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Cracking category and cultural codes… since 1999.

Why Use Semiotics?

Why is it so difficult for traditional consumer research to surface the meaning of brands for consumers? Because it is only possible to make and interpret meaning via those codes (norms, and the verbal and visual forms by which the norms are communicated) specific to certain cultures and market categories… and because these codes are unspoken, taken-for-granted, subliminal.

Consumers discover (and create) meaning in brands in ways that are shaped by deep-rooted cultural and market category codes. Semiotics identifies, classifies, and dimensionalizes these codes in a way that traditional consumer research cannot. The output of semiotic analysis is actionable tools — e.g., cultural and category code maps, brand identity keys, brand maps, communications guardrails, and "R-D-E" trajectories — highly useful to clients and agencies when it comes to creating, energizing, and re-energizing brands; brand identity and design; innovation and evolution; communications; and trends. The result: Semiotics decreases the risk of competitive attack and consumer disconnect.

Semiotics is a perfect complement to brand strategy and consumer research; and when it comes to complex international and multi-market projects, we're tapped into a global network of experienced local culture analysts. We can help you see the invisible network of cultural and category codes which guides and constrains the intuitive process by which consumers find meaning in — and make meaning from — brands.

For the last two decades, Joshua Glenn has been thinking deeply about things… He analyzes texts and images from the pop culture universe (everything from packaging and advertising to women’s magazines and contemporary films) and prepares reports for marketing companies on how a product or idea means. Not what but how.
— NEW YORK TIMES (7/11/2012)

What is semiotics?

Semiotics is the art and science of reading, analyzing, interpreting, and systematizing the residual, dominant, and emergent cultural codes that inform and are informed by our daily routines. These codes are transmitted via pop culture (TV, movies, music, fashion, literature, comics), media (TV, newspapers, magazines, photos, radio, websites, blogs), advertising (print, TV, radio, online), and public spaces (supermarket aisles, drugstore shelves, city streets, architecture, body language, popular pastimes). Proceeding from the assumption that there's no such thing as an object (car, bar of soap, beer bottle) or practice (driving, showering, drinking) devoid of connotations, semiotics interrogates the taken-for-granted and makes explicit the meaning that all of us discover in and impose upon every single thing we use and do daily.

Semiotic analysis is an expert partner for brands and agencies, because it provides a tool-set for positioning and repositioning a brand vs. its competitive set and capturing mindshare; refocusing a brand's identity and optimizing communications accordingly; and extending a brand to new products, customers, and markets. Semiotics can play a key role at every stage of the brand management process — research, market segmentation, brand positioning, creative strategy, product design, package design, and retail site design.

A brief history of semiotics

Described by its modern pioneer, French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, as a "science that studies the life of signs within society," semiotics is not only a theory of signification (meaning-making) dating back to Plato's On the Correctness of Names and Aristotle's On Interpretation (and enjoying ongoing popularity within academe), but an applied research method that has been popularized during the past half-century by such public intellectuals as Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Noam Chomsky, and Umberto Eco. A number of today's theory-driven cultural creatives, including This American Life host Ira Glass, novelists Rick Moody and Jeffrey Eugenides, film director Todd Haynes, and science writer Steven Johnson, are graduates of Brown University's famous Semiotics program. Since the late 1990s, semiotics has also been applied—both in Europe and America—to the problems of brand development and product innovation.

By the early 1990s, many European and American corporate marketing departments, ad agencies, and consumer researchers had realized they'd reached the limits of what market research could do. Anthropologists, psychiatrists, hypnotists, and "cool hunters" were hired to go deeper into the consumer psyche than focus groups and surveys could. Then, in the late ’90s, a handful of startup semiotics consultancies in Europe started researching the deep organizational categories of experience that help influence the way consumers perceive and react to marketing within given product and service categories—and building creative hypotheses about emergent (powerful, fresh) language and imagery within those categories. Because many of these consultancies' clients were multinational brands, in 1999 Joshua Glenn entered the field of commercial semiotics as a US cultural codes expert.  Though semiotic analysis is  quite complicated, Glenn has always designed his reports to prioritize valuable insights and actionable recommendations, mapping out the cultural context of brand communications and identifying key future opportunities. The aim is to inspire and stretch marketing thinking, and to show brands how to adapt to change and get the jump on competitors.


Example from a sample report — available on request.

Example from a sample report — available on request.

What is a semiotic code?

A brand's functional values as well as its emotional values make up the brand's norms. These intangible norms are expressed via the brand's tangible forms: that is, everything from logo to pack design and advertising. The combination of intangible norm and tangible form is a "code." (Note: The codes of a category must be mutually exclusive, comprehensive, and fundamental.) By strategically conglomerating a unique, differentiating set of codes, a brand is able to create and maintain a uniquely meaningful identity.

Of course, the consumer also participates in a brand's meaning through interpretation. This interpretive process is a rapid and intuitive one, and it's guided and shaped by a subliminal, unspoken network of codes specific to a particular culture and/or market category at a particular point in time. At any given moment, the relationship of a particular code's norm and form seems — to the consumer — necessary, inevitable, and permanent. To a semiotician, however, the relationship between a code's form and norm is an arbitrary one, subject to habit and convention. As culture changes, habits and conventions change… and the meaning of codes changes. Brands that fail to keep abreast of these shifts will lose mindshare among consumers because the coding on which their communications activate will become clichéd and/or self-contradictory.

Example from a sample report — available on request.

Example from a sample report — available on request.

What is a cultural and/or market category?

Clients and agencies will already be familiar with the notion of a market category. In the 15+ years that we've been doing semiotic brand analysis — that is, since shortly after the discipline of commercial semiotics was first invented — we've conducted 100+ analyses in such market categories as alcohol (e.g., beer, spirits, mixed drinks), automotive (e.g., car brands, gasoline, tires); clothing and footwear (e.g., jeans, sneakers); confectionery and snacks (e.g., candy bars, ice cream, chips); cosmetics and beauty products (e.g., skin care, shampoo and hair color, bodywash and soap, scent, anti-aging products, sunblock); health and pharma (e.g., OTC and prescription meds for everything from ED to HIV to COPD, to diabetes, indigestion. allergies, and epilepsy); household maintenance (e.g., dish soap, detergent, fabric softener and scent, surface care, bleach); non-alcohol drinks (e.g., tea, juice, coffee, soda, iced tea); nutritional supplements (e.g., vitamins, minerals, fish oil, probiotics); personal effects and toiletries (e.g., deodorant, A/P, diapers, razors, toothpaste); and transport, travel, and tourism. CLICK HERE for a more complete list of the market categories we've analyzed.

A cultural category is a set of rational and emotional notions, prevalent in a particular culture at a particular point in time, about any topic or subject at all: "British-ness," for example. Or — to mention a handful of the cultural categories we've analyzed over the past 15+ years — "Italian-ness," "Chinese-ness," "positive aging," "premium-ness," "luxury," "clean," "soothing," "everyday health," "confidence," "happiness," "newness," "less is more," "illumination," "freshness," "relief," "invigoration," "decision making," "role models," and so forth. CLICK HERE for a more complete list of the cultural categories we've analyzed.

Example from a sample report — available on request.

Example from a sample report — available on request.

What is a category code map?

Once identified and classified, the codes of a cultural or market category can be organized into systems of relationships characterized by distinction and difference. For example, the codes of the US beer category can be sorted along a continuum ranging from idealized at one end to pragmatic at the other. By identifying two such continuums, we can create a framework of deep-rooted category dichotomies, a competitive positioning grid known within the discipline as a "semiotic square" and outside as a "code map."

This four-quadrant grid maps a complex holistic space, against which a brand and its competitive set can be precisely plotted — thus revealing which brands are directly competing for mindshare, and which are not. The category code map also reveals opportunity areas; because once we've input our data, we become aware of empty spaces. Whether or not these spaces are "own-able" by a particular brand is a question for brand planners and strategists, for whom the category code map is a supremely useful visualization tool.