Applying Semiotics To Brand Strategy Innovation

Semiotics is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.

Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions, for example, the famous Semiotician and Author, Umberto Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication.

Semiotic analysis is used to get at cultural insights that consumers are either unwilling or unable to articulate. This is accomplished by using symbolic communication as data points, which include:

•Behavioral cues such as: rituals, social organization, and consumption of symbols (e.g. brand marks, instructional signs, use of space / environments and visualization of ideas and emotions)

•Communication representations such as: speech, music, imagery (literary, media), literature (i.e. mythology and lore), clothing and fashion, popular media (print, television, film, etc.)

Application of semiotic analysis as a part of a consumer anthropology process allows for identification  patterns that lead to truly forward-thinking innovation

My goal for application of semiotic analysis is to help my clients understand the evolution of cultural phenomena that influence their category. Actual territory maps are produced that plot brands in comparison to the competition as well as providing innovation direction through functional and aesthetic  design opportunities (strategic, packaging and creative)

To gain the data needed for semiotic analysis we utilize many tools and tactics:

•Ethnographic data capture: still photography and video footage of human behavior, product features and use (intended and unintended) consumer-oriented environments and actual human artifacts (a.k.a. their “stuff”)

•Media review: collection of current to historical media examples: film and television reels, print media and marketing materials

•Brand Audits: Identity, product, packaging, experience and life-cycle: assessment of sensory values communicated by the brand at all ‘touch’ points including during and after its intended life span.

•Decoding work sessions: immersive team work sessions where sensory cues from all stimulus are broken down and reconstructed into meaningful and actionable themes, focused on past, present and future expressions of cultural phenomena.  (this is a great way to get stakeholders more rooted in the essence of the brand as well as great creative and bonding opportunity).

Semiotic analysis is used in many  types of Journeys, providing valuable insight for initiatives like:

•Brand & Product identity development: understand current perceptions of your brand within it’s competitive space as well as opportunities for differentiation through all sensory touch-points: logo and identity (including color, shape, size, smell, feel, taste, etc.) retail environments, packaging and even post-lifecycle

•Communications strategy development: identification of future-focused communication themes, new media and creative executions for your brand

•Whitespace identification: identification of cultural territories within and tangential to your category that can lead to innovation opportunities for new products, product design, packaging, services or marketing

A well rounded journey means that your insight and strategy  projects can do more of the legwork, both in the short term and long term, having implications for both the larger innovation vision and the smaller-but-important details.  Semiotics can complement consumer qualitative in that it will allow you that future, big picture vision while keeping an eye on symbolic details that consumers cannot necessarily articulate.


6 responses to “Applying Semiotics To Brand Strategy Innovation

  1. Or you could hold off on spending the budget on all that data analysis and just talk to a good creative who you’ve chosen from their history of somehow subconsciously getting all those cues right. Someone who absorbs all this cues intuitively and scents out the new direction without articulating every bit of data. Someone who enthuses why the colour green is so right for the brand, why the girl should not smile too much, why the location needs to be Berlin. A creative capable of giving you a big picture, big idea that is semiotically in tune with the brand, the target market and the times and the way they are changing – a quick sense check will soon confirm if you’ve got the right creative or the right idea and if they have messed up, well you’ve still got an interesting idea and bags of dosh left to look at more ideas.

    • sure…a good creative goes a long way, but most strategy needs to have the “why” behind it. Unfortunately, going with your gut is not always the best way. The benefit of semiotic analysis is that it qualifies creative instincts in a way that “because i said so and am good at creating things” does not.

      • Let’s be careful in trying to squeeze out the creatives; they are critical to the process. Research and creative process go hand in hand; one isn’t gut and the other fact. I’ve never seen a researcher cognate their way to new idea and guessing all the time is just feeling in the dark. 1+1 can equal 3 though. Most creatives have been burned by research and researchers (inexperienced one) so they are skeptical of the process by incorrectly being pushed aside or having to wait for research to lead; it’s more integrated than that. Actually strategy leads to be quite frank. By focusing on whether or not the creative is interpreted from the intended connotation is research’s goal vs. which smile is best, we can help solve this issue and bring us a long way toward how to take research and creativity to the next level. …and for the creatives, now uou can’t develop a picture and not know how if fits strategy and what it should evoke in emotion or connote, OK? Anything reaching millions of people has to be on target, period. I wouldn’t risk not doing research as a business leader for a major campaign just be sure you are the researcher and creative doing your job in the way that you should. I have creatives who ask my firm to do their reseach because they know we will be supportive and helpful to the process but never leave things up to gut only. Happy thinking.

      • LOVE the perspective. Thank you. I would never imply that good innovation strategy should exclude creatives. Quite the contrary: research, strategy and creative should all be able to harmoniously co-exist and inspire one another. The right and left brain must work together if we are to progress. Fave book recco: A Whole New Mind. Although i am sure anyone thinking out loud on these blogs has read it. 🙂

  2. Hi Jamie,
    Although I’m not in the marketing business, I think that your presentation is very interesting and … honest ! It doesn’t pretend decyphering hidden signification like several descriptions of the work of the semiotician.

  3. as a creative who has worked on more than one project with Jamie, i can say the research, insight and rationale she has provided, delivers solid understanding of the how, what, who, why and when, from which to develop strategy, tactics, and creative concepts that work. its the real deal.

    many years ago i became quite tired of pitching creative based on the subjective, as well as designers/art directors/creatives who mostly generated creative based simply on what looks cool;

    CREATIVE: this is my idea, what do you think? oh, you don’t like it? well, i think it’s pretty cool and should really get the attention of your target audience. they are a hip bunch of hipsters.

    CLIENT: well, i guess you ARE the expert and artist. okay then, let’s try it.

    this approach leaves a WIDE open door for arbitrary rejection, which wastes your time and the client’s time. these days creative is but one small, albeit fundamental part of strategy-driven marketing. smaller budgets, tightened metrics and 360º scope of understanding of WHO the message recipient is, can no longer be ignored.

    if i’ve done my homework, and can get the client on the same page before starting ANY creative at all, then when i am ready to present, i can provide a strong rationale as to why the creative speaks a unique and tailored voice to a “listener” who actually hears the message. i deliver a superior product, great creative that likely will be much more effective.

    this is as close to “narrow casting” as you can get, and ultimately the most effective strategy to leverage your marketing budget in the most effective way.

    a creative who sort of ethereally “gets it,” relying on “gut instinct” and utilizes unfounded confidence in their approach to convincing a client to “buy” the pitch, is walking on thin ice in my opinion. why not do the homework? of course budget is always a factor, but vest-pocket research at the very least can go a long way.

    and aside from all of this, in the spirit of managing profitability, if you get your client on-board with strategic direction and they change directions mid-stream, you can charge them since it diverges from an agreed upon direction.

    @Gus; “reaching millions of people” is just it! but reaching them with what exactly? a shotgun approach? wouldn’t a client, as a “marketer,” want to know that the million people who you intend to “reach” are actually interested in your message? that will actually listen, pay attention, connect, resonate and ultimately embrace it as part of their cultural vernacular?

    i don’t consider semiotics as research in the academic sense, although it can be considered puritanically academic in some circles. while research is part of the process, semiotics and cultural anthropology is much more meaningful in the long run. i think the bad rap that “research” has been assigned is similar to that which “consultants’ have garnered; waste of time, money and ultimately undermines the process and outcome. (and for you and me, this means creative.)

    it is sort of like web design. for me, creative is SECOND to usability and information design. THEN the creative layers on top. if the usability doesn’t work, then who cares about creative? heck, the visitors aren’t even able to find what they are looking for, despite how pretty the site is. their bounce rate will be like 99%.

    drink the kool-aid, it is delicious!

    ___steps off soapbox___

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