Signs of life: why qual and semiotics are natural partners

Martina Olbertova using semiotics to suggest she's younger than she really is
Martina Olbertova using semiotics to suggest she’s younger than she really is

I came across this today by Czech semiotician Martina Olbertova, via Joanna Chrzanowska’s brilliant and generous resource, the Qualitative Mind website (; follow her on Twitter on @QualitativeMind; Joanna’s site is full of great information and resources for qual researchers and research buyers alike). Olbertova gives an introduction for the skeptical and/or uninitiated to the not-so-mystical realm of semiotics. It remains something, in my experience of talking to other researchers and clients, that most people know vaguely of, but are very reluctant to actually do. Yet it is surely one of the key tools for brand and market understanding.

I’m not a semiotician myself (yet … maybe one day!) but I’m a convinced fan of the use of semiotic enquiry to tackle tough marketing and comms challenges. Why?

Give me a sign, any sign ...
Give me a sign, any sign …

As Olbertova explains, there is a limit to what you can learn from consumers themselves. I’ve found this in my own experience. Take a piece of packaging research, for example. We get useful insights on what the pack colour means to people, even what it signifies to them, what different versions of the logo suggest, all that. But what we miss, often, is the context. What are the prevailing ways of brands expressing themselves in this category? Where does this pack sit in relation to the rest of the category? Adjacent categories?

A few years ago I used semiotics to help a leading brand in laundry adjust its image. We also used some quite original triangulated conflict groups (one for another day) and consumer laundry visual diaries, but the semiotics piece – a survey of the visual language of the laundry category and of consumer language around ‘cleaning’ – helped me hugely in making sense of what I was hearing and seeing from consumers. It provided a detailed yet clear relief map onto which I could chart how consumers saw the world of cleaning in general and my client’s brand in particular.

No wonder I keep crashing the car
No wonder I keep crashing the car

Consumers can give you a useful start on mapping out their visual worlds for you. But casting the net comprehensively across a whole category is an exercise for a semiotician with a cold towel over his/her head and a few days to work on it. That’s because the questions we’re really asking here are only partly about consumer perceptions. They start essentially as factual questions: about what competitor products look like, what colours and shapes they use, what words they use.

Consumers aren’t there in qual research projects to be comprehensive, in-depth loggers of everything that’s out there. If we ask them to do that, they stop behaving as consumers and we start to lose the point of seeking their input in the first place. What consumers give us is a piecemeal picture of the world as they see it – and that’s very important, we want that. What a semiotic analysis of a category offers (among other things) is something different: a systematic way of logging, surveying and analysing the visual environment the consumers find themselves in, noting patterns that are so hidden or indeed so obvious, that consumers may not notice their importance, even using our toolkit of projectives and all the rest. Crucially, semiotic analysis does more than just record the presence of pieces of packaging, ads, logos, images and so on, it looks at what messages those things are broadcasting. How those broadcasts are received by people encountering them is another question – and that’s where my qual comes in.

Piecing it all together
Piecing it all together

If you are seeking things like stand-out, cut-through, relevance for a piece of brand communication – and let’s face it, these are at the core of much branding comms research – bringing in some semiotic thinking can clarify things a lot. For example, semiotics can tell a brand manager: these are the standard ways brands communicate in this category – and these are ways you can play by or break the rules if you want to. Qual can then come in to look at how particular pieces of communication are received, wise to all the communicative tropes.

It went thattaway
More meaning, fewer graphs

As a qual research consultant, my approach is to bring in experts in related fields to partner with me to meet my clients’ needs in full. I understand the basics of semiotics but I look to full-time practitioners to deliver this service in partnership with Shore. I’d like to name-check Chris Arning here (; Twitter: @semiotico), who’s been a helpful interlocutor for me in recent years as I seek to learn more about semiotics. Founder of his own consultancy Creative Semiotics, he’s one of the leading UK commercial semiotics practitioners. He’s done some great introductory videos too:

Anyone wanting to really get to the bottom of a knotty brand comms problem could do worse than have a chat to Chris.

Semiotics doesn’t do away with the need for qual research; it is complementary to it. If we have the budget, we can have BOTH our real-time, self-generated nuggets of participant data AND bring in others methods for getting to richer, smarter, more actionable findings.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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