Semiotics and Market Research

What is semiotics? And what use is it in market research? For the first question, we might answer that, within the context of interest to us, semiotics is that thing everyone is talking about (the thing about signs), but which has barely received any in-depth study. This is not the result of laziness or a lack of interest, but because unfortunately in Spain there is no tradition or institutionalised education in this regard like there is in other countries, such as France and Italy. And paradoxically, or perhaps not so paradoxically, qualitative market research habitually uses semiotic concepts (signifier, signified, code, sign, expression, content, levels, synchrony, diachrony, etc.). However, the difference between spontaneously using any of these concepts and conducting a semiotic analysis is akin to the difference between pouring curry powder over some chicken and actually making a chicken curry. Not even remotely the same thing.

What is its object of study? Semiotics investigates the significant underlying structures or forms of discourse, the conditions of production and the comprehension of meaning. And it does so by studying the system of relationships by which signs are organised. In other words, the ultimate object of study is not the signs per se (these are just the starting point, the tip of the iceberg, the surface manifestation of a structure). Rather it is the rules of the game (the underlying invariability, the ‘grammar’) which make the numerous and heterogeneous signs produce certain effects of meaning. As a hand-me-down from positivism, there is a tendency to think about elements and their relationships in an overly independent and sequential manner. Semiotics, in contrast, teaches us that elements acquire value through their place in a network of relations which they establish with other manifest elements (syntagmatic relations, which are the basis of metonymy and segmentation operations), but also through their relations with other absent elements (paradigmatic relations, which are the foundation of metaphors and classifying operations). In other words, the value of a sign is determined by its position in a relational system and, is this not the key to positioning and consumer bonds with brands?

This is no place to delve into methodological clarifications and differences between schools of thought, but it is worth at least naming some principles, approaches and terms, as well as remembering that we are talking about an explanatory model and, as such, it is not the actual, empirical, observable reality. Although chicks which break out of their shells are yellow, they are not curry flavoured, to the relief of those who prefer a Caesar salad!

Semiotics proposes three fundamental dimensions of analysis which correspond to different binary relations: syntax (sign-sign), semantics (sign-signified) and pragmatics (sign-subject). All social signs establish relations in these three dimensions. All products are related to other products, establish one or more semantic fields through denotation and connotation, and enter into a social interaction with the user in a specific situation. Chicken curry is syntactically related to starters, to desserts, to beverages, etc. It forms a semantic field (cooked, spicy, Indian, etc.). It establishes paradigmatic relations with other possible main courses, types of curry and other ways of cooking chicken. It is consumed in a specific situation and context (at home, in an Indian or other type of restaurant, alone, accompanied, for lunch or dinner, to celebrate something, in an emotional atmosphere, etc.), and it is related to more global phenomena (the exotic as a culinary trend, effects of immigration, etc.).

Structural semiotics led by A.J. Greimas, which draws heavily on Saussure’s structural linguistics, dynamically organises syntax and semantics into different levels on a vertical axis (depth, semio-narrative and discursive). This hierarchical organisation into levels is the basis of language and its use (phonemes, morphemes, utterances, paragraphs, texts, discourses, ideologies, etc.). It is the foundation of the entire economy of language (of such great importance in brand communications!), and based on combinatorial laws explains something as magical and yet rational as how it is possible for just 24 phonemes, which are minimal units without meaning, to be used to produce an infinity of highly meaningful texts!

The intersections of these levels with the aforementioned dimensions give rise to various analytical schema: the semiotic square, the narrative program and its stages (manipulation, competence, performance, and sanction), modalisations, etc., which when applied to market research are tremendously illuminating as to the function of not only what products ‘tell’ us and what their consumers can ‘read’, but also the role they play in their own story (e.g. a product can have various ‘actantial roles’ in the narration or several products can play the same role; it can act as the subject or the object of the action; it can be the hero, but it can also be its own adversary, etc.).

It is important to clarify that the semiotic approach broadens the notion of text to behaviours, to TV ads, to packaging and to spaces, etc. For semiotics, all of these are ‘texts’ organised in the form of a story, which semiotics conceptualises as a succession of states and transformations of subjects which act on objects and which make the ‘text’ take on an effect of meaning. State changes and exchanges of objects are what make the story progress.

What about pragmatics? It is not that structural semiotics fails to take it into account, rather it goes further by viewing the elements (the user of the sign, the context in which the object appears, the act of the utterance, etc.) as an intrinsic part of the text itself (immanent approach). Other approaches do explicitly deal with pragmatics – approaches whose conception of meaning implies the existence of a real, extra-semiotic, out-of-text reference and which attempt to analyse the formal aspects which reveal the personality of the sender and the receiver, and those which refer to external cultural systems.

What is the main contribution of semiotics to marketing and to market research? None other than the effectiveness of its application to significant productions which are in need of greater:

  • Intelligibility, by identifying the rules of the game and the levels into which the generative journey of meaning is organised.
  • Belonging, by distinguishing the essential from the auxiliary by means of the rule of commutation (changes in the expression plane which significantly modify the content so we can distinguish them from those that do not). What do I keep? What do I discard? What do I incorporate? These are questions we are accustomed to in research.
  • Differentiation, because it is a concept that, as we have seen, forms part of the structural basis of semiotics, where language is a system of relations in which an element occupies a place in differential opposition to others; i.e., a topography based on difference. As such, semiotics reveals not only the differences between the different positions, but also when the differences are opposite, complementary or contradictory! It is essential to understand this if a brand wants to be coherent, understand its positioning properly or define its potential territories for innovation and development. For semiotics, we have A and B, and also Not and Not B. In other words, a concept always gives rise to four concepts to which it is related according to established guidelines.

One can therefore deduce that there are a huge number of applications: market segmentation; brand diversification into new product ranges or categories; product, packaging or communication concept testing; the customer journey; supermarket shelf design; types of customers, etc. – or in other words, wherever there is a significant social practice. And this applies both in the desk-research stage, in order to obtain in-depth knowledge of stimuli, precise guidance when it is necessary to choose materials for testing, an improved construction of hypotheses that feed group discussion guides and activate particular listening during moderation, as well as in discourse analysis itself. One final confession, for our culinary metaphor: at Arpo we serve a variety of dishes, from frutti di mare to Pil Pil Cod, but we are very much partial to curry. Why? Did you know that curry is an almost alchemic combination of multiple spices, such as chilli, basil, caraway, celery, saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, dried onion, coriander, clove, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, ginger, mustard, nutmeg, pepper, and/or tamarind? A perfect example of integrating variety and complexity into an authentic, coherent and differentiating identity. What company would not want that? Semiotics plays the role of an accomplished sous chef. The chef being always the brand and the guests, the consumers.

Bon appétit!

David García

Director of strategic consultancy and market research.