Why Brand Professionals Should Learn Semiotics

Why Brand Professionals Should Learn Semiotics

22 Jun 2023

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This informal CPD article, ‘Why Brand Professionals Should Learn Semiotics‘, was provided by Chris Arning of Creative Semiotics, whose mission is to make visible the meanings embedded in brand communication to help business owners better manage the meaning of their brands.

Why Brand Professionals Should Learn Semiotics

Have you heard of semiotics? Well, a complex sounding word could make your life a lot simpler. Semiotics is not the sort of word you hear every day, but it might have been used to create the piece of content you are currently watching on your smart phone. Semiotics can tell you why the music makes an ad more likely for you to vote for a certain political candidate or why certain images might make you choose holiday destination A over destination B or invest in one business rather than another.

Semiotics is a technique taken from linguistics; it involves studying the signs and cues we process every day, without conscious thought, from Coca-Cola’s ribbon to Apple’s bitten apple motif; the symbols that wordlessly convey the story of these companies and build up their power in our minds.

Brand semiotics offers you a powerful tool to transform your client’s strategy and provides you with supporting evidence to do so. Semiotic practise combines the best of being a journalist a scientist and a lawyer. You need to be versatile and synthesise huge amounts of information, weigh up the evidence and be judicious in quoting sources, but you also need to apply rigorous techniques of analysis for it to stand up to scrutiny and be able to justify your findings.

Yes, you can view semiotics as a life philosophy, or a worldview. But it is not magic. Semiotics is a craft to be learned, a skill to be practised and honed. It is as much about passion, attitude, and perhaps even a vocation, as well as about ability to apply certain types of knowledge. Well, that’s all very well, Chris. But why should I care?!

Well, let’s have a look at what semiotics can do for you, from the professional but also from the personal perspective.

Dissecting (Visual) Culture in Content 

Semiotics is about understanding culture, more deeply and forensically, especially visual culture. Semiotics helps you to make the invisible visible. The semiotic perspective helps you to see the underlying codes that govern communication, whether it is understanding the meaning of music in a film soundtrack that certain colours have certain effects and why that logo can make you feel closer to an organisation. Semiotics is all about disentangling the things that we don’t pay attention to, but should do, because they have a tangible influence on us all.

Reverse Engineering Brands

Brands are multi-faceted entities, some worth billions of dollars, but it is easy to skew meanings or become convoluted. Semiotics helps organisations – and their agencies - manage the meaning of brands. Many people see marketing as seeking to manipulate through sophistry and dissimulation. Semiotics at its best is actually the opposite: it is the ability of seeing through to the core of a brand and returning it to its true essence – to bring out its best self. Semiotics is the conscience of meaning - it helps brands close the gap between what they think they are saying and what they are actually communicating.

Adding a Semiotic gaze to your arsenal

Developing the semiotic gaze means that you are able to understand and analyse what you see because you are sensitized to how meaning works. You will start observing your surroundings in a totally new way in a way that actually becomes compulsive. Skill stacking is all the rage in this competitive economy. Semiotics is increasingly in demand both from agencies and direct clients, together with other methodologies – such as behavioural science. Semiotics adds not only a new perspective, but it is a new skill that can be monetised.

Sometimes semiotics is perceived as arcane and forbidding part of a world of academic jargon. But it can be brought alive by learning the fundamentals, and, as with every other skill, by practising and actually doing it.

Semioticians interpret embedded cultural information

A spur to greater creativity

Semiotics sees every visual, ad, object, jingle, or piece of text as a machine for meaning and shows how it contains the traces of previous or parallel meanings. Semiotics helps us to join the dots. A semiotic analysis equips you with an ability to tease out the implicit meanings in colour, form, language, sound, fragrance etc. to see the rules and structures so you can think about alternative creative treatment, i.e., how swapping out frame A instead of frame B shifts visual impact or connotations of a print ad, or how a different music track can transform our interpretation of a visual montage. Every good artist must also be a good critic. Semiotics is a form of non-arbitrary creativity, feeding your imagination and inspiring you.

An increasingly valuable skill set

Semiotics – together with cultural insight – has long been moving up in the priority list and becoming an indispensable part of a brand strategist’s skillset. Culture (the set of norms that govern behaviour) is moving faster than ever. Businesses – and their brands - are struggling to keep up. Traditional business strategies are not agile enough to adapt over and over again to a constantly mutating culture. There is also sense of disenchantment with the stultifying nature of some direct from consumer reporting. This is where semiotics has the edge.

Semioticians interpret the tremendous amount of cultural information embedded in consumer culture and brings out the underlying codes and their significance to help brands be more effective. In a hyper-competitive world, semiotics gives smart brands a competitive advantage.

And after all, Semiotics is inherently fascinating 

Who doesn't love to dig into the deeper meanings in the stuff we all see every day or are bombarded by? If you are into song exploders, film breakdowns and reaction videos and you want to debate what others have to say about art and cultural production then semiotics is for you. But whilst a lot of what we see on the internet is loose and unjustified opinion and is sometimes even deliberately hyperbolic and inflammatory, semiotics brings a scholarly sobriety, rooted in rigorous analytic techniques.

But it is also the process of peeling away the layers to reveal what is hidden beneath which is inherently fascinating.

Semiotics is like a wide range education that helps us understand this world around us that is full of ever more confusing data; in doing so it helps to train our much-needed critical impulses.

In a world that is accelerating more quickly technologically and culturally semiotics offers an opportunity to slow down and look at the deeper patterns underlying culture. It is also going to become more important as an interdisciplinary subject which privileges the powers of inference and synthesizing data from multiple sources. This discernment will be ever more precious as professions and occupations which rely on rote tasks and with brittle rules are progressively disintermediated by artificial intelligence engines. Semiotics is a required meaning operating system to keep AI honest and maintain our critical faculties. It will gradually become the common sense of the 21st century.

We hope this article was helpful. For more information from Creative Semiotics, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively, you can go to the CPD Industry Hubs for more articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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For more information from Creative Semiotics, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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