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Use this framework to understand and manage marketing communications

Semiotics is the study of signs (images, graphics, shapes, text etc) and their meanings to customers and potential customers. Although it had its origins in sociology and anthropology in the late nineteenth century, it wasn't until the 1970s and 80s that it was picked up by marketers as a useful tool for understanding communications.

Semiotics is the study of the meanings that are attached to things by signs. This is an important concept in marketing as signs can be used to create a brand and they can also, on occasions, get out-of-control and change brand perceptions.


Signs are anything that act as a code to consumers. They could be a graphics, words, colours, and combinations of these things.  A brand is an important code for a company as it is by this that most customers will recognise it. The brand will carry connotations that influence people's likelihood to buy it. Understanding these feelings through the study of semiotics helps marketers direct and manage brands and communications.


Take Starbucks for example. Conventional market research could ask people what they think of Starbucks, why they go there, what they think of the competition and so on. All this would generate useful information. Semiotics would approach the subject in a different way. It would look at the culture of coffee drinking, the desire for people to take their coffee in the company of others, and the significance of being part of a "Starbucks tribe" when carrying a branded coffee cup down the street. Semiotics provides a context and understanding that goes beyond simple data analysis.


When a company creates a brand, it aims to trigger an awareness and positive emotions. The design of the brand (its shape, colour and any associated words) produces a sign which semiotics argues will trigger a response. People will develop a feeling about the brand, hopefully in a direction that was intended by all the signage (the semiotics).


However, events and cultural differences can respond to the brand and its signage in different ways. Thus, although a brand owner will aim to impose semiotic constraints on its brand, it can't stop consumers creating their own sign chains which could change the brand position. In this way, Burberry, a conservative upper class and established brand was adopted by lower class white hooligans labelled by the media as "chavs". Semiotics associated with Burberry changed the culture driven codes by consumer dominance and required a considerable effort and cost by the Burberry company to get it back on track. They did this by removing the check pattern, so characteristic of the brand, because it was this that had most appeal to the chavs.

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