Semiotics 101 for corporate people. Why do corporates use it?

02-03-17
semiotics semiotics 101 cultural analysis innovation communication advertising planning

Semiotics is the science of meaning, specifically how culture evolves. Here's a simple way to think about it. If you go along to a surgeon or a doctor, they  read the signs of your illness and come up with a diagnosis, they are data or sign readers. Semiotics does the same for culture and as a result it has 3 applications:

  • Forecasting - Companies like McDonalds, P&G, Unilever, Kellogg's, and Diageo use it to spot the next big idea at either a product level or a category level.
  • Communication - Semiotics is used to optimise and future proof your communication ? it spots where the style of ads in your category are going so you incorporate imagery to keep it current longer.
  • Risk Management ? this uses the flipside of 1 semiotics can be used to identify if your brand, product or service is under threat of dating.

We?ve used it to turn around the communication fortunes of Vodafone, advice on the future of food for large food corporates and drink corporates and so on. Why have so few people heard about it?

There are various reasons. The first is, it?s very complicated, it comes from a body of theory that is so dense, intense and complex it's had some difficulty translating itself to the outside world. Semioticians can come across as academic theorists and it can create a ?barrier? when communicating with commercial people, especially at the top level.

There are some other ways to get it and the core idea is people are blind to what?s around them, here is another simple example.

If you go to a foreign country, you often ask yourself 'why do they do things like that?' So in New Zealand and Australia the pavements or sidewalks are covered so you don?t get wet wandering around. I remember asking myself why European cities don' do the same thing. The funny thing is that if you ask people in NZ and Australia why they have the pavements and sidewalks covered, they simply shrug and say 'it?s the way it is'.

So the idea of semiotics, is that we?re often blind to what?s around us. As the saying from Africa goes ?I don't know who discovered water but it wasn't the fish. Now some might say reading culture is glorified common sense, which takes us back to thinking about doctors, there are good doctors and bad ones and if you aren't a trained semiotician then 'there are too many it could be for this reason or that reason?' theories floating around.  So semioticians are the 'surgeons' of culture and they chunk culture up into what are called 'codes', which is really glorified language for expected styles, which are so expected they go unseen. These styles evolve so you can make predictions about what's going to be in fashion in both a product or communication sense.

In my personal opinion, the best semioticians are comedians, they make us laugh because they spot 'common stuff' and make us see how ridiculous it is. I remember once seeing Julian Clary, who made the audience howl with laughter about getting into a shower in a hotel, it's either 'ooh' or 'aaah' and never the right temperature. Comedians are brilliant at observing the common culture we take for granted and laughing at it.

So here's a commercial example. In New Zealand, Vodafone used to be the 'cool?' brand, then it became 'uncool' neither the agency nor the client could see how that had happened exactly there were lots of 'theories' floating around but they lacked depth, evidence and most importantly they didn't say what to do about it. The fact was that their communications were out of step with a rapidly changing culture, they'd become so sales focussed they'd lost touch with where the nation was going. We gave the strategy that fixed it which was called, 'New New Zealand'and the brand was back on track.

So how do semioticians do this work? What do they actually study?

So here's the downside, semiotics is based on 'soft data'strictly speaking. We analysed massive cultural data sets, magazines, magazine content, media direction, ads and all sorts of other things to sort Vodafone out ? you can't just analyse 'telecommunications' to solve the problem above. Why? It's like trying to see what the coastline of Britain looks like by standing on a beach in Cornwall. Semiotics allows you to see the big cultural picture and where the communication problem or the category fits within that. So what's the downside with 'soft data'?

Now we don't rely on 'soft data' alone, we use big data on visuals when we're doing analytics which makes it more robust. We call that Meanomathics but I don't want to get off track. The big problem is, in the end, the work is the interpretation of a semiotician. To which semioticians respond 'we work in semiotic team to overcome that problem', that argument doesn't quite cut it. You can still have a bad interpretation, which is why semiotics should be complimented with sociological and economic data. And that?s also where the parallel with doctors falls short, Doctors use empirical data to guide their diagnosis.

But semiotics is increasingly used because in this fast changing world, you've got to have new tools to spot what?s going on.

If you want to spot innovation opportunities in the future, semiotics gives you the rigour to do that. People can't always co-create to tell you the next big thing, even co-creation has its limitations. Semiotics is a positive version of the Matrix, it sees what other people can't so you can take advantage of it or fix it.

So the best answer is use semiotics, with co-creation and big data for spotting category innovation opportunities. But semiotics on its own can sort out and diagnose communication issues but only Meanomathics can tell you the right mix of visuals to 'stand in to a category and 'stand out' and increase your ROI.

There are lots of case studies around and I've put some links in here for you. Also, if you want a short video, have a look at the one we did a while ago, it has 20,000 or so views and marketeers and commercial people have said it's been useful for them to 'get it'. There are also semiotic agencies around which include us. jake@jakepearce.com 

Video on semiotics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6RFLiI9nRU

Semiotic case studies http://www.semiotics.co.uk/l/projects

Semiotics, an introduction https://www.amazon.co.uk/Semiotics-Basics-Daniel-Chandler/dp/0415265940

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About the author

Jake Pearce

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"Different to get better results". Jake is obsessed with marketing ROI. He helps companies amplify word of mouth to get business more easily. He uses Meanomathics to boost Comms cut through 10-30%. He uses co-creation to future proof innovation - he turned around a drinks category providing 15% growth using professional co-creation. And he helps top CEO and celebrities with their personal branding. 

Worked with Vodafone,Kellogg'sMcDonalds,ANZ,McDonalds,Suntory,Danone,HSBC,Barclays,BAT,Meat Brands,Saatchi&Saatchi,Draft FCB,Fairbrother Industries, Les Mills, Holmes Place, Grey and a host of digital start-ups.

Jake Pearce is a specialist in brand planning, development & innovation. Jake is currently working on a Word of Mouth Marketing start-up, a personal branding start-up and new delivery systems for wellness products. 

www.jakepearce.com - for brand development and innovation

www.womtwo.com - for word of mouth marketing expertise

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