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Semiotics in market research, what is it? And how it can help?

Published 21 Mar 2022 5 minute read

Market Research

Insights professionals are all becoming increasingly adept at using a range of methods and techniques to understand consumers. Semiotics is another tool in the insights toolbox that can help you to become more customer-centric and gain a better understanding of your target audience.

What is semiotics?

When you see a red traffic light, you know that it means stop. Similarly, most people around the world recognise that if you see golden arches, you can get a burger, or that a person wearing a cross around their neck is likely to have a Christian faith.

The light, the logo and the cross all convey a meaning that is widely understood at first sight. Semiotics is a broad term for the study of how such signs and signals relate to concepts and convey meaning without any explanation needed. In many cases, the meaning goes beyond the concept and includes a wide range of associations that people have with the signifier.

For example, the colour red can mean much more than just stop. Depending on the culture or the country it can signify danger, love, warmth, fire, luck, fertility or prosperity. Brides in China traditionally wear red, whereas brides in many Western countries wear white to symbolise purity.

Semiotic analysis isn't limited to visual signs, colours and shapes. Words, sounds and even concepts can hold many levels of deep meaning that semiotics can help us unpick. These meanings don't always need to be grounded in reality, but they are embedded in consumer culture and consumer thinking.

For example, the concept of organic food has acquired associations with sustainability, nutrition and purity despite the fact that there is limited evidence to back up these claims. But using organic ingredients can help food manufacturers to convey these other layers of meaning to consumers.

Semiotics helps us to understand the signs and signals that are part of culture and the meanings that consumers place on them, the subconscious interpretations and inferential symbolism. As such, semiotic analysis helps us to understand the impact of our marketing efforts - branding, positioning, communications - on consumers.

Benefits of semiotics in marketing

There are so many uses of semiotics in marketing but some of the most obvious uses relate to brand identity, brand development, ongoing brand management and marketing communications.

For example, semioticians are often brought in to help determine a brand logo or a brand name for a new product. The brand team need to understand what associations people might have with a proposed name or image and whether than will reflect the desired brand positioning. Branding research and innovation research all benefit from including semiotics in the design and analysis phases.

There are numerous stories of visual identity fails that could perhaps have been avoided using semiotics, such as the logo for the London Olympics in 2012, which was compared (amongst other things) to a swastika.

Semiotics is also important in creating packaging designs that help to quickly identify what is inside and to make the product appealing so that shoppers are more likely to take it off the shelf. Cultural context is essential here as what works in some markets is less effective in others.

In some cultures, the colour black is used to signify luxury - so black packaging would be appropriate for high-end consumer products. However, in other cultures, it is seen as unlucky. Semiotics in marketing can help us to pick apart these subtleties and make appropriate choices that work across markets.

Creative communications often rely on metaphors and associations to tell a great story; advertising is more appealing when it plays on cultural trends and consumer symbolism, rather than just saying to consumers "buy this product." For example, fragrance and beauty ads often use cryptic storylines and dramatic images; these types of ads have become part of the socio-cultural context.

As such, creative development in advertising relies on an understanding of semiotics and often uses semiotics market research to guide the creative development process.

Semiotics in early-stage innovation and product development helps to identify market trends and the role that brands play in creating cultural meanings. It can also be used to understand how a brand's competitors are positioned in the current environment.


Applying semiotics in market research

Whilst semiotics is a discipline in its own right, it can also be applied as a tool within the practice of market research. In particular, semiotics goes hand in hand with qualitative and ethnographic research.

Ethnographic research in particular offers the opportunity to observe study participants and dig deep into the cultural code, belief systems and symbolic meaning that inform their actions.

If you are going to include semiotics in research, you need to consider both the research design and the analysis process.

Semiotics in research design

If you want to use semiotics to analyse the qualitative data that you have gathered through methods such as online research communities or focus groups, it helps to build opportunities for such analysis into the research design.

Projective techniques, which are widely used in qualitative research, are rich sources for semiotic analysis. Projectives take participants away from the literal meaning of the issue you are discussing. This enables them to be playful which, in turn, opens up a rich world of subconscious elements that would otherwise be hidden.

Examples of projectives that work well with semiotic analysis include the following:

  • What type of animal/car/holiday (etc) would this be?

  • Write a letter from/to your future self/famous person/member of your family (etc) about this issue

  • Make a collage to show how this product/experience/issue feels to you

It is also important to ensure that you include people from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds in your research, even within a specific target audience - as cultural context is everything in semiotics, shared understandings are not a given, and people's experiences will inform how meaning emerges.

Semiotics in analysis

Qualitative analysis involves looking at the words and images used by participants and looking for meaning and uncovering themes. Market research semiotics adds a deeper layer of analysis that considers consumer culture and the subconscious messages that participants are conveying with the choices they have made.

For example, if you asked your research participant to imagine your brand as an animal and they chose a tiger, you would look to the cultural context around tigers to understand the symbolic meaning - this could be that they associate attributes such as beauty, rarity, power and strength with your brand.

Now consider that they chose a mouse. This would give you an entirely different picture of their association with your brand - and possibly some concerns about your brand value. Mice are generally seen as small and weak, at best, harmless and at worst, as vermin.

If you have asked your participants to choose an image to explain emotional decisions or states, interpretations of your brand equity or how they purchase products, rather than just looking at what the images portray, you can go deeper by thinking about all of the signs within the image.

What are the symbolic meanings that the images connect with? How do the colours and shapes in the images convey meaning? An image of a mountain taken at face value could just be about being outdoors and beautiful scenery. But mountains symbolise struggle and obstacles - so that attractive imagery could help you to identify problems with your brand.

If the weather in the image is sunny, perhaps the mountain symbolises a welcome challenge; if it is cloudy, it may indicate that the challenge is overwhelming.

In summary

Overall, semiotics gives you a powerful tool to add to the consumer research toolkit, and to help you uncover consumer insights that will help with brand communication, strategic planning, making consistent communication choices and many other aspects of marketing. Using semiotics as part of your research allows you look at things from a different perspective to unlock creativity and to inspire new ideas or perspectives that can help to predict future consumer behaviour trends.

As we speak, a whole new inspiring world is opening up for commercial semiotic insight at speed and scale. Technology is now allowing organisations to get far more wide-reaching human insight by blending machine learning and AI-powered analytics of large datasets with research design and interpretation done by humans - to learn more about quantitative semiotics and the role of big qual, read our articles here.

For more insight into how to use semiotics in your research, then why not book a discovery call with one of our research strategists.

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