or culture. For example:
- Traditional > Emerging
- Exclusive > Inclusive
- Social > Personal
- Affirming > Inventing
Mapping signs on the X and Y axis can provide valuable understanding of the category or culture. Creating distinctive maps for different geographic regions, generations and cultures can be valuable to compare and contrast and to identify opportunities to innovate.
Through the analysis, researchers can highlight the evolving categories and culture. Mapping changes in conversation around sustainability (e.g., vegan restaurant, organic food, electric car); fashion (e.g., sustainable fashion, minimalism, antique style); the influence of globalisation (e.g., loss of cultural identity, cultural influence of immigration and food); and evolving branding (e.g., brand identity, disruption, colour and evolving media) is valuable in understanding our evolution. This can provide fruitful illumination for innovation, particularly when triangulated with other quantitative and qualitative research of our evolving communities.
Future Application of Semiotics in Marketing Research
Consumers make emotional decisions. Those emotions are usually guided by subconscious interpretations of words and images. Semiotics helps decode those subconscious messages to understand consumers and inform the brands development. Although the application of semiotics in market research is still quite new compared to other methods, it adds a deeper layer of analysis and interpretation to qualitative research and has great potential to be adopted more.
Nowadays changes in consumer behaviour, culture, lifestyles, mindsets, ideologies are happening faster than ever before. There is also a significant increase in people’s desire to consume goods in order to create, creatively mix and enhance their personal identities. Applying semiotics to future marketing research will help to have deeper understanding of these changing consumer needs and market trends, which will bring great added value to the brands development.
What’s more, semiotics can also help with the prediction of future consumer behaviour and trends, which helps brands shift from being followers to leaders: from responding to culture, to creating it. Some of the most exciting innovations in recent years have used semiotic analysis. Specifically, semiotics helps to create innovations that naturally fit into society, uncover ideas and insights that do not necessarily arise from traditional market research, and create new trends or culture pattern. Not all semiotics are costly or time consuming, sometimes even a few hours of semiotic consideration can inspire and push the boundaries of thinking, helping brands to think laterally and strategically. Semiotic should be applied more for both researchers and brands to predict future consumer behaviour and trends. Brands that take semiotic thinking can stay one step ahead of the competition.
This blog was originally published on the FlexMR Insight Blog, and can be accessed here.