In the San Francisco Bay area, a place dominated by Google, Apple and Facebook, culture is permeated with messages about the crucial need for innovation. We’re told that innovation lives in the space between intelligence and dreams; it’s nimble, creative thinking that frees itself from the confines of convention. We need innovation, the story goes, because there’s an increasingly higher bar set by competition. According to Fast Company, ‘Exceptional is expected.’

Creative thinking is required whether innovation is big or small. While innovation helps brands meet changing technological needs, it also helps generate new ideas in static brand and product spaces. Even consumer goods such as toilet paper have benefited from micro-innovations redirecting stale energy in their category. And, while meeting competitive challenges is key, it’s also important to incorporate innovative thinking into every aspect of brand development, including strategic R&D decision-making.

This leads to a crucial question- how do we get to creative thinking that makes a difference? As a commercial semiotician and trained researcher, I’m not going to tell you that semiotics alone has the answer. Research methodologies are often best used in sync to offer multiple perspectives and answer complex questions that drive product and brand development. But, I will tell you that semiotics can provide the ‘special sauce’ that makes innovative brand and product decisions sing.

Creative leaps are tough, and even incremental innovation requires creative associations that may not be immediately accessible. For example, consider the innovation inspiration workshop, traditionally fueled by brand and competitor positioning data, pipeline projects, target segment profiles, and social trends material. The problem is, these materials don’t feel fresh for the team charged with being ‘creative.’ The stimulus isn’t there, and they find themselves churning out the same list of ‘insights’ as in prior years. Turning to your own category for innovation inspiration can also result in recycled ideas rather than the bold leaps and unexpected juxtapositions that mark truly compelling thinking.

Considering these challenging conditions for creative innovation, I’d like to highlight the role semiotics can play as an innovation inspiration tool. Semiotic insights can feel fresh and unexpected, jolting brand teams into new conceptual spaces and opportunities. Semiotics also offers a vision of possibilities beyond immediate brand and category expectations since it draws from a broader brand and consumer context, offering deeper resources to plumb.

Semiotics reveals fresh thinking about brands, categories and culture

So, we know innovation requires fresh thinking – going beyond the mainstream, everyday view. As Apple’s classic ‘Think Different’ imperative implies, this is about reflecting and articulating emergent, alternative and compelling beliefs about the world.

Semiotics excavates the foundations of cultural meaning associated with the linguistic, visual, gestural and sensory world we live in. This meaning is encoded in our everyday world, but semiotics makes these codes obvious. In doing so, semiotics makes clear how brands leverage cultural codes to maintain their symbolic heft. Semiotics tells us why the scent of fresh apple pie is powerful, even when replicated in a fast food setting, and why Levi’s couldn’t do without its red tab. Importantly, semiotics reveals which codes are mainstream, and which reflect emergent beliefs about the world. Emergent codes offer clues as to how brands can stay fresh in the evolving marketplace.

For example, the recent renaissance in yogurt fostered a range of brands reflecting consumer beliefs about staying healthy. A semiotic analysis reveals two extremes in the yogurt category landscape. There are yogurts focused on sweet indulgence – in a sense nourishing our ‘spirit,’ and those focused on proactive health, which appeal to our need for rational health management – essentially nourishing our minds. But, analysis also reveals opportunity spaces linking nourishment with a sense of place and origin. This reflects emergent beliefs about the relationship between the human body and spirit and sense of place. That is, this opportunity space connects health to a kind of yogurt terroir (Saint Benoit), an emergent, increasingly salient idea. More recently, savory yogurts (e.g. Blue Hill) have carved out a space combining the terroir approach with indulgence, reflecting other shifts in foodie culture and everyday nourishment.


St Benoit Yogurt image from



Blue Hill Yogurt image from








The fact that semiotics helps contextualize these (albeit smaller) innovations is essential. Moves into broader, less familiar yogurt territory wouldn’t be possible without understanding both the layout of the category, and opportunities offered by emergent cultural shifts.

Semiotics offers ways to finesse and elaborate category themes and highlight routes into uncharted territory

Let’s face it, micro-innovations within established categories drive success for most consumer brands and products. These innovations require more finesse to feel freshly compelling.

Previously, I mentioned that semiotics offers a way to structure and map category landscapes within a cultural context. Positioning work offering a point of view about opportunity spaces is a core dimension of any innovation effort. But, semiotics also offers the opportunity to scan analogue categories for brand inspiration. Analyzing analogue categories offers less expected ideas, elicits fresh insights and fuels creative springboards.

Analogue categories are brand categories that share qualities, essences and even sensory inputs. For example, consider how the language of simplicity (in images, language and design) is leveraged by natural food brands. This language of simplicity connects ideals of purity to the body, reflecting our cultural beliefs about how pure our bodies should be. These ideals of purity are also carried through skincare brands. Skincare has long evolved in sympathy with natural food brand codes – both categories freely borrow codes from one another since they share this same essence of purity.

Looking across categories semiotically offers a broader arena from which to pull inspiration, and opens up the repertoire of available themes to creatively leverage in product development and brand communication.

Importantly, this broader repertoire of inspirational nuggets invites play and experimentation – the combination and creative disruption of codes stimulates the evolution of new meaning, innovative thinking and problem solving. It’s not simply borrowing across categories, but the creative combination and hybridization of codes that marks true innovation and new expression.

Massimo Leone outlines this in his wonderful article ‘The Dancing Cop: Semiotics and Innovation’ (Southern Semiotic Review, 2013) which relates the story of the Filipino traffic cop who innovatively merged his traffic direction repertoire with Michael Jackson moves to create an entirely different experience for drivers.

While incremental innovation often emerges from exploiting gaps or emergent themes in the category, innovations that leap into truly different territories hybridize codes more fearlessly, and in a way that’s less easily duplicated.

A fun example of this has emerged in renewable energy. Uncharted Play’s Soccket is a soccer ball that stores kinetic energy generated by play. Soccket generates light and powers small appliances. It’s a boon to developing nations, where people have limited access to a power grid.

Briefly, every aspect of the Soccket, from design to product name, innovatively merges themes regarding play+power+self-powered+empowered in a way that makes the connection fresh, yet very clear to consumers. These themes are so accessible for consumers because they’re already heavily leveraged in analogous categories: toys, sporting goods, technology and energy.


The Soccket image from








Guiding principles for innovation inspiration via semiotics

While the rigor of semiotics can’t be fully represented here, there are guiding principles driving the work. Employing semiotics ensures input fresh and diverse enough to inspire even the dullest innovation workshop:

  1. Understand the fundamentals of the category using a cultural (not traditional marketing) lens. What’s the category ‘about’ within culture? What’s the essence? Which cues within its symbolic landscape (language, imagery, gestures, sensory associations, juxtapositions and relationships,) speak to key cultural drivers?


  1. Systematically analyze the competitive set and cultural themes leveraged. This requires recognizing and analyzing semiotic patterns across a full body of brand communications over time, including packs and retail spaces, where relevant. Once the map is drawn, identify opportunity spaces and emergent ideas.


  1. Find the relevant and culturally resonant analogue brands/categories. Brand/category analogues are crucial contextual tools offering insight into variations in rules of code use, and fresh interpretations of cultural themes. Think broadly about the idea of ‘category’ as well. For example, what are the parallels between confections and popular music (pre-Dark Horse Katy Perry comes to mind)?


  1. Look at changes within the broader cultural context. What are the emerging values and beliefs? What can we learn about how brands interact with the changing cultural context? Emergent themes and cultural cues may speak to an evolving category, from a product, communication or consumer relationship perspective.


  1. Maintain a continuous dialogue among these key elements throughout the process. Culture is an ever-changing moving target.

Semiotics helps ignite creativity and inspire innovative thinking in several ways. First, semiotics lays bare opportunities presented by positioning gaps and emergent codes within categories. Semiotics also helps us understand the variance in how emergent ideas are communicated by enabling analysis and comparison across categories. In revealing the full breath of emergent cultural cues, semiotic work broadens the pool of creative resources to draw from. Semioticians use the guiding principles above to ensure that we draw from cultural resources that are fresh and diverse.

Once these fresh codes are identified, the path to innovation, the unique combination and hybridization of codes, becomes clear. In other words, semioticians specializing in brand innovation like to think like Steinbeck: Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.


Ramona Lyons, Ph.D. is a freelance semiotician and brand and cultural insights specialist based in San Francisco.