Everything you always wanted to know about semiotics (but were afraid to ask)
Originally this piece was published in ESOMAR Research World Connect.
For years, semiotics has had this mysterious aura of a highly complex theoretical method that only very few understand and even fewer are fortunate enough to practice.
Academia vs The Marketing World
Marketing, as an industry, functions on a very contrary mechanism to that of an academia. In academia, by definition, knowledge is sacred and accessible only to those, who are clever enough to understand it. It is the world built on a principle of exclusiveness, where respect and relevance are earned with an increase in age and experience.
Marketing, on the other hand, is a world based on the premise of inclusiveness. Its primary purpose is not to conserve and organise knowledge, but to share information freely with everyone being able to access in order to stimulate consumers’ purchase intentions. Marketing is also an industry largely driven by fresh and interesting ideas narrated in a form of a story. A story as a narrative form is simple enough for everyone to understand and resonate with on an emotional level. Where ideas are being debated in academia, things are felt and experienced in marketing. And where academia is often process-oriented, marketing is strictly results-driven.
This is why when promoting semiotics in marketing, we need to speak the same language as our audience: marketers. We should think about semiotics less as a method and more as a marketing instrument. We need to speak more about the tangible benefits that semiotics can deliver to brands (e.g. strengthening brand coherence, ensuring its cultural relevance and increasing effectiveness of communication) and its advantages compared to traditional research techniques demonstrated on real brands and their needs.
But there is a tricky part to this — the confidentiality. As semiotic insight often becomes incremental to brand’s DNA, clients worry that revealing too much information might cost them losing their competitive edge. It is precisely because semiotic insight is so in-depth and often delivers breakthrough learnings that brands are very cautious about sharing further details about it publicly. As a result, the brilliance of this method is, in fact, also its biggest liability. And from here on, you get the idea why not much about semiotics may have flown under your radar.
30 semioticians, 15 countries, 1 year.
This is why I have decided to start off a global evangelisation project called the Semiotic Series in cooperation with ESOMAR’s Research World magazine and 30 world-leading semioticians present in over 15 countries worldwide such as Argentina, USA, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, China or Australia.
The idea is to show that semiotics is a fully established and globally accessible analytical instrument that marketers can use in their work in addition to the market research activities they are already conducting. All that we need to reshape the face of the market research industry, we already have in our hands. We just need to know where to look for it and when & how to use it for our clients’ best benefit.
But before we jump right into the application of this method, let me give you some basic theoretical framework to put semiotics into marketing context.
What is semiotics.
The name ‘semiotics’ comes from the Greek, ‘semei-’, meaning a sign. Semiotics can be naturally defined as ‘the science of signs’. However, as broad as it sounds, this doesn’t do semiotics justice. Since creation and production of meaning in culture via communication is something so inherently human, the ultimate science of signs is also inherently human. This means that it can quite easily mean various things to various people depending on how they use it.
For the general public, semiotics is the unconscious cultural technique we all use to distill, create and find meaning in the world around us, and as such make our existence in this world a meaningful one. We all use semiotic systems unconsciously to code our speech (native language) to express ourselves, dress and accessorise (construct our own identity via the system of clothing) based on how we feel on that particular day, or make choices of what we’re going to eat (matching the offerings of the restaurant’s menu with the symptomatic function of our tastes and assigning them meaning). We do all of this every day in a blink of an eye, and yet we don’t think of ourselves as semioticians. But we all are in a sense, just not consciously.
For trained semioticians, semiotics is the study of how meaning is produced in culture and society. Semioticians can read codes and signs consciously unlike their “mere mortal” counterparts. They are able to do it because they are equipped with techniques of cultural translation. This means that they have developed an in-depth understanding of cultural associations in between codes and signs and their meanings. Some codes can have different meanings in different cultures, this is why it’s always important for semioticians to be locally encultured to secure the semiotic relevance.
For marketers and researchers, semiotics represents the missing half of the brand-consumer equation. As consumers’ identities are to a large extent formed by culture, consumers cannot always tell us what they prefer and why simply because they are not consciously aware of it. That is why we shouldn’t ask them directly but rather ask the culture first, see what it thinks and then frame what respondents told us with the notion of these high-level learnings in mind. Consumer insight is simply just a half of the puzzle. Without its cultural counterpart, we can spend a whole lifetime trying to figure out why we were only able to build half of the castle pictured on the box. We just don’t have all the puzzles available to build it whole. That’s why consumer insights are often so fragile, they lack the cultural basis that makes them stick and consumers tick.
How semiotics works when applied.
No brand is an island, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, although marketers often manage their brands as if they were islands unrelated to the physical and cultural environments of their users. Every brand lives in a broader context: it is surrounded by other brands in the same or similar category, other categories on the market, communication discourse and local forms of expressions, and in a larger sense also by the global marketing discourse, its globalised forms of expression and values the global culture promotes. This is why to truly understand the meanings of your brand and its consumer perception, we need to study your brand in context.
In the world of applied semiotics, we talk about three independent contexts, which form the natural surroundings of your brand. Not all of them need to be studied at the same time (although it’s advised to give your brand a certain complexity of perception), we can choose only those contexts, in which your needs are most pressing.
First, there is the brand context. It’s the closest context to your brand, but still, it’s broader than focusing solely on your brand, which is how the majority of brands are still managed today. We do not look directly at your brand, but rather around it (and behind it). By putting your brand in its immediate context of communication, consumer perception and creative visuals, we can track the codes of your brand in time and look for hidden connections that would otherwise remain untackled. The brand context overview ensures strategic coherence of your brand. It means that the brand will be portraying accurate codes in an accurate way that is relevant to the brand essence. When the brand meaning is coherent, future activities planned around your brand will much more consistent, and thus more effective. The inner meaning will function as a shield to protect your brand from a possible fragmentation of perception in the future.
Secondly, there is the category context. This is the layer encompassing not only your brand and its communication and marketing activities, but also communication and marketing activities of your competitors. Together, your brand and brands of your competitors create a system of expressions, values and dominant messages that define the look and feel of your market category and/or your industry. Having your category context explored helps you better imagine the context, in which your customers absorb information about your brand in their natural environment. Monitoring dominant, emergent and residual codes also allows us to detect whether the category is stagnating, or attracting new consumer interest. Category context of your brand helps you ensure its long-term competitive distinctiveness within a particular market category.
The third, cultural context explores and strengthens the cultural relevance of your brand via its cues to popular culture, lifestyle trends, or cultural specifics of any local market given. This practice helps you adapt global content to local mindset. But also, vice versa finds universal principles for global expansion for strong local brands. Thanks to its connection to emerging trends, through monitoring of cultural context you can also gather inspiration and plan your brand sustainably to create its consistency and continuum in time. In this sense, semioticians are kind of cultural surgeons or cultural architects. They dissect the right codes and heal the brand, where necessary, to rebuild its inner meaning to better fit the cultural specifics of the markets you’re active in.
Why we should use semiotics in marketing.
The truth is that the world of marketing is undergoing some rapid changes today. Thanks to the major shifts in both style of communication and distribution of technology on a global scale, we are experiencing a significant transformation in the nature of people’s consumption.
Consumer drivers are changing. People no longer consume brands purely for projection of their aspiration or escapism as they were in the past. Latest studies show a significant increase in people’s desire to consume goods in order to creatively mix and enhance their personal identities. Laura Oswald sums it up in her book Marketing Semiotics when saying “people consume meanings, not stuff.”
In this sense, the primary task of brands today is to offer their customers meanings rooted in the world they live in and that they can identify with on a personal, emotional and cultural level. This opens up a whole new window to brands being managed on a basis of their meaning, and of course, to Semiotics.
The undoubtful advantage of semiotics is its ability to dig deeper under the surface and go beyond the limitations of the traditional consumer research. Thanks to exploring the context, semiotics helps us explain why consumers think what they think or why they do what they do. There is no other research method available today, which can do the same. Semiotics is in this sense absolutely unique.
And if there is a method that can do something like this, we’d be foolish to not fully embrace it. Or at least read about what makes it so valuable for the start.
You can read all published articles in the RWC Semiotic Series.
PhDr. Martina Olbertova is Founder & CEO of Meaning.Global, a new breed of a global strategic brand consultancy powered entirely by meaning. She is a global brand strategist and corporate meaning advisor with ambition to redefine the role of meaning in the marketing industry. With 10+ years of experience in the industry, she’s worked on diverse briefs for global blue chip clients such as Kantar 2016 rebrand, Unilever, Vodafone, IBM, KBC, Lloyds Bank, Visa, Heineken or Pernod Ricard. Passionate about humanity in business, brand transformation, semiotics, anthropology, behavioural science and all things culture. Based in Europe (London/Prague) & available for strategic consulting projects and speaking engagements worldwide.