Relatively few people, especially in Asia, have heard of ‘semiotics’, let alone understand what it does or how it is used in marketing. For the few that have come across it, the associations they have rarely extend beyond it being a highly academic and complex methodology.
It’s true that semiotics is rooted in academic discipline. But that doesn't mean commercial semiotics has to be complex and elusive. In fact, the exact opposite is true.
That’s why, when we use semiotics in marketing, we always make it a point to: Firstly, ensure that we speak in an easily comprehensible manner, not using jargon or academic terminology, and secondly, to make the benefits of semiotics clear and tangible. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to provide clear and actionable solutions in addressing brand challenges.
Before jumping into the applications of semiotics, a quick basic introduction.
What is semiotics?
The word ‘semiotics’ is derived from the Greek word ‘sēmeiotikos’, which means ‘interpret as a sign or a symbol’; hence a common definition for semiotics is ‘the study of signs/symbols’. However, this basic definition doesn’t do justice to what semiotics really entails.
In everyday terms, we could think of semiotics as the process by which we find meaning and make sense of the world around us.
We all use our inherent ability to decode symbols subconsciously, to make sense of visual images, language, objects, and spaces around us to help us make decisions—from the clothing and hairstyle that we wear to the car that we drive and the food we choose to eat. We do this every day in a blink of an eye.
In that sense, we are all semioticians. The only difference is that for everyday people, this happens at a subconscious level, whereas the trained semiotician consciously studies and decodes signs in a systematic and rigorous manner in order to extract cultural meanings from them.
When a trained semiotician does this consciously, they are not only able to hypothesize how an everyday person might respond to a particular sign, but why they might be responding in such a way. The everyday person simply reacts to meaning embodied by a sign, but is not able to explain why they might be doing so.
Anyone can identify and respond to signs, but extracting the true meaning of those signs require skill—reason being that the same sign can easily mean different things for different people, depending on how it is used within different cultural contexts. As such, it’s always important for semioticians to have a good grasp of the culture in which we are studying, in order to obtain relevant readings.
Why is understanding the meaning of things in culture so important?
As qualitative researchers, we are all familiar with the idea that when we understand the consumer (their aspirations, needs, motivations), we can provide better product and communications that speak to them. But if we take a step back, we’ll see that the relationship between brand and consumer is only a part of the whole picture that we as marketers should be looking at. Brands and consumers don’t live in a vacuum, they both exist as parts of a much bigger cultural world – a world that is already imbued with a wealth of values and meanings.
Just as the ideological and moral positions we take are to a large extent governed by the shared conventions of the cultural world we live in, so are consumer aesthetics, beliefs, and preferences.
Take the following beliefs for example: Democracy is good, monogamy is normal, guardianship of children falls to the biological parents. These are unquestioned ideas in many developed economies and societies, but are by no means universal. It’s the culture that constructs the ideas, the ideologies, the aesthetics and the meanings. Rather than asking individuals directly why something does or doesn’t speak to them, we find it’s often useful to ask culture first, and then frame what consumers tell us with these broader cultural notions in mind.
As such, understanding how brands work within their cultural world can help the brand manage its meaning (what it says and how it says it) more effectively. Communicating in an effective manner leads to greater coherence and consistency in the brand's identity. In addition, the understanding of the brand’s essence also helps us devise better strategies to drive differentiation within the competitive context.
As Laura Oswald argues in her book Marketing Semiotics, “People consume meanings, not stuff”. As economies in this part of the world emerge and grow, increasingly, consumers are no longer looking toward brands for simple guarantees of quality or status. They desire and are looking for more nuanced meanings that they can identify with on a personal and emotional level. The advantage of semiotics is its ability to allow us to move beyond the limitations of traditional consumer research and what everyday consumers can articulate. By studying a brand and its relation with its context, semiotics can help explain why consumers respond to something the way they do, as a result of their culture.
What does semiotic analysis really entail, and how is it going to help me?
Rather than talking to consumers, semioticians analyse things created by culture. This might include TVCs, packaging, copy or even cinema, fashion or social rituals and practices. In doing so, we can identify the ideas and narratives that define a particular category or space, and what codes are used by culture to communicate those ideas.
There are many different applications for semiotics, which range from identifying white spaces within a category (What's a new way of talking about yogurt in China?) to understanding how brands work within the category (How do health brands work in Thailand? What are the different approaches to talking about health in this market?), in order to build brand strategies that are relevant and differentiating.
Once we have a powerful strategic direction, semiotics can also help to translate from strategy to execution. Given the brand’s purpose and positioning, we can determine how to express this through the brand’s verbal and visual vocabulary and through the stories it tells in its communications.
Semiotics can also aid in understanding big cultural notions and shifts (How has the concept of femininity evolved in Southeast Asia? What is the craft/artisanal movement all about?). By better understanding these phenomena, we can deduce the implications they have for brand activities and communications.
For a tool that can bring so much to the table, semiotics is highly underutilized by marketers in Asia, and there is certainly room to embrace and make use of this more fully to address brand challenges.