The true value of semiotics and cultural insight

For this month’s edition of On Rotation, we are very pleased to welcome a guest writer Alex Gordon, CEO of Sign Salad. Founded 16 years ago, Sign Salad are passionate practitioners of cultural understanding and semiotic principles to deliver commercial benefit to brands. 

When it comes to understanding how people think and act, you can’t afford to underestimate the influence of cultural context. If brands are able to grasp the opportunities they have for cultural leverage, they will be able to drive more effective, strategic and creative decisions and deliver better commercial outcomes. Applying the learnings of cultural insight ensures greater brand effectiveness and it’s a key way to win in crowded categories. Understanding how cultural change affects your brand can magnify and sharpen its difference, distinctiveness and relevance.

The key tool of cultural insight is Semiotics. This methodology identifies cultural codes & narratives, and the visual and language signs & symbols in the world around us. Cultural codes strongly influence consumer behaviour, motivations, purchasing decisions and attitudes, even if the consumer is not overtly aware of this process.

Through an analysis of how culture changes over time – and the imagery and language that brings it to life – brands can uncover the underlying motivations behind automatic, unconscious, everyday consumer decision making. Armed with this insight, brands can gain competitive advantage by staying culturally relevant and distinctive.

This is vital for brands because they are inseparable from the culture that surrounds them.  They are not merely vehicles or wrapping for products, brands have become cultural artefacts in their own right.  Brands can become more valuable & meaningful to consumers by optimally aligning the narratives and cues they use with culture.

Culture impacts mental availability. The now familiar work conducted by the Ehrenburg-Bass Institute and Byron Sharp, contends that the amount of space available in people’s brains to remember brands and categories is limited.  As a result, more effective branded packaging and advertising drives stronger mental availability – that is awareness and memory of those brands. Cultural insight analyses using semiotics clearly demonstrate that where this marketing is culturally aligned, it is more effective and able to build mental availability.

Unlike traditional qualitative research methodologies, cultural insight analysts and semioticians do not talk to consumers directly because they are seeking to uncover why consumers, often unconsciously, think and behave as they do, not just what they think. The data set they analyse is based on what consumers see in culture around them and what they share in social media. It sits very comfortably alongside qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, providing additional context for, and bridging the gap between, what people say and why they say and think it. 

Understanding emergent cultural narratives, and the visual and language cues representing such cultural change, is crucial to provide a framework for making fundamental decisions about your brand, what you want it to mean, and what you can do with its positioning, comms, digital presence, and other channels. This requires a long-term, ongoing engagement with the cultural dynamics of your brand and the context in which it sits, and we would say expert support and input to achieve this.

Why should you include cultural insight and semiotics in your approach?

  1. To identify new cultural opportunity spaces for strategic development (positioning and innovation).
  2. To deepen understanding of a category and the cultural changes affecting both it and consumers.
  3. To future-proof your brand and increase its mental-availability.
  4. To strengthen the ability to make informed strategic, tactical and creative decisions, and reduce business-risk, based on stronger understanding of future consumer behaviour based on cultural change.  
  5. To provide creative stimulus to inspire & unlock new exciting designs, and provide a strong tactical rationale to evolve less culturally relevant brand visual assets.
  6. To enable greater confidence to move forward with exciting new creative work.

The Sign Salad team consists of trained semioticians, linguists, anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, planners, strategists, and more, all of whom have been trained in the Sign Salad blend of cultural and commercial insight. The agency is based in London, however, they have extensive experience working across global markets – utilising in-house cultural expertise as well as a network of cultural insight partners based on-the-ground across the globe.

Sign Salad have conducted thousands of cultural insight & semiotic projects across 50 markets, for strategic, tactical, and creative brand challenges, investigating a wide range of consumer categories – from FMCG/CPG, retail, media, & tech, to financial services, pharmaceutical, fashion, media, automotive and aerospace.

Sign Salad has won and been shortlisted for a range of industry awards, including the AURA Insight Impact Award, MRS Cultural Insight Award, and AURA Best Agency Speaker Award.

Sign Salad partners with Trinity McQueen on projects ensuring that clients have a deep and comprehensive understanding of consumer attitudes, motivations, behaviour, and purchasing decisions, AND the influences prompting them and changing them.  Armed with the integrated findings of consumer and cultural insight, our clients are able to make highly informed decisions to achieve growth.