Semiotics or Cultural Analysis? When to use them via the Semiotic Sandwich

This is the first post on The Answer’s new blog, so I wanted to explain a little bit about the kind of things you’re going to read here.

The idea for this blog is to be somewhere we can write in a bit more depth and detail about subject matter we have covered elsewhere – maybe at a conference or in an article, maybe even for a project (where we’re able to share that kind of information).

So these articles may be a little longer and a touch wordier than usual, but hopefully they will be interesting deep-reads if nothing else.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the subject matter of our first post!

The purpose of this post is to make it easier to decide what kind of cultural approaches you should use for a research project.

At last week’s MRS Impact Conference we had the pleasure of presenting some of the processes and insights from the ongoing work we have done with Boots.

One of the things we discussed was the Semiotic Sandwich. Sadly we didn’t have much time to go into a lot of detail (the original explanation took up around 5 minutes of the 20 minute slot!) so this is an opportunity to find out a little more here.

In the conference presentation we used the Semiotic Sandwich shown here to help explain the difference between Cultural Analysis and Semiotics and I want to expand on the differences a little more.

Although commercial Semiotics retains a little bit of its mystery, my sense is that most people are familiar with it as the study of signs and symbols for brand visual identity, packaging, comms, social, etc.

Cultural Analysis on the other hand is a much less familiar approach. In fact it’s possible you may not have heard of it at all, even though you may actually have used it.

So what is it?

Well quite clearly it’s about analysing culture – so it’s part of the semiotics family of cultural methods (also includes things like discourse analysis, metaphor analysis, anthropology, etc.) and is often included in semiotics projects, even if not by name.

The purpose of cultural methods is to reveal insights through identifying cultural ideas that shape consumer attitudes and behaviours (and categories and brands).

We’ll be going into more detail on what this means in a future blog post (and hopefully a podcast), but here I just want to emphasise that although we sometimes think consumers are independent decision-makers (biases aside) they are thoroughly cultural animals.

Our brains, minds and bodies are like cultural sponges – they absorb cultural ideas and internalise them so that we feel as though we have come up with them ourselves.

This ability to absorb culture is our killer adaptation that enabled our relatively vulnerable species to survive in some of the most uncertain and inhospitable environments on the planet as well as giving us amazing creations like language and art and also brands.

So back to the main point - what are the key differences between Semiotics and Cultural Analysis?

So when should I use Semiotics?

Use it when you’re already happy with what your brand means, but you want to optimise how its meaning is communicated to consumers through brand VI, comms, packaging, stories, etc.

You can also use it to get deeper understanding of a category or sector and the players and competitors in it – the codes and conventions used and how they are being communicated.

And when should I use Cultural Analysis?

Use this approach if you want to redefine what your brand stands for.

This can range from re-positioning your brand to creating a brand from scratch.

It’s also the approach to take if you are looking to create new narratives or counter narratives to shift customer or public perceptions of your brand or organisation.

Let’s look at an example to help make this clear.

We’ll use Boots as the work we did with them included both Semiotics and Cultural Analysis.

One of Boots primary objectives was to define what the brand stood for given that it was seen as a bit dated and distant.

Rather than just becoming more contemporary, Boots wanted to become a brand that was a leader – a brand that stood for forward-looking values that led the way customers thought rather than just reflecting them.

Now, if the only thing we needed to do was help Boots become more modern we would have probably just used semiotics to identify what kinds of signs, symbols, language etc. they should use to communicate this idea to customers.

This is because modernity is a well-established cultural idea and there are lots of different codes out there that we could look at.

We did actually help with this for various aspects of brand identity, including the logo, which we’ll come back to momentarily.

But to help transform Boots into a leader brand we needed to find something new that Boots could own. So we went idea hunting.

In this case we were searching for counter narratives – stories that challenged the settled and conventional ways of explaining the world.

These are ideas that on the surface might look like fanciful, but that do two things: 1) have potential fit with pre-existing public values; and 2) are repeated across a range of cultural sources.

At this stage of an idea there are few codes or fixed signs and symbols so it’s about identifying a range of parameters, that will include things like:

  • Key Push and Pull Factors – what social, political, economic forces are causing new tensions in society and how are people trying to resolve these tensions

  • Values Associations - how does a new idea connect with pre-existing values

  • Narrative Structures – most importantly, how are new ideas explained in story form

Now let's have a look at how we did some Semiotics for Boots...

One of the recommendations we gave to Boots was to change the logo, because as it was it was using semiotic signs that conveyed a dated feel and contributed to some of the less positive customer perceptions of the brand.

One of the early insights we had was that there was no need to hide Boots proud heritage and that in light of a cultural shift from an EITHER/OR society to an AND ALSO society (there will be a future post on this!) Boots needed to embrace both its past and its future.

The first issue was the lozenge (see above) – it had been added to make the logo feel modern – but this kind of visual element had the reverse effect of tying the brand to an outdated semiotic sign for modernity. A big no-no!

By removing this part of the logo it freed up the more timeless, classic qualities of the 19th century style typeface to shine through.

But in order to achieve the balance between tradition and modernity right, Boots needed to show pride in its longevity, as longevity by itself can be a cultural symbol for modernity – so we added the ‘since 1849’ line beneath the logo.

This was a very simple yet effective example of using semiotics to optimise a pre-existing idea - the traditional AND ALSO modern brand.

So there it is. A brief description of the most important differences between Cultural Analysis and Semiotics and what kind of questions they can be used to answer.

There are a number of things we haven't touched on in this post, such as using Cultural Analysis for identifying underlying cultural values and other aspects such as Discourse Analysis, but don't worry we'll come to them in future posts...

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