You don’t purchase products. You buy success, status, a lifestyle. Your purchases furthermore, are driven by subconscious perceptions and emotions.
Semiotics, the interpretation of signs and symbols, helps decipher those subconscious elements. While it has plenty of lofty, academic associations, it has practical implications for marketers, too.
Semiotics can help:
- Improve brand messaging;
- Communicate desired meanings;
- Influence consumers’ subconscious decision-making.
This post walks you through the basics of semiotics, its relevance to marketing, and how to apply it to your brand and messaging—with tons of examples throughout.
What is semiotics?
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. It explains meaning through our social and cultural background, revealing how we interpret messages instinctively.
Our subconscious interpretations rely on emotions, not information. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls it the preponderance of System 1 (emotional) over System 2 (rational) in the human brain:
Although we might think it’s System 2 that helps us make rational decisions, it’s not so. Emotional System 1 calls the shots here: it’s the source of our beliefs, and it deliberates all rational choices of System 2.
Your feelings and impressions are influenced by the world around you [. . .] and especially by all the non-verbal symbols your brain interprets, packages and creates meaning from.
That powerful but invisible communication is exactly what semiotics can help marketers understand.
The role of semiotics in marketing
Marketing is all about communicating the right message, at the right time, to the right person. Semiotics helps you do that. As Laura Oswald of Marketing Semiotics Inc. explains:
Semiotic theories and methods can be used to identify trends in popular culture, to understand how consumer attitudes and behavior are formed in relation to popular culture, including brands, and how marketing and advertising programs can best meet the needs of consumers by improving communication with the end user.
Apple is the quintessential example of a brand that has intertwined itself with identity. People don’t queue for hours just to buy smartphones or laptops; they queue to buy status and a specific lifestyle. Apple sells those traits as much as it sells hardware.
To get there, Apple’s messaging had to go through filters in their consumers’ subconscious:
How do you go from unknown brand to status symbol? You start by running a semiotic analysis.
How to conduct a semiotic analysis
Words, images, sounds, gestures, and objects are all signs to interpret. A semiotic analysis can interpret each, then use that information later to persuade consumers.
- Signifier. The form it takes.
- Signified. The concept it represents.
A semiotic analysis has three steps:
- Analyze verbal signs (what you see and hear).
- Analyze visual signs (what you see).
- Analyze the symbolic message (interpretation of what you see).
Take this historical “Fight Cancer” ad:
Here’s what a semiotic analysis would unearth:
A semiotic analysis decodes the meanings (cues) that resonate with your audience. With that knowledge, you can incorporate the decoded elements into your brand and throughout your marketing communications.
A semiotic analysis can be part of a checklist when developing a new ad campaign or publishing a core content asset. You can run the analysis yourself or with your marketing team. Even better, invite representatives of other departments or, if you have the budget, members of your target audience.
Techniques to run a semiotic analysis
The ways to run a semiotic analysis parallel other forms of qualitative research:
- Open-ended questions. Gather as many interpretations as possible via surveys or interviews. Identify the dominant interpretation and check if it aligns with the meaning you intend to communicate.
- Abstract questions. Expand hidden meanings behind symbols to see if there are alternative interpretations you might have missed. Focus groups or brainstorming sessions with your team are your instruments here.
- Probing questions. Rethink an answer and explain it further. For example, if we say that squares make a logo look structured, the probing question asks someone to explain the connection between a square and structure. Use a content matrix or mind maps to uncover more meanings behind a concept.
- Projective techniques. Get insights into the psychological attitudes of the audience. For example, if you want to understand whether your brand logo is youthful, ask a focus group to imagine it as if it were a person. How old would this person be? Word associations and photo sorts are other options to try here.
There’s no fixed number of questions to ask about the message to identify all its signified components. Start with these three, then develop a chain of sub questions:
- What does the text say? How does the headline grab attention? What does it say about my product/service? Does it sell the product or emotions behind it? How does it relate to the images?
- What does the image say? How does it grab attention? How does it relate to the text?
- Who is the target market? Does the message address their age, income level, pain points, views, culture? Which elements highlight this? Why?
Here’s a semiotic interpretation of a Heinz ad:
Once you’ve identified the meaning behind your messages, it’s time to correct for errors and ensure that messaging is consistent throughout your marketing materials.
How to apply findings from a semiotic analysis
Your brand is a sign. You create it with a mission, values, and meaning in mind. You then code those elements into your brand message, implicitly and explicitly. But you don’t control its interpretation.
As Harvard Business School professor Susan Fournier noted in 1998, “A brand has no objective existence at all: it is simply a collection of perceptions held in the mind of the consumer.”
When you succeed with branding, the target audience decodes meanings as intended, and the brand is ingrained within their identity.
To return to Apple, the company has cultivated a culture of knowledge, creativity, and innovation back to 1984, when they introduced their new Macintosh computer to the world. They coded the “we are the first and different” mantra into their iconic Super Bowl commercial:
A semiotic branding triangle provides a process to define a brand and its interpretations. There are three aspects:
- Brand identity. Your mission, values, brand story, employees, and product/service itself.
- Brand communication. Your logo, slogans, and content.
- Brand ethos. Your reputation and the way consumers perceive your brand.
Attending to all three will help you deliver strong brand messaging that your audience interprets as you intend. Here’s how to apply each component.
1. Incorporate corresponding meanings into your brand identity.
Once identified, adopt the cues of your audience into your brand architecture—symbolic elements such as your logo, brand colors, text content, advertisements, cultural symbols, website, and the physical environment of your brand.
Consider the psychological and emotional associations of colors when choosing a palette to communicate corresponding meanings to the audience. This formula by Matt Ellis can help:
Ellis holds up Coors as an example. Appealing to mature, blue-collar customers, the brand chooses dark blue and and an earthy golden shade to help the target audience identify with beer.
Or, take McDonald’s. For that matter, take just about every fast food outlet. Almost all of them use red, the most “appetizing” and hunger-inspiring color.
Interestingly, McDonald’s has been turning green since 2009 because they “want to clarify responsibility for the preservation of natural resources.” The lush green attempts to communicate an eco-friendly image.
The shape of your logo has semiotic meaning, too. Actually, several studies call a logo “the most essential semiotic mediator for meaning within a corporation’s verbal and visual marketing strategies.”
Circles, for example, communicate friendship, unity, and warmth. It’s exactly what Pepsi’s logo suggests to consumers: engaging, dynamic, and alive. It “smiles” at people with the curved white strip through the circle.
Squares are for power and professionalism—lines offer strength as well as tranquillity. The Mitsubishi Motors logo is a perfect demonstration of semiotics’ power, symbolizing strength, professionalism, and quality.
There’s a psychology behind fonts as well. The connotations of fonts should balance your brand’s verbal identity—the slogan and language you use to communicate a message in taglines, ads, brand voice, and tone.
(The impact of something like font choice is often easiest to understand in the extremes. Comic Sans, for example, would be the wrong choice for Amnesty International.)
Android’s slogan, “be together. not the same.”, decodes the power of community. It echoes the brand’s mission of being universally accessible and a uniter of diverse people. It also highlights Android phones’ unique designs and features and subtly challenges Apple’s dominance of the smartphone market.
Or, take Dollar Shave Club’s slogan. “Shave time. Shave money.” It reinforces the playfully irreverent nature of the brand, which disrupted the industry, while also connecting back to their original viral ad.
Finally, consider your brand’s behavioral identity—how it interacts with consumers and creates experiences around their needs and desires.
Niantic changed the gaming culture in 2016 when Pokemon Go went live and encouraged gamers to interact in the real world rather than online. Tons of studies (like this, this, or this) identified the cultural trends and behavioral norms that made it possible.
In 2020, they plan to launch Pokemon Sleep and “give players a reason to look forward to waking up in the morning.” Your sleep will impact gameplay, turning a physical need into entertainment.
The three identities above—visual, verbal, and behavioral—get the most out of semiotic storytelling and connect with the audience on different levels. Adidas incorporates all three into this ad:
- Visual identity. Adidas evokes its three stripes with bandages on a player’s foot. The visual undercuts the idea that Adidas’ value is the status alone—fake products offer a perverse and painful version of the famous stripes.
- Verbal identity. With the phrase “fake hurts real,” Adidas connects the pain of a foot injury with the financial pain they endure from counterfeit products. We can’t empathize with a multi-billion-dollar company losing a fraction of their revenue, but we’ve all endured a foot injury.
- Behavioral identity. Adidas positions itself as the protector of the athlete, keeping you safe from counterfeiters who don’t deliver quality or care about your well-being. If Adidas cares about your safety, don’t you owe it to them not to buy fake products?
2. Communicate meanings via signs, codes, myths, and archetypes
Semiotics can help you communicate associations, feelings, and perceptions through relevant signs, codes, myths, and archetypes.
Sometimes known as a “father” of semiotics, Charles Sanders Peirce said, “We think only in signs.” Let’s try decoding this simple ad:
It’s clear that the apple is a core sign. In some cultures, it’s interpreted as the symbol of temptation and sin. Here we get the cultural reference to Adam and Eve’s archetypal story.
The creators of this video knew how important it was to appeal to basic instincts. The video conveys the emotional advantage of the product: the power to tempt.
There are other associations, too. Apples are associated with health and vitality. New York City—the “Big Apple” and a desirable city—is in the very first shot. The apple is reflected in the packaging, too, turning the application of the perfume into a ritual that reinforces the ad’s messaging.
Just one apple can build a narrative filled with meanings. The narrative hooks viewers by addressing symbols and archetypes. Most consumers can’t explain why they want to buy the perfume. Semiotics can.
The cultural code, sometimes called “cultural software,” defines how sets of images connect to our stereotypes. As Malcolm Evans, a trailblazer in applying semiotics to brand strategy, explains,
The anthropologist from another planet would need to download our global “cultural software” to his head to understand a common scene from beer ads.
Tide’s Super Bowl ad demonstrates our super ability to understand codes—it works only because so many scenarios are already familiar to us:
Or, consider a 2011 ad from Dior. It taps into a classic “luxury” code—heavy baroque architecture, lots of gold, massive chandeliers, etc.
The protagonist doesn’t look at us; she hides under glasses. Other characters in the video are similarly detached, aloof.
We hear heels knocking and see camera flashes. The public sits in chairs, waiting for the show. The promise of the ad is that the product gives you access to a much-desired, exclusive club.
The codes are different in the Dior ad of 2017. They’re about freedom. Clothes are more primitive, suggesting a deeper connection with nature. Charlize Theron is no longer a distant diva. She wants to feel and run. She invites us into her world.
Gold still appears throughout but via the natural world—sun, water, desert. Theron’s skin is golden in the light. This is not a promise of stuffy, exclusive luxury but a release from that world.
These two ads demonstrate the evolution and flexibility of codes. The Residual, Dominant, Emergent (RDE) framework charts how codes change over time:
Myths and archetypes
Myths have always been a part of human culture. Shared myths create human bonds. Often, they rely on archetypal characters to tell a story. For decades, Old Spice played directly into the masculine archetype of the 1950s and 60s.
While those campaigns helped build the brand, they also dated it—by the 2000s, OId Spice was the brand of someone’s father or grandfather, not the choice of a Millennial.
To combat the perception, their “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign, kicked off in 2010, was a satirical, hyperbolic homage to past ads:
Yet the archetype wasn’t abandoned—the soaps and deodorant still promised to make men attractive and give them a cool confidence.
What changed was how they told the story. They updated it for a modern audience while continuing to reinforce traditional definitions of masculinity.
3. Create a positive ethos for your brand.
Ethos is “the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the belief, customs, or practices of a group or society.”
The quality of your product and your attitude toward customer service are two core elements of brand ethos. From a semiotics perspective, your ethos succeeds when what your claim to stand for something bigger matches your behavior.
Ethos is why your brand matters and why people should hear its voice. As Simon Sinek said in his TED talk, “the goal is not just to sell to people who need what you have; the goal is to sell to people who believe what you believe.”
The ideal ethos depends on your brand. In recent times, however, many companies have focused on two aspects: environmental sustainability and social responsibility.
Nielsen reports that two-thirds of global consumers will pay more for sustainable products. Forrester notes that more than half of U.S. shoppers “not only reject corporate irresponsibility but also seek brands that proactively promote beliefs and values aligned with their own.”
They sell bras but consistently invest in marketing for social responsibility—on their website and with newsletter content and sales copy.
Another example is Death Wish Coffee. They tout sustainability, get involved in volunteer events, and encourage social responsibility.
To build a positive ethos—no matter what it is—the belief system must:
- Connect with the core values of your brand.
- Resonate with your target audience.
- Be supported by operational changes to achieve stated goals.
- Be authentic (e.g. Your company is green, not merely “greenwashed”).
Authenticity is essential. A brand ethos can’t simply be what you want others to think of you. As CVS learned, that comes with financial costs.
In 2014, they stopped selling tobacco products because it conflicted with their purpose: “helping people on their path to better health.” The near-term revenue loss was an investment in brand ethos.
Once you’ve committed to a particular ethos, be consistent. Tell the same story and communicate the same meanings through all channels.
Humans make emotional decisions. Those emotions are often guided by subconscious interpretations of words and images.
Semiotics can help decode those subconscious messages to sharpen messaging and branding. There are wider applications, too:
- Competitive analysis. Decode competitor strategies and uncover promising meanings.
- Market research. Understand changes in the cultural environment and find vacant niches.
- Segmentation. Spot cues unique to customer groups to deliver more culturally relevant concepts and ideas.
In every instance, you’ll get a better idea of how your audience understands what you communicate. You’ll be better able to correct for misinterpretations and maintain consistency throughout your campaigns.