My only knowledge of semiotics, pre-research world, was from my Literature degree where it was used interchangeably for imagery or looking for the layers of meaning around language. My later encounters with the term in the world of advertising and research has been met with a mixture of enthusiasm, a knowing smirk or a passing ‘people have mixed feelings about it’ which soon brought me to the realisation that it was an interesting world with much to grapple with…
I will not strive to give a single perfect definition that encapsulates all its complexities, but I have settled on understanding semiotics as the study of any sign that produces meaning. On a broad level it delves deep into how meaning is created and communicated. Being the behavioural economics enthusiast that I am, anything that breaks down what is seemingly automatic to look beyond the surface at the hidden and unspoken conventions and systems that govern how we act and who we are, is appealing.
Like any umbrella term, semiotics has many branches. At an AQR breakfast session this month, Alfie Spencer, Founding Partner of Office of Ideologies, shed some light into what commercial semiotics is. Commercial semiotics provides cultural context as to why ideas are in people’s minds in the first place. It digs into social rules, conventions and practices in order to produce knowledge of a particular discourse.
To frame this, Alfie proposed a helpful way to distinguish between what a researcher does and what a semiotician does:
- The qualitative researcher would ask ‘What do you think about that?’
- The semiotician would ask ‘What is that? How does it work?’
How can commercial semiotics be applied you ask? Caroline Brierley, Commercial Semiotics Lead at Join the Dots tells us how:
A key point here for brands is understanding and thereby designing the message you want to put out into the world. It can be in line with what already operates in that space or it can be new and disruptive, but we all know that in order to break the rules - you first need to know what the rules are. Something that stood out from what Alfie said is that “when you are branding, you are restructuring a system of meaning and practice”. As lofty as this sounds, it’s true. In order for brands to restructure effectively, they need to understand all they can about the system of meaning they are operating in. This will allow them to produce culturally relevant material that is communicating something meaningful.