For those who recognise the need for more meaningful communications, semiotics provides a powerful toolset.
Making Sense of Semiotics
For business leadership that recognises the fundamental importance of meaning in our lives, semiotic research provides the tools to take it to the next level. But many professional researchers – to say nothing of successful business leaders – are just hearing about semiotics for the first time. What’s all the buzz about?
Semiotics is the study of signs and what they stand for. Simply put, it’s a set of theories and methods that can help us make the best possible use of meaning. It’s all about understanding how experiences get wrapped up in evaluations and judgments that motivate people to think or act one way or another. Semiotics provides a key to unlocking the often dormant potential in brands, services, products, or other offerings. And it can hone things like marketing or advertising campaigns to a razor edge of effectiveness. But unlike other transplants from academia like anthropology, the role and value of semiotics for achieving business objectives isn’t always clearly understood.
For the past ten years, I’ve used semiotics successfully in the course of my international research and strategy work for well-known clients like Reebok, Levi’s®, The Coca-Cola Company, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, and Eli Lilly.
In 2011 Church’s Chicken® and Texas Chicken® leadership launched a bold initiative to develop international guidelines intended to cultivate brand resonance and drive guest preference. Together with my partners at Atlanta-based brand consultancy Culture, I was tasked with identifying opportunities for these sister brands, informed by semiotic research, market immersions, and ethnography. Based on this experience, I’ve outlined how semiotics can help you identify and integrate new dimensions of meaning that yield increased relevance, recognition and performance.
Step 1 – Preliminary Research: Establish a Cultural & Historical Context
Too many businesses focus on innovation without doing their homework to learn what their most important customers or guests love about them. Semiotics provided us with a rich set of tools to establish a context for the relationship between brand and customer.
After being provided with quantitative target segmentation and existing Usage & Attitudes studies for background, here’s how we applied semiotics during this foundational phase:
- Explore the significance of the core offerings. Where do they come from? What do they mean for customers or guests? How do they fundamentally differ from other offerings in the same market space? What symbols and visual codes are associated with offerings, and which have proliferated most successfully through channels such as advertising, social media and the press?
- Identify periods of maximum and minimum resonance for the brand. At what points in the history of the brand did it enjoy the most relevance? Which narratives or storylines associated with the brand or offerings were best-received or performed most strongly, and which failed to get traction? Why? Answers to questions like these make it possible to exploit the potential inherent in yesterday’s successes, while avoiding the pitfalls of past mistakes that shouldn’t be repeated.
- Establish the cultural context for primary need states and occasions. What larger story is the brand a part of? What archetypes are central to that story? How are they represented? How do offerings fit into the bigger picture of macro-trends, family and social relationships, lifestyle aspirations, and challenges or pressures that customers are facing? What external forces (things covered in a STEEP analysis, for example) bear on these circumstances?
In the case of our work for Church’s Chicken and Texas Chicken we conducted an in-depth semiotic study of chicken. This covered things like its importance as a relatively inexpensive and hence more accessible protein source, the cultural currency of the animal as a projected basis for metaphorical conceptualization of family (e.g. ‘mother hen’ and chicks), and of fried chicken as a dish with roots in the Southern USA. We also gathered and reviewed advertising and other communications all the way back to the inception of these sister brands. This proved invaluable for subsequent project phases.
Step 2 – Fieldwork: Ask The Right Questions & Look For The Right Things in the Right Places
After establishing context in the first phase it becomes possible to develop focused hypotheses about how and why a brand fits into the lives of the target audience. This maximises the value of research dollars spent by ensuring that teams are armed with knowledge of what to look for, and what questions to ask, before fieldwork begins.
Directly asking consumers questions such as, “What do you like best about brand so-and-so?” or “What could we be doing better?” usually yields relatively shallow and incremental insights. But asking questions informed by semiotics based on an established context of meaning sets the stage for breakthrough inspiration tied to the core life experiences the brand is intertwined with. For example, preliminary semiotic research revealed the importance of family rituals and group meals, which in turn provided a foundation for a whole battery of questions intended to dimensionalise the emotional experience of providing food for one’s family.
Important aspects of our fieldwork for Church’s Chicken and Texas Chicken that were informed by semiotics included creation of ethnographic discussion and engagement guides, preparation of visual stimuli, and immersion planning.
Semiotics is critical here because quantitative targeting based on typical segmentation and competitive landscape studies usually reveal a lack of important dimensions of meaning – particularly as related to emotions and fundamental values. It is precisely these aspects that are most important for creating a connection when speaking to customers. Talking with them about things that are truly meaningful in their lives sets the stage for trust and deeper discussions, for conversations about things that truly matter to them. This tends to yield insight with greater relevance and significance than would typically be possible without recourse to semiotic research.
But semiotics isn’t just useful for preparation of materials, it also provides context for observations made in the field. For example, we frequently observed customers putting the food from their multi-serving carryout onto plates and serving it to groups. Semiotics shed light on how the food cued associations with community events and meaningful collective experiences of mealtime. Fried chicken triggered memories of things like church events and family rituals. In the USA, where negative perceptions of ‘fast food’ are on the rise, these associations amount to ‘meaning equity’ that can make the difference between continued growth and rapid decline.
Step 3 – Analysis & Recommendations: Raise The Right Banner in The Right Place
What do you do once you’ve got your insights? Coming up with great ideas or break-through approaches to achieving goals is just the beginning. How do you make them actionable, and ensure that they come to life for the organization in ways that are reflected at all brand touch points? These are important questions, especially because the arrival and departure of new management teams often corresponds to a kind of institutional drift or schizophrenia, as first one then another more-or-less arbitrary communication trend is embraced across the lifespan of the organization.
In this respect, semiotics has proved its value in the course of our engagements in two basic areas:
- Outward-facing marketing and communications. When properly applied, semiotics can provide a window into what the brand, product or service is really about. It can be used to identify the fundamental narratives that relate most directly to how people experience the offerings. This is the indispensable foundation for communications resonance that captures attention and drives breakthrough growth.
- Inward-facing organisational alignment. Semiotics is also about how to project meaning within the organization. In short, it gives stakeholders a clear understanding of the meaningful story of which they’re a part. While leadership is often focused on outward-facing communications – for good reason – it’s also important to raise a flag inside the company to foster alignment, raise morale, and coordinate efforts. How can members of an organization effectively do their jobs without understanding what their work ultimately means to customers?
In order to memorialise our insights and findings for Church’s Chicken and Texas Chicken leadership, we created a variety of deliverables to help ensure that our work provided a lasting basis for brand optimization, communications, and institutional alignment. These included workshops and presentations, ‘voice of customer’ videos, and a series of brand and customer insights books corresponding to each of the major geographic regions in which these two brands operate across the world.
According to Church’s Chicken and Texas Chicken CEO Jim Hyatt, The semiotic research and insight work undertaken by the Culture team was “extremely helpful in our positioning and in getting us to the appropriate decisions” and the outcomes driven by this work “are in place today globally”.
Make Your Work More Meaningful
If you’re among those who have recognised the need for more meaningful brands, products and services – both for organizational alignment and for more effective communication of value(s) to customers – semiotics might be the right tool for you. It can provide essential context at the outset of research projects, inform fieldwork as well as analysis, and help organizations to stake a claim to meaningful territory in the memory and imagination of the people who are critical to their success.
Oliver Perrin is a semiotician and Partner at Culture.