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Creative Semiotics is a boutique consultancy, which uses semiotics as a fuel for driving strategic direction and creative innovation.
“The results were really insightful, have provided us with a vital reference point and are foundational for our new marketing plans.”
Semiotics is particularly useful when launching a new brand or when undertaking a brand stretch. How do you create a premium brand in the chocolate category in the UK? How do you launch a new global pharmaceutical brand into a completely new area of treatment?
Semiotics can be part of the solution by revealing the patterns of communication, representation and meaning across categories (the colours, symbols, visual metaphors etc) the codes that are key to unlocking meaning and value. This is precious brand understanding.
This might involve a category analysis mapping out the visual metaphors used to convey pain relief or to represent euphoria in pharmaceutical communication or might involve laying out a menu of different ways to convey simplicity or authenticity in food packaging. Semiotics equips us with visual signs and cues to consumer response. It is joined up thinking showing how culture works to give signs power.
Semiotics brand understanding helps us understand such issues as the changing meanings of gold as a luxury signifier or how pink and black have over time become less gendered also esoteric topics such as the meaning of ‘glow’ or the notion of ‘vibrant’ as a core brand promise.
“In a recent project, semiotics was the 'key' that unlocked the consumer insight around which our entire concept is now based.”
Semiotics helps to make the invisible visible and opens up new vistas for brands. It is valued for its provocative stance and its ability to bring fresh perspectives to bear.
For example, on a NPD project in the US, the semiotic analysis showed how military discourses underlay communication in the air purification category. In a brand and category audit for a chocolate brand, the analysis showed how packaging was conveying Victorian repression, a restraint that ran counter to the direction of cultural change in the chocolate category. In a project for The Wrigley Company, semiotics helped open up white space opportunities that led to creation of a completely new brand – see more in the case study. In all these examples, semiotic insight informed what the client decided to do.
On project after project, semiotics confounds settled assumptions and opens up new avenues for thinking. Semiotic brand inspiration is rooted in rigorous research and a red thread of logic that can be evidenced in tangible visual examples. Semiotic thinking can be used in workshops so as to inspire in house teams.
“Chris' semiotic analysis of packaging codes was of the highest standard while being pragmatic and addressing the challenges and questions of the client.”
Businesses sometimes have crucial decisions to make about how to convey what they stand for. This might be a need to assess the merits of a new logo or a whole corporate identity imprint necessitated, for instance by a merger. When these decisions carry significant consequences for competitive advantage or stakeholder approval, semiotics is a valuable part of intelligence in reducing risk. Semiotics predicts the likely interpretation of each option, laying out the pros and cons and the ramifications for resulting brand identity.
The semiotic intervention clarifies the way forward and companies can make decisions with more confidence and less risk. Evaluations tend to be less time consuming than other types of study because they usually do not involving gathering additional materials. They are a highly cost effective option and work well alongside discussion groups. Packaging studies tend to be more frequent as packs are more important than ever as factors in purchase preference but can be low involvement for customers who may struggle to articulate what drives preference.
Semiotics can look at any type of communication material from ads to packaging. Brand evaluation has been successfully applied to brand strategy, packaging development and brand logo development.
“The learnings changed the way we thought about the topic, leading to tangible implementation of recommendations.”
We live in a globalized world, but while tastes are arguable becoming more homogenous, brands still need to take account of local differences. Communication codes differ significantly per market. Just look at a show reel of international beer communication to see evidence of this. Even regions with a common language and history such as North America and Britain show significant differences. For instance, when it comes to packaging, the notion of simplicity is not as simple as you might think. Codes of simplicity vary substantially across the world from the penchant for the baroque in Mexico, to the use of WW2 austerity retro in the UK to a spare minimalism in Japan.
Creative Semiotics works with a strong network of local partners to understand how meaning can be best inflected to ensure that brand offerings are best tailored towards every market involved. We did this recently for a project on Brand Mexico conducted within 10 markets. Global intelligence has been applied to brand launch, brand architecture, new product innovation and country branding projects. Inter cultural is part and parcel of every good semiotics project.
A Japanese car manufacturer wanted to understand the cultural trajectory of car communications in the UK in order to brief their agency on more evocative articulations of a European proposition.
The role for semiotics was to look at brand communications across the car sector going back 5 years and to pull out the principal communication codes and what they said about the car and its cultural meanings in the UK.
A catalogue of codes of car communication (organicism, digitization, regression etc) sorted into residual, dominant and emergent plus a diagnosis of the car industry and its influence on advertising. This eventually led to the agency to whom the work was given developing an impactful launch ad for the Toyota GT86.
The Wrigley Company in the US was tasked with developing an entirely new brand for a mature teen audience. This was a market segment which was being exploited by competitor brands but where Wrigley felt it was underperforming.
The role for semiotics was to analyze the pack and advertising codes in the gum market in the US and to compare the messages and meanings then percolating with youth sub cultures at large in the mid 2000s.
The role was to identify cultural spaces which could be used as inspiration for creating a new brand.
Wrigley’s 5 has been one of the most successful product launches ever. Its packaging, which stemmed from a semiotic insight has won a number of awards. At time of writing the client estimated that the brand had garnered a 10% share of the multi billion US gum market.
KIA cars wanted to translate its mission statement of Challenging Spirit into a creative idea of vibrancy. They tasked their strategic partner eYeka – a global crowd sourcing hub – with sourcing dynamic videos from a creative community that could bring this idea to life for use in social media channels.
The role for semiotics was to firstly clarify what different forms ‘vibrancy’ - quite a diffuse concept - could take and the n to analyze and interpret over 100 creative entries. The semiotics added value by unpacking and separating out the different dimensions of vibrancy [KINAESTHETIC ENERGY, CREATIVITY ETC] and in making recommendations on the most appropriate mix to employ.
KIA was able to select winners with the confidence that these tapped into the particular brand of vibrancy best suited to KIA in drive interest and interactions. These short films are being used online as part of KIA’s social media engagement strategy.
The De la Riva agency was tasked with creating a fresh narrative for Mexico in the wake of the election of a new President with a mandate for change. The brief to Creative Semiotics therefore as to co-ordnate a project looking at the dominant and emergent associations with Mexico going beyond the clichés. This was to be used as a knowledge bank for a syndicate of organizations seeking to attract investment and tourism.
The role for semiotics was to co-ordinate a network of cultural experts across 10 key markets. These experts were given some prototypical images and were asked to supplement these with references to Mexico in the local context. Creative Semiotics then consolidated these reports into a global story with common themes.
De La Riva received a detailed report which sets out the core cultural associations and sketches out a menu of 8 future Mexico narratives which all have potential to work as nation branding and soft power strategies.
Creative semiotics was started in 2010 by semiotician Chris Arning. To date we have worked on projects with brands as diverse as VW, Sainsbury's, Boots and the BBC.
Chris Arning specialises in semiotics and cultural insight, with over 10 years of international experience both as a qualitative researcher and semiotician. He has a BA in History from UCL, an MA in International Relations from Warwick University a Postgraduate Diploma in strategic marketing from Chartered Institute of Marketing and studied semiotics under Prof Marcel Danesi at University of Toronto.
As Head of Semiotics at leading research firm Flamingo Research he designed and led semiotics projects for companies as diverse as Pepsico, Pernod Ricard, O2, Manchester City FC and the World Gold Council. He has presented at a number of conferences from ESOMAR in Venice to Sem Tech in San Francisco and has published academic papers in journals such as Semiotica and Social Semiotics.
In October 2010 he set up Creative Semiotics Ltd, a boutique semiotics consultancy. He has lived in Madrid, Toronto and Tokyo and speaks both Spanish and Japanese.
"Semiotic research is a powerful tool that helps us to better understand and codify different aspects of the categories in which we compete.
The fundamental elements that it reveals are immediately understandable and applicable to new concept development, packaging, and even product innovation. In a recent project, semiotics was the 'key' that unlocked the consumer insight around which our entire concept is now based."
Joe Gottschalk, Senior Director, Consumer and Market Insights, The Wrigley Company
"We briefed Chris to conduct a semiotics study across three regions, the output of which was to inform not just the fabric conditioners brands but the broader Unilever Global laundry category. Chris delivered a piece of work that exceeded our expectations, with an original and inventive approach to the brief. The learnings changed the way we thought about the topic, leading to tangible implementation of recommendations."
Maeve Bayles, Global Brand Manager, Unilever
"I recently worked with Chris on a global spirits project looking at cognac packaging codes and was impressed by his engagement and dedication to the project. His semiotic analysis of packaging codes was of the highest standard while being pragmatic and addressing the challenges and questions of the client."
Antje Weissenborn, HTP Concept, Berlin
"We briefed Chris to run a semiotics study on the UK chocolate market. The results were really insightful, have provided us with a vital reference point and are foundational for our new marketing plans. Chris's presentation was really impressive, and the project outcomes were accessible and actionable."
Laura Koenig, Consumer & Market Insight Market, Lindt & Sprüngli
If you want to find out more about semiotics, here are some recommended readings:
- Danesi, Marcel The Quest for Meaning (U of T Press, 2007)
- Daniel Chandler Semiotics for Beginners good online primer on semiotics (launch)
- Lawes, Rachel ‘Demystifying Semiotics’ (1999)
- Crow, David Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics (AVA Books, 2007)
- Hall, Stuart Representation and Signifying Practices (Sage, 1993)
- Mollerup, Per Marks of Excellence (Phaidon; 1999)
- Jean Marie Floch Semiotics, Marketing and Communication (Palgrave, 2001)
- Arning, Chris & Dr. Alex Gordon ‘Sonic Semiotics: Sound and Music in Marketing Communications’ (ESOMAR, 2006)
- Williamson, Judith Decoding Advertisement (London; Marion Boyars: 1979)
- Arvidsson, A. Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture (London: Routledge: 2005)
- Oswald, Laura Marketing Semiotics: Signs, Strategies and Brand Value (Oxford: OUP: 2010)
- Holt, Douglas & Douglas Cameron Cultural Strategy (Oxford: OUP: 2011)
- Rowland, Greg ‘The Slag of All Semioticians’ (MRS Paper, 2003)
Here are some thinkpieces and papers that will be of interest to those who want to go deeper into semiotics