Semiotics: What It Is & Why it Matters for Marketers – Chris Arning

Chris Arning, Creative Semiotics
In this session Chris shares what semiotics is, why it is indispensable to understand how brands work, how to drive distinction using product category codes, why ‘culture’ is more important than ever and how semiotics closes a gap between what brands THINK they’re communicating and what they’re actually communicating.

Key takeaways on semiotics & why it matters for marketers

  • [07:32] In semiotics, and branding in particular, everything
  • [12:12] Semiotics is about creativity: Understanding the creative choices we make and how those choices impact our audience.
  • [21:16] Semiotics: the study of sign processes
  • [30:26] Think of semiotics as a tool rather than as a religion.

[08:31] What cupcakes can teach us about breaking through the noise and commanding attention

  • Brands need semiotics because, like people, they have blind spots—they lose their way.
    • They forget what makes them unique and compelling.
  • Semiotics dives deep into the hard-to-see but critical emerging patterns in culture to help brands communicate more distinctively.

[13:37] What is semiotics?

  • Semiotics:
    • Studies implicit communication—the signs and cues embedded in brand touchpoints
    • Brands are semiotic marketing systems—bundles of signs that communicate meanings
    • Semioticians decipher the richness of cultural information embedded in every piece of media content
  • Coca Cola doesn’t need to convey its full name.
    • Coca Cola’s branding contains what Martin Lindstrom calls “smashable assets”.
      • e. You can write another word using the Coca Cola font and you would still know it’s Coca Cola.
    • Aside from distinctiveness, semiotics also conveys meaning.
      • Americana, globalism, etc.
    • “Creative with a twist” a la Paul Smith:
      • Communicates implicitly without saying too much; but, it says loads at the same time
    • Sony Playstation’s co-branding partnership with The London Underground:
      • An example of symbols conveying brand values

[26:30] The benefits of semiotics

  • Makes the “invisible visible”—deep forensic analysis, detecting patterns in brand culture
  • Brings non-arbitrary creativity—offering rationale for all brand creative choices
  • Achieves lasting meaning by working with strategists and design teams

[30:17] When is semiotics most used?

  • Semiotics is an exploratory methodology, but not evaluative (leave that to qualitative and quantitative research).
  • Semiotics operates at the cultural level.
  • Semiotics mostly affects branding (ex. brand audit) rather than marketing.
  • You need semiotics when…
    1. …you don’t know what your brand stands for anymore.
    2. …you keep doing rounds of consumer research to no avail.
    3. …you need to close a communication gap with your target.
    4. …you want to match words to visuals or visuals to sounds.
    5. …you are extending into new categories or new regions.
    6. …you are working on a pitch and need some extra inspiration.
    7. …you need to track a cultural domain (like mental health).
    8. …you need to sharpen a brand positioning proposition.
    9. …you’re doing a brand review and want to take a fresh look.

[36:07] Brand audit case study: Napolina

  • Oftentimes, semiotics is about scanning the horizon and looking at emergent energies within your category or adjacent categories and borrowing those codes.
  • Use the semiotics to inform, situate, and orientate the design.
  • Semiotic brand audit—Napolina Emergent Codes:
    • Fresh Elegance
    • Aesthetic Sustainability
    • Undiscovered Italy
    • Regional Localism
    • Slow Food Ideology

[44:35] Semiotic brand audit—features and benefits

  • Helping brands reclaim their essence
    • Detecting meaning across campaigns, across formats and medium (image, copy, music) from the subtle cues across touchpoints staked out by the brand
    • Ensuring adequate account is taken of the essence of the brand that includes not only the brand heritage but for the cultural memory that surrounds that heritage
    • Applying a rigorous analysis process to auditing all facets of a brand’s identity, both explicit and more implicit that are likely to form part of that brand’s image
    • Discernment to project the future evolution of the brand within the prevailing and evolving cultural context to ensure it will be not only authentic but relevant

Q and A on semiotics & why it matters for marketers

Q: Regarding colour theory, there is a lot of thinking that colours have an impact on brand—purple for creative/luxury, etc. How would you get started in working out brand colours, assuming that you believe in the use of specific colours to link to feelings and emotions?

A: Colour is a complex area. I recommend the book The Language of Colour by Theo van Leeuwen to read a very convincing theory about how colour applies to brands: Colour has both an associational and physiological or emotional component. Red has been proven to raise our heart rate, for example; but, it also evokes courage and valour. As a brand, you need to be thinking about the primary association and emotion you want to convey. Colour has latent meaning in and of itself, but that meaning is brought out and activated in certain contexts, and that requires you to research the category you’re in to see how colours are expressed within your competitors’ brands.

Q: How do you decide whether to adhere to established design semiotics or to deviate from them?

A: It partly depends on what you have to lose. If you’re a top 3 brand in your category, you have to be very careful before deciding to make a very radical change, because you want to maintain the franchise that is already patronizing your brand. It also depends on the extent to which your brand represents an actual game-changer in terms of product function. You’ve got more permission to be different or even radical if you have a game-changing proposition. It all depends on category dynamics.

Q: How can a small business owner make use of semiotics?

A: Become aware that everything communicates so that you can think more carefully and critically about every creative choice that you make. Oscar Wilde famously said that every good artist is a critic. You have to criticize your own work and be aware of what you’re saying and what you could say. Brand naming is important. New challenger brands are increasingly using shorter names that are memorable and often humorous and colloquial. Brand names are becoming less formal all the time, basically.

Q: If there’s one thing you wish everyone could take away and implement regarding semiotics today, what would it be?

A: Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything now. Communication is holistic—you can’t look at name or colour in isolation to everything else. Semiotics deconstructs all of these different branding elements. Don’t think that I’m not explaining it well enough or that you’re not smart enough. It’s a big field. My task today was to immerse you into the world of semiotics and hopefully tantalize you to find out more. It’s not a panacea for everything but in the right place it is the methodology to go to. If used in the right project, semiotics can help you rethink your business and your brand.

Resources mentioned in the talk

Books and papers

Sixty Seconds of Semiotics videos for your delectation:

And for more from Chris and How to Do Semiotics in Seven Weeks, check out his course – now taking bookings! Book here.