The Role of Semiotics in Marketing

May 13th, 2012   •   4 comments   

semiotics in marketing
Of course one needn’t be too explicit with signs… (source of image)

What is the relationship between signs and marketing communications? Why do certain symbols and icons work more effectively in reaching consumers than others?

A brand of cultural anthropology which looks at the use of signs and symbols as a means of communicating and conveying meaning, semiotics is a vital discipline in the science of marketing communications, advertising and branding. 

Defining Semiotics

According to, there are two inter-related definitions of what semiotics mean, namely:

  1. The study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior. This also includes the analysis of the systems of communication, as language, gestures, or clothing.
  2. A general theory of signs and symbolism, usually divided into the branches of pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics.

To understand what pragmatics, semantics and syntactics mean, let us dive deeper into Wikipedia, namely:

  1. Semantics: Relations between signs and the things to which they refer to. It focuses on the relationship between signifiers, like words, phrases, signs, and symbols, and what they stand for; ie their denotation.
  2. Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures. An example is the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language (eg grammar).
  3. Pragmatics: Relationship between signs and the effects they have on the people who use them based on their context, pre-existing knowledge, inferred intent, and other factors.

In marketing and branding, semiotics play a key role in determining the success or failure of any endeavour.

Through the effective deployment of verbal, visual and performative (ie actions by the consumer) elements, companies can strengthen their reach to their customers.

These symbolic elements include logos, rituals, cultural symbols, colours, iconic individuals, text, advertisements, websites, physical environments, hospitality and service, tag lines and other “touch points”.

Semiotics – the science of holistic brand communications

Wait a minute. Isn’t branding all about influencing these elements anyway? What’s the difference then?

In this well-written article by Laura Oswald of Marketing Semiotics Inc, she explains the following:

“Semiotic theories and methods can be used to identify trends in popular culture, understand how consumer attitudes and behavior are formed in relation to popular culture, including brands, and how marketing and advertising programmes can best meet the needs of consumers by improving communication with the end user.”

The article goes on to explain that semiotics involves the “collection and analysis of data drawn from communication of all kinds – artistic or everyday, in all kinds of media including verbal, visual, and olfactory” and is useful for “clarifying brand equities in the brand audit, then tracking the implementation of these equities across all elements of the marketing mix.”

Semiotics involves studying cultural trends, language, non-verbal cues, behavioural norms, social etiquette, and rituals. It also includes understanding how the various sensory and emotional stimuli of a brand interact with each other or influences its targeted recipient.

What this tells us is that implementing a consistent brand communications programme alone isn’t enough. Rather, one should adopt a more holistic approach which involves studying the unique context of where the communications takes place.

By doing so, we can better predict and control how consumers would respond to a brand given their current socio-cultural contexts.

Implementing semiotics in marketing

The next time you consider rolling out a fancy brand name, logo, renovated shop front or new product feature, think about what your total package of signs and symbols mean to your consumers before doing so.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there synergy between what you’re trying to convey and what your staff are saying at the shops?
  • How does culture influence the way different shapes, colours, and words are perceived?
  • Are the different symbols and signs used in your communications coherent and synergistic?
  • Do you foresee any clashes in meaning between what you seek to project, and what your audience may perceive?
  • Can customers associate your visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile stimuli with your product or service?
  • Are you giving the wrong impression with that bright fluorescent pink packaging that you’re investing in?

By embracing the tenets of semiotic analysis, our chances of making a real impact on our consumer’s lives – and our bottomlines – may improve significantly. Doing so also helps us to avoid the unfortunate gaffes which may sometimes arise from a poor understanding of how consumers perceive and react to different stimuli.

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  1. Idea Aunty
    posted on May 14, 2012 at 12:11 AM

    Hi Walter,
    We are fortunate to have a leading research thinker on this subject basef in Singapore. Dr Neil Gains throygh his company Tapestry Works runs courses on this very subject.

    Angela Koch

  2. posted on May 14, 2012 at 8:45 AM

    Thanks for this well-written article on the importance of semiotics in market communication

    Karin Sandelin, Semiotican at TNS SIFO, Sweden

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