We make brands better by decoding culture


Brands love semiotics because it speaks a visual language and solves a multitude of business problems. It’s also a wellspring of inspiration. Its tools for decoding consumer culture make it great for understanding social trends and demographics. It can tell you what makes Millennials anxious, how time works in Latin American cultures, why there are health trends and which ones to stay ahead of, what it means to belong somewhere and feel that you are at home.

Semiotic tools for decoding visual materials such as advertising and packaging are now well known to brand owners as being able to offer penetrating insight that converts directly into actionable recommendations. Research work in semiotics ranges from short-order consultancy to multi-country research projects that include fieldwork and elements of ethnography. Quick consultancy can answer practical questions about how to make packaging changes or make changes in store. Research projects can uncover structures of meaning for entire categories or large regions of the world, such as ‘food in Western Africa’ or ‘men’s grooming in India’ or ‘coughs and colds in North America’.

Semiotic projects for brand owners frequently involve mapping categories. This type of exercise results in the discovery of a set of semiotic codes – clusters of meaning and semiotic signs which frequently occur together. These codes make up a repertoire from which communication is built at a cultural level. The resulting insights can be actioned at the level of innovation, branding, marketing and POS.

Did you know?

  • Dr Rachel Lawes is one of the original pioneers of semiotics in the English-speaking marketing community. She helped introduce semiotics to market research, spell out the method, institutionalise it and put it on the map. Over a couple of decades of commercial practice, Rachel has continued to promote and teach semiotics, publishing numerous methods papers and delivering workshops, seminars and training sessions.
  • Demystifying Semiotics (Lawes, 2002) was one of the first published papers in English which explains how semiotics works and how to conduct research projects in semiotics, for brand owners and agency researchers. It is regarded as a seminal paper and is foundational reading for marketing students around the world.
  • Rebranding Charmin (Lawes with SCA Hygiene, 20xx) was described by the MRS annual conference judging panel as the most compelling case study of semiotics it had ever seen. The paper describes how Lawes helped SCA manage the rebrand of a well-loved brand and shows how the business results exceeded SCA’s expectations. 
  • Big Semiotics (Lawes, 2018) is a lively session presented at Qual360 in Washington DC. It is a 35-minute tutorial in advanced semiotics, which shows how to analyse consumers at the level of society, culture and ideology. This is top-down semiotics and it enables brand owners to understand and even predict and help to create social trends.
  • Semiotics and Science (Lawes, IJMR, forthcoming) is a new academic paper which reviews the scientific pedigree of semiotics and conducts original analysis assessing the status of both semiotics and science in contemporary market research discourse.


Brands love ethnography because there is no substitute for observation when you want to know what’s in your customer’s fridge, how they cook, how they use their washing machine, what their daily routine is like. It’s much better to see for yourself than to interview consumers and rely on their ability to remember what they normally do and their willingness to tell you. Ethnography goes hand-in-hand with semiotics and over a couple of decades Lawes has used ethnography to answer a host of questions for consumer-facing brands. We’ve helped banks understand how people manage their personal finances, pet food companies understand how pets fit into people’s lives and families, and supermarkets understand everything from frozen foods to teenage fashions.

As well as getting a deep insight into the home lives of consumers, ethnography is one of the best tools out there for understanding shopping and this is especially the case when it is combined with semiotics, because ethnography gives a perspective on people and their behaviour while semiotics gives a perspective on the environment in which the behaviour happens. It’s an unbeatable combination for explaining why shoppers behave in the ways they do and we’ve used it in stores of all sizes, all over the world, in categories ranging from snack foods to laundry.

Did you know?

  • Ethnography, like semiotics and discourse analysis, is the study of culture. It particularly focuses on the small cultures of specific demographics, exemplified in daily household routines and the rhythms of daily life. Its insights are often framed in terms of rituals, power exchanges and kinship structures. It can tell you who is really in charge in a household, who is really the decision-maker over things like food and health. It can tell you why it is so crucially important to consumers that your packaging makes a certain sound when opened or closed and what will be lost if you change it. It can tell you exactly what ‘busy’ means – it’s a deceptive concept and while some people would love to be less busy, others are reliant on the appearance conveyed by busy-work.
  • Ethnography reaches beyond the home and the supermarket. We have conducted ethnographic observation in bars and restaurants, hair salons, banks, parks, in the car and in the street. It is concerned with consumers-in-situations, so that the situation of being in the park or the bank is regarded as a system, almost like a machine. The researcher’s job is to find out how the machine works and observation is the main method of getting to the answers.
  • In recent years, the types of ethnography available to research buyers have proliferated. Traditionally ethnography involves a researcher being physically present and on site and this is still the best recipe for getting to ground-breaking insights. However, a new wave of ethnography encourages research participants to make their own recordings – photos, video diaries – and this has many benefits. It can be cheaper for research buyers and also it makes it easier for research to include hard-to-reach respondents who are in inaccessible locations.

Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis is one of the most valuable methods in the entire market research repertoire. It’s also one of the rarest and hardest-to-find skills. Lawes is proud to make it available to our clients. It offers an eye-opening perspective on the verbal behaviour of consumers as well as the marcoms of brands. We’ve found that it is especially helpful for research in categories where consumers do a lot of talking or where the stories they tell are crucial to understanding their behaviour and brand preference. We’ve used it extensively for clients in healthcare, helping them to understand disability, genetic disorders and the linguistic strategies of people who are coming to terms with a disturbing, new diagnosis. We’ve applied discourse analysis to the thought and speech of medical specialists from psychiatrists to oncologists to paediatricians, showing how they make decisions and choose among competing treatments and medications. Outside of the medical field, we’ve used it to show how would-be homeowners justify mortgage fraud, how dieters manage a moral economy of food and how energy users make sense of bills, statements and price rise notifications from their utilities suppliers.

Discourse analysis is one of the most versatile research methods out there. It is powerful and penetrating enough to fuel a research project all by itself and is a great choice when language is the main thing at stake. It also dovetails perfectly with both semiotics (which tells you about both text and also visual signs and symbols) and ethnography (which tells you about people’s actions and behaviours in the context of everyday social life).

Did you know?

  • Discourse analysis is a uniquely flexible method in that you can apply to it to data retrospectively with no loss of meaning. Do you have focus group transcripts? Discussions that took place in an online community? A collection of tweets? Discourse analysis can extract volumes of meaning from these data sets with no need to plan in advance. It isn’t necessary for you to know at the point of setting up a study that you want to use discourse analysis – we can put it to work after the fact with no problems. It doesn’t require special interviewing techniques or special kinds of data collection.
  • Discourse analysis is descended from semiotics but is a branch of social psychology, which makes it possibly the only research method which delivers findings from the perspective of outside-in (society, culture) and inside-out (individual psychology) at the same time.
  • Discourse analysis in academia has resulted in dozens of unique linguistic structures that have names and distinct functions. Do you need to present a set of items that appears complete? Use a three-part list! Missing an item to make up a set of three? Use a generalised list completer!

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