How Semiotics Helps Brands Encapsulate Value
All In Our Heads: How we decode meaning in the world around us
This piece was originally published in Branding Strategy Insider.
When you want to explore the cultural relevance of strategic ideas, creative concepts, brand narratives, stories or innovation territories and how they tap into the cultural zeitgeist, the mood of the now, semiotics is in my opinion by far the best way to approach such research.
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 the creation and production of meaning in culture via communication is something so inherently human, semiotics as 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.
Three Different Definitions
For the general public, semiotics is the unconscious cultural technique we all use every day 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. We use it to dress ourselves in the morning and accessorise (construct our own identity via the semiotic system of fashion) based on how we feel on that particular day. We use semiotics to make choices of what we’re going to eat in a restaurant determining how we order (matching the offerings of the restaurant’s menu with the symptomatic function of our tastes and assigning them meaning). We use semiotics when we’re commuting to work driving a car and stopping on the traffic lights (pairing the universal signals of red, orange and green colours with the meanings of stop, get ready and go). We do all of this every day in the blink of an eye, and yet we don’t call ourselves semioticians. But we all are semioticians in a way, we just do all this symbolic labour unconsciously as a part of our cultural programming — the operating system we’re immersed in as a part of living in society.
For trained semioticians, semiotics is the study of how meaning is produced and consumed in our 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 semioticians have developed an in-depth understanding of associations between cultural codes, brand signs and their meanings and are able to detach themselves from their immediate cultural surroundings into a role of an active observer, yet remain partially immersed to properly interpret what things mean. Some codes can have different meanings in different cultures. This is why it’s always important for semioticians to be locally encultured to secure cultural relevance when consulting on a project across more regional markets.
For marketers and researchers, semiotics often represents the missing half of insight in their brand-consumer equation. As consumers’ identities are to a large extent formed by culture, consumers cannot always tell us what brand, product, service, concept or idea they prefer and why simply because they are not consciously aware of these reasons. That is why we shouldn’t ask them directly but rather ask the culture first and then frame what the respondents have told us within the cultural framework we have extracted. Brands only make sense when both parts of the insight — consumer insight and cultural insight — are present. Consumer insight is just one half of the puzzle. Without the cultural part, marketers can spend a whole life figuring out why consumers responded the way they did and what it meant without understanding the whole picture. That’s why consumer insights are often so fragile; they lack the cultural basis that anchors them in the real world and makes brands relevant.
How Do We Apply Semiotics To Brands?
No brand is an island. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, although marketers often mistakenly manage their brands as if they were islands unrelated to the physical and cultural environments of their customers.
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.
Three Key Contexts Of Your Brand
As semioticians, we look at the three most fundamental contexts of a brand. Not all of them need to be studied at the same time, although it’s advised to give your brand a complexity of perception. We can equally choose only those contexts, in which your brand needs are most pressing.
1) Brand Context → Strategic Coherence
First, there is the brand context. It is the symbolic layer closest to your brand but takes into account more than solely the brand itself, which is unfortunately how the majority of brands are still managed today. We do not look directly at the brand, but rather behind or around it — at the layer of meanings associated with the brand and its core assets. By putting your brand in the immediate context of its communication, consumer perception and creative visuals, we can track the codes of your brand in time and look for connections that would otherwise remain hidden.
We look at the immediate context of your brand, the communication, messaging, images and core assets it has created historically. We explore the dominant brand codes, evolving trends in the settings and storytelling, the brand’s tonality and tone of voice. We are interested in the kind of people present in your brand materials and past campaigns, what they’re saying, how they’re saying it and what they embody on the higher symbolic and ideological level. We want to understand what these brand stories and the way that they’re framed signal about the larger context of the culture and society today as we see it, live in it and experience it every day.
The brand context overview ensures a 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 possible fragmentation of perception in the future.
2) Category Context → Competitive Distinctiveness
Secondly, there is the category context. This is the layer encompassing not only your brand and its communication and marketing activities, but also the 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 or your industry.
Let’s say we are exploring the category of a banking brand. In the banking category, we would look at the entire landscape of all other major banking brands, the key competitors, as well as the newcomers in the category, with the aim to explore and understand the dominant narrative of the category and how the language and iconicity is evolving in our society and the particular market in question when it comes to our representation of banking and finances, our thinking about money and what the money signifies.
The category context overview helps ensure a competitive distinctiveness of your brand within a particular market category. Having the category context explored helps you to better imagine the context, in which your customers absorb your communication, branding and packaging because it embeds the brand in its natural habitat. Monitoring dominant, emergent and residual codes also allows us to detect whether the category is stagnating, or attracting new consumer interest, which will determine the kind of narrative you need to craft.
3) Cultural Context → Cultural Relevance
The third layer of your brand is the cultural context. When exploring culture, we look at its current dynamics, dominant codes, new emerging meanings and residual narratives, which help us conceptualise the symbolic trajectory in which the culture evolves, moves and gains momentum across different regional markets at a different pace in time. We are interested in the cultural and ideological landscape of branding and the larger implications of history, politics, economics and our society with regards to your brand and the category or industry it operates in.
The cultural context overview helps to ensure and strengthen the cultural relevance of your brand due to exploring the cues in popular culture, lifestyle trends, or cultural specifics of any local market. This practice helps you adapt global content to a local mindset and also vice versa find universal principles for global expansion to build strong brands that are locally relevant.
Thanks to analysing the trends emerging in our culture today, we can also gather unseen inspiration and equip your brand to resonate culturally in the future. In this sense, semioticians are kind of cultural surgeons or cultural architects. They dissect the right codes to heal the brand, where necessary but also rebuild the insides of your brand — its meaning — to better fit the cultural specifics of the concrete regional markets you’re active in.
Why Marketers Should Use Semiotics In Brand Management?
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 globally, we are experiencing a significant transformation to the nature of people’s consumption.
Consumer drivers are changing. People no longer consume brands purely for the projection of their own aspiration or for escapism as they were in the past. The latest studies show a significant increase in people’s desire to consume goods in order to create, creatively mix and enhance their personal identities.
People don’t consume brands, but what they represent — their meanings. This means the symbolic representation of their own needs, wants and desires to signify what’s important to them internally (value systems, integrity, identity) as well as projected towards others (status, social valorisation etc.).
The intangible is quickly becoming the new tangible in marketing. The whole idea of shifting perspective from the obvious and tangible (products and services) to the ephemeral and intangible (signs and meanings) will be one of the most fundamental changes in the future of marketing.
Therefore, the primary task of brand leaders and marketers today is to offer their customers relevant meanings rooted in the world that they live in and can identify with on a personal, emotional and cultural level. This multidimensional view of brands as the ‘cultural systems of value’ opens up a whole new window to brands being managed on the basis of their meaning. This also means that semiotics and cultural strategy need to gain a more central and prominent role as the new core practices of brand management.
The undoubtful advantage of semiotics is its ability to dig deeper under the surface and go beyond the limitations of traditional consumer research. Thanks to exploring the many valuable contexts of your brand, semiotics helps explain why consumers think what they think or why they do what they do. It’s because these answers aren’t contained in consumers’ heads, they are rooted in culture which has conditioned us to think the way we do and see it as a given.
There is no other research method available today that can do the same. Semiotics is in this sense absolutely unique. And if there is a method so powerful that it can do something like this, we’d be foolish not to take advantage of it. Or at least learn more about what makes it so valuable in the first place.
PhDr. Martina Olbertova is a brand meaning expert, global brand and cultural strategist, commercial semiotician and a doctor of media studies. She’s a Founder and chief executive of Meaning.Global, a new breed of strategic brand consultancy helping global brand owners and CMOs manage brand meaning. We rebuild brands from the inside out, rejuvenate meaning and create cultural relevance to increase value & growth. She’s also a new Contributing Author on brand meaning, brand management and cultural relevance to Branding Strategy Insider, the world’s most influential resource on brand strategy. Passionate about brand transformation, semiotics, cultural change, humanity, social progress and behavioural science. Based between London and Prague and helping brands find meaning around the globe.