Semiotics, Strategy, and Value Creation

by Laura R Oswald, Ph.D.

Semiotics is a hybrid of cultural anthropology and linguistics that accounts for the cultural codes structuring meaning in a set of data. Semiotics has important implications for marketers, because managing the codes consumers associate with a brand or product category actually creates brand value. The data set can include consumer interviews, retail settings, package designs, and popular media. The following case study illustrates how semiotics created value for a brand of disposable diapers by deconstructing the dominant cultural myth associated with the category and developing a distinctive and culturally relevant creative strategy. The Baby’s Best brand name is a pseudonym and does not reference any brands on the market at this publication.

The Meaning of Diapers

In practical terms, consumers buy diapers to avoid the inevitable mess created by babies who have not yet been toilet trained. However, the marketing media associate babies, mess and tidiness with ideological and moral standards related to motherhood. In a manner reminiscent of Lévi-Strauss’s ([1964] 1969) raw and cooked dimensions of culinary culture, the wet/dry binary in diaper messaging is linked to a cultural ideal associated with the Good Mother. The Mother/Bad Mother binary is embedded in a cultural paradigm that privileges control and even denial of the bodily functions, and leads to a set of binaries structuring value in the diaper category, including culture/nature, control/chaos, sacred/profane.

P&G’s Pampers leads the category by owning the Good Mother myth. In historical advertising, Pampers raises the functional benefits of dryness to the level of godliness. It associates the dry baby with a kind of victory of Culture over Nature. As the guardian of Culture, the “Good Mother” controls the liquids, flows, accidents, and messes associated with Nature. The “Bad Mother,” by implication, is out of control, messy, and unable to keep baby dry.

Furthermore, representations of the Good Mother in advertising for the category insulate mothers and babies from the messy reality of diapers in a timeless, luminous radiation. The repetition of these themes in the data set contributes to a kind of Mommy Myth that masks the real struggles of mothers. They satisfy, in the imaginary-symbolic realm, the unmet emotional needs of real moms to meet the standards society expects of them as the gatekeepers of culture.

Pampers‘ competitors face a difficult choice. They could compete head-on with Pampers with an even “better Mother” image or play at the edge of the opposite pole, the “Bad Mother.” As a result, even store and generic brands imitated the Pampers positioning in package design, leaving consumers with a bewildering array of identical products at the point of purchase. The case analysis shows how strategic semiotic research identified a new competitive space for Baby’s Best by deconstructing the Mommy Myth altogether and targeting real, everyday moms. The Real Moms positioning competed with Pampers without engaging with the Good Mother/Bad Mother dialectic at all.

Design and Methodology

Semioticians identified the Good Mother myth by decoding representations of babies, motherhood, and diapers in popular culture and advertising and exploring secondary sources in the press and the writings of experts. Researchers collected messaging from retail sites, advertising, packaging, and new products related to baby care in general. We examined popular self-help books, magazine articles, and blogs related to parenting, baby care, and motherhood. Researchers visited specialty shops in Chicago and Los Angeles, surfed websites, and examined new products, technologies, and fashion for this segment. Researchers also looked for these codes in popular television programs, movies, and magazines devoted to mothers and babies.

The data set was limited to these cultural artifacts. Primary research with consumers was conducted after the semiotic analysis of the category was completed, to flesh out in more detail consumer reactions to the Good Mother myth.

The Strategic Semiotic Analysis

The semiotic analysis began by deconstructing the Mommy Myth on a Semiotic Square into a more nuanced interpretations of motherhood and the role of diapers in that interpretation.

The Semiotic Square (Greimas ([1966] 1984) is a strategic tool derived from structural semantics that breaks down the binary oppositions structuring a category into more complex relationships, such as contrariness (i.e. not-good/not bad) and implication (i.e. good/not bad, culture/not nature). The Semiotic Square organizes the constituent elements of a semantic category on a double binary grid, comprised of three relationships: contradiction [S = S1 > S2], contrariness [-S = -S1 > -S2], and implication [-S = S1 > -S2 and -S1 > S2]. This three-dimensional structure accounts for the nuances and ambiguities that fall within the two poles of the paradigm and extends the semantic complexity of the semiotic analysis (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

The dialectical opposition of “wet” and “dry” baby frames the dominant semiotic space for the diaper category, as represented by the solid arrows joining the contradictory terms of Wet and Dry [S = s1 and s2] on the inner square. In order to account for the implication of wet and dry diapers in the ideological opposition of Nature and Culture we projected another square on top of the first one, structured by the contradictory relation of Nature to Culture, represented by a solid arrow [S1a and S2a]. This approach both anchored the physical attributes, Wet and Dry, in the cultural context and increased the number of quadrants in which to position the Baby’s Best brand.

 Pampers and its clones were positioned in the upper right corner of the grid and associate dryness with order, tidiness, and the “Good.” In order to move Baby’s Best out of the “Good Mother” quadrant and build a unique brand positioning, we deconstructed the contradictory relations structuring the category into secondary and tertiary binaries. We traced secondary relations of contrariness, i.e. not Wet and not Dry [-S = -s1 and -s2], associated by dashed arrows. We then traced tertiary relationships of implication, Wet and not Dry [s1 and -s2], and Dry and not Wet [s2 and -s1], using a dashed line.

This exercise led to the development of a new cultural paradigm for the category based on oppositions between a cultural ideal and the reality of motherhood. This paradigm emerged in a two-stage process. First, by breaking down the primary binaries (Wet/Dry, Bad/Good, Nature/Culture) into their contrary terms (i.e. Not Dry, Not Wet, etc.) analysis opened up an alternative to the rigid bifurcation of the category into moral absolutes such as Good and Bad, Nature and Culture. Second, by implicating these contrary units in each other at the lower end of the Semiotic Square, analysis identified a counter-cultural space in the diaper brandscape that called into question the Mommy Myth and its underlying beliefs and values.

For example, the implication of “Not Wet” in “Not Dry” emphasizes the role of diapers in the real transitions between these two states. In this neutral space, diapers moderate the accidents and uncertainties associated with baby’s body, Nature, and mother’s busy life—they do not erase them. Furthermore, the implication of “Not-Nature” (-S1a) in “Not-Culture” (-S2a) places in question the assumption that Nature, i.e. the messy bodily functions, transcends Culture. In fact, baby’s toilet functions are not intrinsically “bad.” They are censored from the dominant brand positioning in response to cultural biases about the role of mothers in society.

The Real Mom forms a counter-cultural space for busy moms who must negotiate the tensions between society’s ideals and the realities of modern motherhood. It also mapped out a new competitive space for Baby’s Best that side-stepped Pamper’s Good Mother myth altogether. Secondary research suggsted that the Real Mom positioning could draw momentum from counter-cultural representations of motherhood in the popular culture. The counter culture uses irony to soften the blows of the cultural critique, making light of the ideal mother without violating the sacred sanctions protecting family, mother, and apple pie in American culture. Programs such as Roseanne and The Simpsons use humor to demystify motherhood, give vent to the frustrations of every day moms, and provide an alternative representation of motherhood for the Baby’s Best brand.

The disposable diaper category has lost value over the years due to a lack of brand differentiation. Generic and store brands claim a growing share of market by simply copying Pampers‘ Good Mother myth in packaging and merchandising that feature stereotypes of perfect babies and saintly moms. Failure to challenge Pampers‘ cultural positioning has lowered competition and profitability across the category. Baby’s Best‘s innovative positioning opened new possibilities for competitive difference within the disposable diaper category based upon contemporary, more realistic expectations and perceptions of motherhood. As a result, strategic semiotic research proved essential for growing value in the category as a whole.

Laura Oswald, Ph.D. is founding director of Marketing Semiotics Inc. based in Chicago.

She can be reached via Twitter at @MarketSemiotics

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