From Semi Skimmed to Semiotics*

23 November 2018

Looking at the power of Semiotics, how it is used within different sectors to accelerate creative engagement, and how it is now being used by …. Milk Replacement brands to revolutionize the ‘world of milk’.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are incredibility susceptible to the effect of symbolism, signs, shapes, colours and the physicality of what we see. Unfortunately, this is true whether we speak of the people we interact with or the products we consume. Our eyes judge, and the line between the right and wrong judgement is as thin as it gets. So in a society where our eyes are overriding our brains in developing perceptions and opinions, how should our brand aesthetics and creative delivery evolve to take advantage of this? Let’s talk Semiotics.

Before we delve into brand-semiotics, let’s remind ourselves of the roots of this potent and powerful communications tool. By definition Semiotics is described as the science of the signs and symbols within a given culture or context, that interact with the signs and symbols embedded [hopefully] within your brand or product. These can be as fundamental as your product packaging or as advanced as the behaviours associated with your product. So whilst most research looks to find consumer opinions, semiotics looks at culture and social trends, to identify the rooted visual triggers of behaviour that can be leveraged. It’s quite a feat to achieve this understanding of a continually evolving spectrum of visual behaviour triggers. However once mapped, Semiotics can be used to optimise the brand and all its touch-points to instantly engage and resonate with the audience – due to its alignment with a core, familiar cultural truths.

As a self-professed tea connoisseur, I feel tea actually provides the perfect example of underlying cultural triggers. If we looked to research tea-consumers through ‘traditional’ qualitative and quantitative lenses, we’d be asking: what teas they like, what they don’t like, how they drink their tea, what they would change about their tea and when they enjoy tea. Though this may highlight some interesting facts, It won’t be indicative of the deep cultural representations of tea. As we well know, tea (especially in the UK market) is synonymous with relaxing, de-stressing and calm, both in an individual or a social context. To ignore these pivotal ‘semiotic associations’ to tea, some would say would be ‘commercially short-sighted’. Leveraging this semiotic “insight” on-the-other-hand, and drawing parallels within the tea brands visual comms can help trigger familiarity and positive emotional associations.

Where the tea example provided a context in which semiotics is used to leverage existing culture, Nintendo Wii is a great example of where semiotics were used to not only reflect cultural movements but also to proactively shape it. You don’t have to look back far in the world of gaming to remember the strong associations of a young, male orientated ‘user-base’, with their games console posing as the centrepiece of the bedroom. By default and over time, the gamer and the console became synonymous with ‘lazy’ and reclusive characteristics. Nintendo placed this negative ‘cultural perception’ of gaming, at the centre of its innovation strategy and created a solution which intrinsically embedded social human interaction and physical activity within their new console. Not only did this break all the rules of the segment, but the brand now stood for all that gaming lacked, and so reached and appealed to a far bigger audience. In reflection, we can see that, where basic NPD research of the marketplace and the subsequent audiences, would have most-likely highlighted, the need for faster processor speeds, or higher quality visuals, Semiotics went beyond that and considered a new dimension to gaming.

And onto the rapidly advancing ‘milk – alternatives’ segment; this segment poses interesting considerations, as brands within this market want to use strategic design to both indicate they are clearly different and better for the consumer than milk, though at the same time they need to leverage the strong and deeply rooted [positive] associations held in the word ‘Milk’. Whether its “milk and biscuits” placed by the fireplace for Father Christmas or the warm, safe and ‘homey’ feeling associated with the image of the milkman, gently placing that iconic white bottle outside your doorstep, it’s fair to say, milk is more than milk. Milk is a representation of strength, health and even purity. As a challenger brand introducing your milk alternative to your audience, you would be wise to understand this in building a better connection to your audience.

A quick scan of the market reveals some great examples of where new brands are forging strong associations with the ‘traditions’ of milk, or working hard to bypass any associations, in an effort to reinvent the sector. Ripple takes on the market by donning the classic curves of the traditional milk bottle, whereas Califia bravely looks to wipe clean ‘the slate’ and re-introduce ‘the shape of milk’. Is there a right answer? Reinvent or evolve; I guess it all boils down to how you want to make people feel. Some brands set out to capture the movements in the sector and ‘own’ these changes by talking to the driver of the change. If you want to engage and connect to those early adopters, there is no need to keep any of the cultural symbolism, signs or semiotics associated to your segment. In fact, it’s far more valuable to avoid these and embrace all that is different about you.

However you may be looking to engage a more timid audience, who is open to an alternative, however, is also content with the ‘status quo’. To this mindset of an audience, a brand must feel more ‘familiar’ and push to remove the ‘risks of change’ by building strong common grounds through the aesthetics of the band. These are all dependent on your ambitions as both a business and a brand.

For the strategic use of semiotics, here are 4 Key questions in qualifying and leveraging semiotic insights:

1. Are you aware of your geographical cultural norms, as well as the cultural norms of your segment?

2. Are you being lead by these cultural norms or creating new ones?

3. Are the signs and signals you are using intrinsically recognisable with the cultural norms you are addressing?

4. Are the signs and signals you are using reflective of the emotional needs of your target audience?

Morteza Maleki

Strategy Director of award-winning branding agency Brandality.