Semiotics and Ethnography – the cultural signs of the self

He’s got a beard, skinny jeans and heavily tattooed arms but he’s drinking a piña colada…so is he still a hipster?  She’s wearing a flowery tea dress, has a sensible bob and is lovingly making her family’s packed lunches but she’s blasting out hip hop on her stereo…so is she still mumsy?  His hair is styled, he’s watching Netflix on his phone, but his expression tells you he’s not ‘living his best life’ …so is he still a millennial?   Can we really trust the ‘signs of self’ that we’ve become accustomed to using to understand cultures and subcultures?


‘How you see me is not how I see me’ – this was a statement I heard during a presentation about breaking boundaries and overcoming taboos at MRS IMPACT 2018 that I’ve been mulling over ever since.  But it just makes life so much easier if we can carve up a sample and put people into neat little boxes to try and understand the difference between them - age, gender, ethnicity, life stage - doesn’t it?  Think about it logically though and you must question what really is the difference between a 23-year-old single man and 59-year-old single man?  Either could be an early adopter, a tech geek, a hipster, right?

Ethnographic research gives us the tools to look past demographics and top layer attitudes to find out how people operate, react and interact in real life - and semiotics is a crucial part of the study.  When studying the Oceania tribes in the 1910s, Bronislaw Malinowski didn’t just spend a long time asking questions.  Observation of signs and symbols formed part of his studies to understand the interaction of a community – face markings that identify the ranking of each person within the tribe, the tools hanging from a belt demonstrating what role of the tribe member holds, the hand signals used to communicate, the loving versus aggressive facial and body expressions that demonstrate how they feel about each other.

But of course, signs are not necessarily static.  Signs of self can and do change.  Your facial expression can change throughout the day, you can shave your beard or cut off your hair, you can transform your living room from shabby-chic to urban-industrial and you can be a smart business woman by day and leather-clad Hells Angel by night.  Studies throughout the twentieth century have used semiotics to identify subcultures – mods and rockers in the 50s, ravers and goths and the 90s.  It’s not so easy in the noughties where people are picking and choosing snippets of trends from the last 100 years to curate a look and a lifestyle that is unique.  It’s the era of the ‘sample’.   It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use observation and interpretation of signs as part of the ethnographic study, but it does mean we need to get semiotic-smart.

Brands that get close to today’s consumers to understand the complexity of their needs and desires through observation of their behaviours and studying the signs and symbols they use to express who they are, stay ahead of the game when it comes to NPD, branding and communications.  Miele, for example, through its ethnographic market research, observed how careful people with allergies were when it came to their laundry and so introduced a washing machine with a programme for washing pillows and a rinse process that removes detergent residues.  Coty uses mobile ethnographic research extensively across their make-up brands to observe the role, needs, occasions and emotional connection with cosmetics which means they can successfully design new products and take them to market knowing that their branding and communication strategy has the consumer right at the heart of it. 

At Trinity McQueen semiotic analysis forms part of consumer immersion research to help us ‘see’ consumers’ unique needs and aspirations, and understand how to communicate with them, through understanding the synergies and the complexities of different groups. 


Joanna Brown.  Associate Director.        

Chris Handford