Cracking Consumers’ Codes with Commercial Semiotics

25 Sep 2008|Added Value

Fig 1

This is a dog
Take a look at Figure 1. This is a dog, right?  Wrong! It’s a picture of a dog.  In fact, it’s a cartoon of a dog. A universally recognized symbol of a dog. But it’s not an actual woofing panting dog.  We have learned to recognize that the letters D-O-G and four paws, a tail and a cute snout equal “a dog”.  The picture only represents a dog.

Add another layer, and things start getting interesting.  Think about a Jack Russell and a Gramophone?  A bulldog and a blue, red and white flag?  An Old English Sheepdog and can of paint?   All of these bring different associations to mind;   His Master’s Voice, an English pub and a Dulux ad. 

These layers of meaning are part of a (Eurocentric) cultural context.  As we grow up, we not only learn the verbal and written language of our home culture, we learn its subtle visual, aural and tactile language too. 

We learn that a red light at an intersection means stop.  We learn that a picture of a stick man or woman means that a loo is nearby.  Western children learn that a woman in a white dress and a veil, holding a glass of champagne, is likely getting married.  Eastern children, on the other hand, learn that white clothing is the symbol for death and mourning.  German children grow up with spine chilling tales of dragons who eat maidens and are slain by brave heroes, while Chinese children revere these mystical creatures as harbingers of good luck and good fortune. And in many African cultures, children are taught that it is impolite and a sign of disrespect to look someone in the eyes while speaking to them; yet the exact opposite is taught to children in more Eurocentric cultures.

And so our socio-cultural environments are the breeding ground for how we make meaning out of the world.  We structure our environments and our minds through the various sign systems (codes) of our culture. These codes act as classification systems that shape the way we act and engage with each other and the world around us.

Some are complex, some simple, based on what is valued or has meaning in each individual cultural context.  The most well-known example is that of Inuit culture: where they see 32 different things; we might just see snow.

The Signs of the Times
Semiotics is the study of our cultural languages.  It is academic in origin and has been used in many disciplines such as linguistics, literary and artistic criticism, anthropology and cultural studies. It is largely the creation of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and evolved from critical tools developed at the beginning of last century to understand the production of political meaning in literature and art.   More recently, in a global context, it serves as a very useful tool for identifying the formal patterns that make meaning in culture, particularly in media and brand communication.  

The real and actionable potential for semiotics in today’s world is as a commercial tool for unlocking brand growth.

Commercial semiotics specifically assists brand development on two levels. The first is to identify ways for a brand to communicate more clearly with consumers by learning their cultural language. The second is to determine where a product category or market might be evolving in the search for new positioning territories or innovation.

The first level speaks for itself. Any global brand knows that you have to make sure you understand a culture fully before making big decisions. Heineken’s red star, for example, could evoke a very different response from consumers in Angola or China than in Europe.  A semiotic checklist can help you be sure that your brand isn’t saying green for go while subconsciously showing a red light.

The second level is where it all gets really exciting. True cultural fluency gained through targeted semiotics means a brand can be ahead of culture, and even play a role in crafting it, rather than trail behind it in a constant game of catch up.  Think about how Coca Cola famously influenced the colour of Christmas when they put Santa Claus in a bright red suit. 

Semiotics can help you understand what a brand stands for and whether it is a leader or a follower in its market.  

Commercial application
Visual language and culture are constantly evolving.  Think about how the colour green has evolved from its quite medicinal meaning of the 90s to the eco-warrior colour of today.  And early signs show that blue is set to out-hue green as the next colour symbol of earth-consciousness in the following couple of years. 

To inspire fresh thinking, semioticians look way beyond any specific brand category into the wider world of meaning.  After all, it’s in this wider world that consumers themselves learn and evolve their subconscious cultural lexicon.

Once a brand has a solid idea of what it wants to represent, there is no limit to the sources brand owners can use to gather visual codes to deliver that message, whether through packaging and communications or point-of-sales and iconography. Art, cinema, fashion design and photography are all excellent hunting grounds for emergent visual cues.

Using extra-category codes is about cross-referencing your brand message with visual cues in an instantly recognizable, if subconscious, way. If your product is all about technical expertise, how can the action scenes from the latest PSP game inspire your graphics? If your brand is about wellness how can we deconstruct what’s happening in spas and recreate the sensory cues of a hot stone treatment or a mud-bath through packaging?  Decoding emergent cultural trends can keep your brand fresh, relevant and distinctive. 

Shapes and colours are the most immediate way to convey messages and can stimulate all of the senses simultaneously, signifying abstract ideas that trigger the imagination. Some shapes and colours generate strong product identity, for instance McDonald’s ‘golden arches’, Coke’s ‘wave’ or Nike’s ‘swoosh’, Pringles ‘cardboard tube’ – all are immediately identifiable shapes that are recognized all over the world.

Likewise, sound can become an iconic cue; think Pentium’s sound bite, Nokia’s theme tune or BMW’s triple base note.  Or texture even; think of the hessian bags of small niche grocers compared to the shiny foil of prepackaged FMGC.

Semiotics begins with breaking down the brand communication codes of product design, packaging, print and TV advertisements, POS, etc into their smallest component parts – the signs – to understand their meaning. For example, when examining packaging design we analyze the design as if it was a painting to understand how it is composed and what messages is sends. Through a blend of the constituent parts, such as shapes, materials and colours, packaging design promotes interest or curiosity, conveys the meaning of what the product is all about and evokes an emotional response.

Fig. 2

Breaking through Beer
Look at the image in Figure 2.  It’s a cropped image from an ad, which you might recognize.  The image on its own doesn’t really denote much meaning, but already, a story, or semiotic narrative, is begin told.  A sexy blonde woman is in a provocative pose.  What is she doing?  Why is she looking down?  Is she dancing? 

The expanded image in Figure 3 gives us more information. 

Fig. 3

She’s in a fountain, and she is dancing.  The story unfolds.  Many people, particularly those with a culture reference steeped in European art and film, will think of the Trevi Fountain in Rome.  They might even recall the iconic scene from Fellini’s classic black and white film “La Dolce Vita” where the voluptuous heroine dances seductively in the famous fountain.  

The actress in the ad isn’t Anita Ekberg, but the cues are all there; we’re transported to the stylish Italy of the 60s, a time of chic, elegant hedonism.  Even the use of a black and white image in a modern age of digital colour enhancement, cues us to think of another, more sophisticated era.  

Fig. 4

The ad, revealed in Figure 4, is for Peroni.  Peroni is a classic example where semiotics was used to shift a brand significantly into a new positioning territory.  Traditionally the brand had talked “Italian” in the context of football and motor racing, typical Italian sports.  But this allowed little differentiation in the global beer market, where German, South African and English beers all operated in similar contexts, albeit with their own cultural spin.  

Peroni wanted to connect with its Italian heritage in a way that was differentiated and iconic, as well as shifting the brand into the premium beer market.  A semiotic analysis of “Italian-ness” opened a myriad of positioning territories, allowing Peroni to chose “Italian Style” as the one in which they could truly break the codes of beer drinking.  

The semiotic work gave the brand a rich array of cross-category references to “Italian Style” from which to create the new visual identity and communications of the re-launched brand.  It resulted in a global brand name and bottle livery as well as a unique style-driven trade launch with Vespa scooter transport to a London art gallery and an iconic consumer ‘teaser’ campaign, including the highly publicized Sloane Street ‘single Peroni Nastro Azzurro bottle’ store event. 

Another look at the whole ad shows more cues as to how the brand has positioned itself more in the aspirant categories of style, fashion and Italian-ness than in the category of “beer”.  The “La Dolce Vita” iconography hooks into the stories that exist of “the Good life” of Italian passion and art.  The crisp white page framing the green bottle invokes a sense of style and premium.  Linking the words “Peroni” and “Italy” at every touchpoint, reinforces Peroni’s “take” on what it means to be Italian.  And in a last visual twist, the ad appears to have used the iconic red label element usually associated with “Levi’s” to reinforce Peroni’s link as a fashion brand (see fig. 4). 

The codes, combined with the sense of a more stylish era of the past, evoke a set of associations that have been so often told and are so richly elaborated and familiar that they have taken on the status of myth – the Italian passion for life and fashion. It firmly connects Peroni beer to the world of celebrities, fashion and Italian life.

Compare this with the advertising of Castle Milk Stout in South Africa, where Zulu courtship ceremonies are used to send the message of a more traditional beer for time-honoured rituals of celebration and success, or the “real man” iconography of Carling Black Label ads, and you can see how visual cues can imbue an incredibly rich and layered meaning in any visual communication.

Semiotic success
Commercial semiotics can help brands unlock consumer and cultural insights that delve far deeper into how we construct meaning and engage with our world.   Not only does semiotics give brands a cultural translation tool for their communication strategies, it can also help to generate fresh and emergent innovation territories by looking at how culture is changing.  Often, these are the very areas that consumers find most hard to articulate in traditional research environments.

In an increasingly global landscape, semiotics can also help brands prevent cultural faux pas that can be irreparably damaging in new markets. 

Semiotic analysis can help to make a brand’s touch point communication more profoundly relevant, providing the means to develop strategic devices (e.g. detailed packaging or communications briefs) to deliver on consumers’ desires. It delivers insights that can be used to crack and then in turn craft brand communication codes that break through the cluttered and jaded world of consumers so that a brand literally speaks to them. Hopefully in a way that says “buy me”!

By Dr. Inka Crosswaite – Semiotics Specialist
Inka is the cultural insight and semiotics specialist at Added Value South Africa. She has a Doctorate in Social Anthropology from UCT and now applies her extensive academic knowledge in the intriguing, code-breaking and culture busting world of commercial semiotic analysis.

Originally written for The Encyclopaedia of Brands and Branding.

prev next