Semiotics is a broad term that pertains to communication and meaning in a social-cultural context. With roots in anthropology, semiotics addresses the way in which people give meaning to the signs, symbols and messages in their environment.
A sign is anything that conveys meaning. From a structural linguistic viewpoint, one tradition of semiotic expression developed by Ferdinand de Saussure describes a sign as being composed of both a signifier and the signified:
In our consumer culture, visual, audio and verbal messages convey meaning through shapes, sounds and inferential symbolism. Brands, logos, packaging designs, tag lines, etc. are all symbolic in the way they convey meaning.
Brand designs signify not only the product and product attributes, they also signify a value that is above and beyond product attributes; it is that something else – the brand equity – that is created by way of symbolic meaning where meaning emerges from a personal, social and cultural context.
Semiotics in Marketing
For the consumer, signs refer to products or product attributes and at some level there is also the promise of need fulfillment. Brands, logos and advertising in general symbolically represent many states of being such as status, strength, sexiness, intelligence, femininity and masculinity. Successful brands have messaging, advertising, logos, shapes, etc. that consistently communicate and signify a meaning to consumers.
A brand’s symbolism may relate to consumer needs to display status or virility.
Here the Red Bull symbolism brings to mind concepts of aggression, strength, passion, fire, and bull-like energy. The bulls are masculine and the two bulls about to collide head first (fighting for a mate) is indicative of the strength and energy of the Red Bull drink.
Those deeper symbolic needs could be also be relational such as the need to feel a sense of belonging. The birds in this Nestle image represent a “family” that is “safe” in the nest.
Semiotics in Marketing Research
In marketing research semiotics is more of an approach that emphasizes the personal, social and cultural context of brands. The value of semiotics lies in the deeper interpretation of findings, especially with qualitative and ethnographic research. Often research respondents are asked to talk about their experiences, evaluate products or services and describe their decisions to purchase or not purchase products. When consumers reach their limit of knowing “why” they prefer a product or service, semiotics can deepen understanding of consumer behavior by focusing on cultural context – for example, lifestyles, mindsets, ideologies and trends.
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.
The application of semiotics in marketing and marketing research is relatively new and exact methods for applying semiotics to marketing research are debatable depending upon the philosophical traditions one recognizes. However, semiotics clearly 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.
Kirsty Nunez is the President and Chief Research Strategist at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans. She can be reached at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or [email protected].
If you would like to learn more about game changing advances in the field of marketing research, please join San Diego AMA on Wednesday May 20, 2015 11:30 AM to 1 PM as Kirsty Nunez, President of Q2 Insights reviews what state-of-the-art marketing research means for you and your brand.