Part II: Utilizing Semiotics for Your Brand Strategy & Market Research Needs
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
There are several ways to employ Cultural Insights to help brands gain the right amount of Cultural Intelligence to solve for larger questions. When the right cultural insights methods are utilized, marketers are able to create solutions for today, and also plan for how their category will likely be shaped in the near future.
This is one of a series of posts that dives into the many ways cultural insights can be used for branding needs.
Utilizing Semiotics for your Business
The term “semiotics” has gained a lot of momentum in the US in recent years, however, many marketers aren’t always sure how to use it or what it’s best at achieving. Semiotics can have many wide-reaching applications, but before we discuss how it can be utilized lets first dive into what it is.
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and how they are used. In the brand world, we use semiotics to evaluate what certain signs, shapes, symbols, and concepts signify to consumers and how, ultimately, these things will affect how culturally relevant and top of mind a brand is or will be.
So how does a semiotic approach work and why does it matter what my brand “signals” to consumers?
There are inherent meanings and associations built into our favorite objects and the signs, and symbols we encounter everyday. The meanings we derive from these objects, signs and symbols can vary., and are highly dependent on our backgrounds, life experiences and our culture.
For instance, if you were to encounter a man in a well-fitting business suit, you might assume that he is a professional, a banker, well educated, or even rich. If he were to reach for a handshake you might conclude that he is an American, or a corporate businessman. If his handshake is weak, you might think of him as less powerful, less assertive, and less confident.
All of these assumptions would be made quietly, and subconsciously in the back of your mind as interpretations of signs, symbols and gestures are typically unspoken. In this scenario, in a matter of seconds, you’ve determined how to perceive a man based solely off of his appearance and his gestures. Whether you know it or not, you’ve also enacted your own experiences & background as tools to determine how to perceive him without exchanging a single word.
This is semiotics. More importantly, your interpretations inform how you choose to act and engage with this man. Similarly, in the brand world, as a Semiotician, it is my job to uncover the subconsciously signified meanings that consumers associate with the brands, products and services they encounter because it ultimately determines what they’ll purchase, the brands they choose to associate with and why.
Beyond decoding the signified meaning of an object or brand idea, it is also my job to know which aspects are more forward leaning, which means I have to always be fully aware of trends and larger cultural shifts happening across the world and within each brand category. This gives me the tools I need to be able to suggest future-leaning strategies and innovation ideas for the brands I work with (see here for an example of how I decoded confidence).
In sum, semiotics is a powerful approach marketers can utilize to inspire and inform future-proof, culturally relevant brand strategies. When utilized correctly, it is a tool that can accurately marry your customer’s stated needs with their subconscious, culturally influenced purchasing behaviors. Traditional consumer insights approaches are often used to uncover key, unmet needs of today, but when paired with semiotics, brands are able to more confidently have a grasp in how they need to evolve to remain relevant in the future.
USING SEMIOTICS TO INFORM Brands are always seeking to uncover new ways to stand out in crowded marketplaces. Semioticians can help brands discover new ways to do so by identifying white space opportunities for marketers to consider leaning into as well as areas they should potentially avoid due to marketplace saturation.
Decoding Self Expression An immersive investigation into how meanings of self-expression have evolved overtime in order to better understand how it comes to life in culture and throughout the jewelry and retail categories.
Semiotics can be utilized:
As a competitive analysis tool within a brand’s category/competitive set to analyze & identify key themes that exist within messaging verbiage and visuals
To identify themes to consider utilizing for emergent brand visuals, verbiage, archetype, tonality or overall offering/innovation opportunities
To identify messaging patterns, signals, or signifiers pertaining to a specific idea or central concept to evaluate how it shows up in consumers’ brand world
USING SEMIOTICS TO INSPIRE How brands look and feel, the way they communicate to consumers and the impressions they leave are vital for marketers seeking to connect with consumers today and tomorrow. Therefore, it is key to ensure that messaging and product offering are always fresh & new and not outdated or overlooked. Semiotics is a tool that marketers and creatives can leverage to inspire messaging, packaging and activation tactics that are truly unique, forward leaning and ahead of cultural trends impacting their categories.
Decoding Value Understanding how “value” shows up in the fast food and restaurant landscape in order to determine newer more emergent ways to activate against it.
A semiotic decoder can be used when needing:
Inspiration for new/emergent activation ideas for a brand positioning idea / marketing tactic
Inspiration for new, culturally informed design aesthetics for product innovation concepts
Inspiration and guidance on key cultural nuances to consider when considering global brand positioning marketing ideas