The Role of Semiotics in Marketing

Of course one needn't be too explicit with signs... (source of image)

Semiotics is a branch of cultural anthropology which looks at the use of signs and symbols as means of communicating and conveying meaning. According to, there are two inter-related definitions, namely:

1) the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior; the analysis of systems of communication, as language, gestures, or clothing.

2) a general theory of signs and symbolism, usually divided into the branches of pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics.

To understand what pragmatics, semantics and syntactics mean, let's go to Wikipedia:

Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer, ie their meaning

Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures

Pragmatics: Relation between signs and the effects they have on the people who use them

In marketing and branding, semiotics play a key role in determining the success or failure of any endeavour. Through the effective deployment of verbal, visual and performative (ie actions by the consumer) elements, companies can strengthen their reach to their customers. These elements may include logos, rituals, iconic individuals, text, advertisements, websites, physical environments, hospitality and service, tag lines and other "touch points".

Wait a minute. Isn't branding all about influencing these elements anyway? What's the difference then?

In this well-written article by Laura Oswald of Marketing Semiotics Inc, she explains that "Semiotic theories and methods can be used to identify trends in popular culture, understand how consumer attitudes and behavior are formed in relation to popular culture, including brands, and how marketing and advertising programmes can best meet the needs of consumers by improving communication with the end user."

The article goes on to explain that it involves the "collection and analysis of data drawn from communication of all kinds - artistic or everyday, in all kinds of media including verbal, visual, and olfactory" and is useful for "clarifying brand equities in the brand audit, then tracking the implementation of these equities across all elements of the marketing mix."

What this tells us is that implementing a comprehensive brand communications programme alone isn't enough. Rather, one should adopt a holistic and harmonious approach which involves studying cultural trends, understanding behavioural norms, and determining how various sensory and emotional stimuli of a brand interact before rolling them out. Doing so allows us to better determine and control how consumers would respond to a brand given their current contexts.

The next time you think about rolling out a fancy brand name, logo, renovated shop front or new product feature, consider what your total package of signs and symbols mean to your consumers before doing so.

Is there synergy between what you're trying to convey and what your staff are saying on the shopfront? Are you giving the wrong impression with that bright fluorescent pink packaging that you're investing in?

By embracing the tenets of semiotic analysis, our chances of making a real impact on our consumer's lives - and our bottomlines - may improve significantly.

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