Semiotics: Researching The Language Of The Consumer Subconscious

February 7, 2006

by Added Value

If I said red means stop, green means go and orange means slow down, most people would agree. However if I said that red means ‘a gift’, green means ‘salt and vinegar’ and orange means ‘quick and easy’ the matter becomes a lot less clear-cut. Maybe for South Africans ‘salt and vinegar’ is blue and ‘quick and easy’ is bright yellow, maybe red means ‘anger’ or ‘well-known fizzy drink’, or somehow it’s a mixture of the two.

We interpret colours depending on our cultural background, and by that I mean not just where we were born or how much money we have, but rather every experience we’ve been exposed to throughout our lifetime.

Those of us who think that red means stop only do so because that is what our culture has ‘taught’ us. Birds will avoid eating yellow and black insects because they’ve ‘learnt’ that these little snacks can be poisonous.

Humans work in a similar, if more sophisticated way, and it’s not just colours we interpret differently according to our culture, but a whole host of symbols, images, words and phrases. In fact, most of the stuff we encounter every day.

So, we’ve established for now that red means stop. That doesn’t mean we analyse colours every time we approach a traffic light, imagine the traffic mayhem, rather this process of interpretation is something that comes as naturally and as subconsciously as scratching an itch.

The modern brain encounters more cultural input in a day than the average 17th century person would have encountered in a lifetime. Which means it has developed a huge bank of subconsciously learnt meanings to draw upon when it sees something new. The best bit is that our brains sort through this bank and apply meaning in a millisecond; we don’t even have to think about it. Clever huh?

But we can learn an awful lot if we do think about it and semiotics is the lucky science tasked with this role.

A semiotician seeks to understand what different networks of meaning are at play in a certain cultural context in order to understand how and why people may interpret the messages they encounter in different ways. In other words it is the job of the semiotician to sort through a culture’s bank of learnt meanings to understand how that culture interprets what it sees and how these interpretations evolve through time.

Semiotics is academic in origin (a lot like anthropology) and evolved from certain critical tools developed at the beginning of last century to understand the production of political meaning in literature and art, (starting with structuralism and marxism and developing into the marginally more user friendly discipline of cultural studies.)

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

Semiotics assists brand growth on two levels. The first is to identify ways for a brand to communicate more clearly with consumers by learning their language. The second is to determine where a product category or market is evolving to in the search for new positioning territories or even product innovation.

The first level speaks for itself. 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 Russia or China than in Europe. Try to avoid using skyscrapers in an ATL campaign targeted at post 9/11 New Yorkers, try to include people of all races in communications that proclaim you are ‘proudly South African’.  In short create a semiotic checklist so you can be sure that your brand isn’t saying go and showing a red light.

This first level becomes particularly relevant for packaging design. When re-designing a pack for a headache remedy Added Value’s semiotic team found that all headache remedies, bar none, spoke about ‘intense pain’ using bright primary colours, lightening flashes and harsh geometry on pack to convey precisely the discomfort consumer’s are seeking to escape.

As a result of these findings Solpadeine became the first headache remedy to use lighter colours and softer shapes to communicate ‘smart relief’. Common sense it seems, but a remarkable step change within the category.

The second level is where this 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. This is an appealing prospect, especially in South Africa where the cultural context is on the move, big time.

Semiotics can help you understand what a brand stands for and whether it is a leader or a follower in its market. For example, is your beer brand about ‘everyday bonding’, ‘standing out from the crowd’ or is it a ‘reward for real men’; how is it different from the brands around it? How should you evolve communications into the future so it stays different? Today’s ‘real man’ is a whole different person from the ‘real man’ of 20 years ago, chances are he’s now a self-employed entrepreneur who loves his mum, not a sweaty miner in sight. What will ‘real men’ be like 20 years down the line? Is there an emerging gap in the market that no one is talking to yet? Does tomorrow’s ‘real man’ even have to be a man? What could a beer learn from the funky chick in the Archer’s Aqua ad, chances are there is now space for a beer targeted towards women; semiotics could help you get there.

Semiotics can help you be at the crest of a wave. A new South African-ness is emerging; look at the Afro-chic of a designer like Stoned Cherrie blending her mum’s style with stuff she sees in Hip Hop videos. Look at the hobo glamour of Mafikizolo. Consider the fact that the Black Cat peanut butter brand is now a cool T-shirt for young African women, embodying the cool aloofness of a feline, the style of an unashamedly black icon, and the cool Karate Chop attitude from past ads. It shows I’ve got enough attitude to wear a bad luck symbol without worrying and hey, it was cool when I was a kid and it’s South African through and through like me. 200 rand says Black Cat had nothing to do with this, but by tapping into this kind of emerging language of South Africa a brand that’s truly on its toes can speak to its new audience in a motivating way.

Finally semiotics can help you understand how your market definition is evolving.

Recent work looking at emerging expressions of wellness in South Africa and found out that it is about a lot more than just having the right takkies and running in the two Oceans. There is a whole new landscape emerging in which Red Bull, Fine Form and the local Vida e Caffe are all potential competitors delivering on and re-defining definitions of wellness in the New South Africa.

When your brand has to work in a time of such change it pays to be on the ball. Added Value believes semiotics is a vital tool in understanding how your brand can deliver it’s full potential in the South Africa of today, and tomorrow.

By Izzy Pugh, Semiotics Specialist,  Added Value UK (written while on secondment in South Africa)

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  • Rina Igual

    Hi Izzy,

    A truly insightful and revealing write-up. I will definitely share this with the team.

    Cheers,
    Rina

  • Sarah Sands

    Great write up. One of the best descriptions of what semiotics is and its business-world applications that I’ve read. Loved it, thanks!