What is semiotics and how is it used?

Posted by Ray Poynter 17 July 2018

Sign with two directionsAt the most basic level, semiotics is the study of how meaning is made. We often hear that semiotics is the study of signs, but that is only true when we take a very broad view of what a sign is, i.e. anything that communicates a meaning beyond itself. For example, the word Rose is a sign that can signify the plant, and the plant (a red rose) can be a sign that signifies love or passion (or the England rugby team).

At one level, we all interpret signs every day of our lives, we negotiate the signage of human interactions, purchases, work, travel etc. In most cases we do this successfully because we have learned how to decode and use the signs in our everyday lives. However, the ability to understand how other people interpret signs, how new signs might be interpreted, and the linkage between different signs is a specialised discipline, that of the semiotician.

Where semiotics becomes useful to marketers, market researchers, and insight professionals is where we hope to change behaviour, which typically means either creating new signs, or changing the way that signs are interpreted. For example, a brand wants to launch a new breakfast cereal that is targeted at people who want to improve their digestive health. Semiotics can help determine what signs/messages should be used, what signs/messages should be avoided, and whether proposed options are likely to have the desired impact.

Semiotics is set to boom
In the past, a large part of the insight process was occupied by collecting data, most of it quantitative. How many people buy something, when do they use it, how much do they use each time, what advertising have they seen etc. Big Data is increasingly providing more and more data on what is happening, but relatively little insight into what things mean. Semiotics provides a great complement to Big Data, helping people understand how meaning is made, and where the best opportunities for change are.

Can’t everybody read signs?No bikes conePerhaps the answer to this question should be yes, in the sense that you could follow a study route that e

xplored semiotics and then adopt life choices that meant that you spend time with semioticians, learning their trade. But in a practical sense, most of us (me included) do not have the skills, and we should consult with semioticians when serious work is needed.

For example, here is a photograph I took near an apartment I was staying at in Tokyo.

What does this signify? To the untrained eye it would firstly signify ‘no bikes’ and further it would signify a place where bikes were not parked.

No bike cone with bikesBut, consider this second photo, taken near the same spot, a few days later. Note, this is how this spot usually looks during the day.

Now, what do we think the sign signifies? The first photo was taken during a public holiday, when the neighbourhood was very quiet. The second photo was taken on a typical workday.

If we look at the first photo again we see:

  • The words ‘bikes prohibited’, written in Japanese on the cone.
  • A picture with a red circled with a bar across it and a picture of a bike – an international sign banning bikes.
  • ‘No bicycle parking’ written in English.
  • A blue flag attached to the cone, repeating the message ‘bikes prohibited’.

If the sign had really signified a place where bike parking does not happen, would it really have had the same message four times? What the sign and the second photo show is that this is a place where bicycle parking happens – and where some people would like it to not happen.

What semiotics can help us realise is that making the sign clearer is not going to deal with the problem of inappropriate parking of bikes. Shifting the focus to an emotional message, or to visible enforcement might make a difference, but it will probably be necessary to understand why people feel this is a place for parking bicycles – before tackling the problem.

Learning more about Semiotics
Semiotics has a long history in marketing research, stretching back to innovators like Ginny Valentine, and through pioneers like Rachel Lawes. More recently we have seen exciting new ideas like quantitative semiotics. If you want to find out more about semiotics and associated areas, here are some NewMR recordings that will help:

If you know of other semiotics resources or introductions, please use the comments to add a note about them.

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