We work in every consumer-facing sector, from food to finance to pharmaceuticals
Alcohol brands were among the first to catch on to the benefits of semiotics, they were early adopters of a new research method. Over the years we’ve supplied a lot of insight and strategic advice to beer and spirits brands in the UK and worldwide. The types of problems we solve in the alcohol category include ‘how to achieve better differentiation’ – beer and spirits categories can be quite over-determined, leading to brands appearing to all say the same thing – ‘how to cue provenance’ – because it is usually a selling point for alcohol brands – and ‘how to stay relevant and future-facing’. How do you tell a story about an Italian beer or a 19th century Scotch whisky that is authentic and yet new and different? Semiotics, sometimes blended with ethnography, finds the answers by setting out the culturally-available semiotic signs and stories that consumers use to shape their own identities and to interpret the world around them.
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- Consumers around the world have impressions of other countries that are composed of semiotic signs. These signs are derived from messages that consumers have previously been exposed to. As they live their lives, they build up an impression of what sort of place Italy is, or what sort of place Scotland is, and this is often a mix of visual signs and symbols (Roman architecture, football, mist, castles) and imaginary stories about the sorts of things that go on there (people ride around on Vespas or put on a kilt to go fishing).
- Stories and semiotic signs associated with various countries can change over time, particularly when an influential celebrity, artist or other public figure emerges. This also affects the way that people understand their own culture. A young consumer may experience national pride when a local hero draws international attention and they may take pride in their own awareness of generation-specific international issues – this is one reason why campaigns like metoo are important.
- You can use semiotics to decode occasions of consumption. We’ve explained to clients why personal beer fridges are almost holy objects to some British men, how to make beer function more like wine and how to make Scotch more relevant to parties.
Banks were among the earliest adopters of semiotics and the communications of retail banks became the first semiotics case studies. One of these is Halifax, which appeared in the seminal how-to paper Demystifying Semiotics (Lawes, 2002). At the time, Halifax’s branding and communications were rather unconventional. They were a riot of colour at a time when British banking was semiotically very conservative and dominated by black, navy blue and racing green, because it was conventionally agreed that those things signified trustworthiness. Demystifying Semiotics showed how Halifax deployed semiotic signs such as its bright, vivid colour palette and the branch staff who became the stars of its advertising, to set itself apart as a bank that was approachable and as much fun as banking could be. Lawes then went on to solve dozens of business problems for banks and financial providers, not only in branding but in innovation, across products such as credit cards, current accounts, savings, mortgages and pensions. We also went on to publish more papers such as How to differentiate your finance brand using semiotics (2007).
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- The way consumers feel about their own spending is morally loaded and even has quasi-religious themes such as virtue, shame and guilt. The most avid shoppers sometimes talk as though they had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Fascinatingly, the point of this linguistic behaviour is not only to acknowledge and defer to conventional (sensible, virtuous) wisdom about money and spending (don’t run up debt, don’t buy things you don’t need) but also to provide for and facilitate exactly those behaviours which are being acknowledged as undesirable.
- Many consumers stick with the same bank for a long time so that a psychological contract is built up. Customers expect that having a long history with a bank will result in personalised service, sympathy and tolerance from the bank when a individual meets with a financial crisis. Not many banks are good at meeting this expectation.
- Be careful when including images that are intended to be simple or literal representations of customers – this is a common trope in pensions and retirement marketing. It’s easy to go wrong because society changes quickly and the self-image of consumers changes with it. Baby boomers were not a shy generation, many mature people are avid users of social media and through this they project clear messages about how they see themselves and how they want to be treated. This can be semiotically decoded and converted into better, more strategic banking and finance comms.
Beauty & Fragrance
In Western societies, the meaning of the large category of personal care, of which beauty and fragrance is a part, is structurally divided. On the one hand, there are things which are ‘less than’, things which principally serve to remove. Cleansers remove dirt, wrinkle creams eradicate wrinkles. On the other hand, there are things which are ‘more than’, things which do not change the underlying raw materials but which add or adorn. These include colour cosmetics and fragrance. This latter set has things in common with fashion, interior design and technology, insofar as knowledgeable consumers recognise products and brands as semiotic signs and include them in the building blocks of their identity. A consumer who knows beauty may expertly deploy Korean cosmetics and matching application techniques and select a fragrance that cues nature, urbanity, the exotic, cleanliness and so on according to her lifestyle and local culture. Things get interesting when cultures vary (so that a French woman’s idea of a sexy fragrance is materially different from an American woman’s idea) and when brands aim to bring on board consumers who are not yet expert in the category and do not know how to find their way around. We’ve advised P&G, Coty, Benefit Cosmetics and many more.
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- There’s a demographic of young, Millennial, Anglo-American women who are currently very sensitive to issues of gender (in)equality. They embrace and own feminism. They are quick to call out sexism. Despite this, they are capable of code-switching when they want to talk about the latest Korean make-up techniques. Influencers may say of eye make-up looks: ‘it makes you look more like a little girl’ and ‘it makes you look as though you have been crying and need to be protected’. This interesting linguistic behaviour shows how stretchy the politics of consumers can be when there’s something they want to achieve.
- When a consumer tells you that their taste in beauty, grooming and fragrance is ‘sporty’, this is often code for simply not knowing their way around the category. Nervous consumers who feel they don’t know ‘enough’ about a category to fully participate in it recognise that sporty is a safe choice. A similar phenomenon is found in fashion, where less-involved consumers retreat to ‘sporty’ as safe territory.
- Beauty and fragrance ads show strong cultural variation and this is true for men’s products as well as women’s. American men are invited by ads to place themselves in scenes from Hollywood action movies; British men are invited to envisage themselves standing louchely outside an underground club in Camden, perhaps next to a 1960s car; French men are invited to imagine themselves as objects of desire, while they are disengaged and inattentive to attempts to impress them.
Ofgem, the UK gas and electricity regulator, published research by Lawes concerning bills, statements and price rise notifications across dozens of energy suppliers. The report is called Retail Market Review: Energy bills, annual statements and price rise notifications; advice on layout and the use of language. It uses a combination of research methods, principally including discourse analysis and semiotics, to show how meaning can be both displayed and concealed using various kinds of words, phrases, sentence structures and graphic devices. The findings not only show how to design energy communications so that customers can understand them but also help to explain the dynamics of consumer psychology that cause people to read and interpret energy communications in different ways.
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- Energy customers make sense of energy communications, which can often be quite technical, with reference to experiences and concepts imported from everyday life. This is why concrete amounts of money (twenty pounds) is easier to understand than 20%, which in turn is easier to understand than 20 units of energy, which are almost entirely abstract. There’s a sliding scale here, from material reality to abstraction.
- When you want customers to take action or understand how to take action should they desire, framing instructions as a set of three steps is easy to understand, seems accessible and gives the impression of a complete process. This technique makes energy communications more motivating and easier to interpret and customers have experience with it in other categories such as health and personal care.
- When suppliers issue different types of communications, they need to make the differences clear to customers, otherwise customers will impose their own systems of classification such as ‘letters that need me to do something, possibly by a set date’ and ‘letters that I don’t need to act on or even read’.
In 2011, Lawes presented a paper called ‘The Moral Economy of Fashion and Beauty’ at a one-day conference on fashion held by the Market Research Society. It gives a demonstration of semiotic analysis by showing how semiotics tackles fashion – how to approach it as a cultural phenomenon, what it means to consumers and how they use it. In 2017 Lawes published a paper in the International Journal of Market Research, ‘The things you are looking at have names’, which gives a semiotic and discursive analysis of young women’s talk about fashion brands. We’ve advised British retailers such as John Lewis and ASDA about selling clothes for adults, teens and kids. This has noticeably included topics such as the shopping behaviours of parents and young adults, in-store signage and mannequin displays as well as the clothes themselves.
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- Fashion brands are obviously very important to many young women, who excitedly climb a short ladder of incrementally more aspirational clothing retailers as they leave school, get their first paid jobs, enjoy busier social lives and so on. Interestingly, their natural language shows that they are very conscious of this ladder. A big part of how they understand any particular fashion brand is grounded in contrasts with its nearest equivalent – usually the brand which is one step down the ladder.
- Some fashion occasions have high emotional stakes – such as weddings. In these situations, consumers making fashion decisions find themselves with a dilemma on their hands. On the one hand, they want to be individual and different. If possible, they want to feel unique. This is very important in Western culture. On the other hand, if they stray too far from convention they risk losing the sense of occasion which resides in an event’s conventional or repeatable aspects. Designers, brands and retailers can help consumers manage this problem by offering them fashion choices which are just different enough – quirky but not radical.
- Fashion decisions include categories such as hosiery. As it happens, tights are an important signifier in British culture. In 2011, Duchess-to-be Kate Middleton attracted criticism from fashion commentators because her sturdy, black tights connoted the occupations of the middle class, to which she no longer fully belonged. Soon after, she stopped wearing them. In 2018, Meghan Markle attracted comment when she appeared in tights for the first time, immediately following her wedding, seeming to defer to British and royal, class-based dress codes.
Food categories that have been illuminated by Lawes semiotic and cultural insight: baked products including bread, cookies; dairy products including cheese, spread; spices including mustard; soup (all formats); meat; fish; sugar and sweeteners; snacks and confectionery; packet cereal; fresh vegetables and salads; chilled convenience foods. Brand owners and retailers in various countries have asked us to: revive the sales of ranges of ready meals; explain the consumer psychology of fresh versus frozen; show how to become more innovative and premium with baked goods; pinpoint the semiotic signs and codes used by successful competitor food brands; show how to communicate ideas such as ‘healthy’, ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘artisanal’, ‘premium’ and ‘luxury’ using pack design and product design. We also supply ad agencies with food-related insights and creative ideas.
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- Food can be heavily gendered and also loaded with meanings relating to social class. For some consumers, in line with these variables, being resistant to trying new foods can be a point of pride – not everybody automatically aspires to enjoying world cuisine.
- Consumers are not oblivious to the semiotics of food and so marketing communications need to respect their intelligence. In particular, ‘women laughing while eating yogurt’ has become a highly visible and recognisable advertising trope that consumers take pleasure in being able to spot and decode.
- Food businesses play a role in shaping food culture, which is why North Americans have palates which are educated to enjoy sweeter drinks and breakfast cereals. Additionally, in English-speaking North America, the word ‘good’ in connection with food conflates ‘tasty’ with ‘healthy’, which is not so much the case in other cultures.
- Consumers may experience meals and food items as having their own moral economy, especially in some cultures. For example, Northern European consumers can be quite fastidious about thinking that a person should eat something plain before eating a sweet treat, as though the reward of sweetness has to be earned.
At various times we’ve used semiotics and ethnography to offer expert consultancy on laundry to P&G, Unilever and many smaller brands. It is a category that is rather unloved by consumers, regarded as somewhat of a chore and short on creative opportunities in contrast to something like home decorating or cooking. An additional problem is that the category can be very technology-driven – some new formula may be developed that does more to preserve the brightness of colours or remove stains – and this is allowed to drive innovation without a lot of correspondence to consumer need. Despite this, when laundry is examined semiotically it is clear that consumers are trying to introduce a more emotional element in a category where brands are not always doing as much as they could to help them out.
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- Laundry is full of fascinating cultural and regional differences. Europeans own fewer clothes and wash them less often, in hotter water. American families often amass great piles of clothes and this is a function of various factors, including cheaper, more disposable clothing and larger houses with more closet space. Additionally, Americans use more stain removers than Europeans and a large part of this is an American tendency to eat on the go, especially in the car, contrasted against a lingering European habit of eating with cutlery at set times or discrete occasions.
- When people lose control of their housework, laundry may be the first thing to go. Consumers often post pictures on social media of great towers of unwashed or unfolded laundry which may dwarf the person expected to take care of the task. In popular self help regimes which guide consumers in re-establish control over their homes, laundry is often a point of special focus and attention. People are easily overwhelmed by laundry and brands could do more to help them systematise a complex task.
- Photos posted by consumers of their own homes show them making sometimes valiant attempts to make the utility space or laundry room appealing and cosy, even though most washing machines look like imports from the automotive category. While, especially in developing countries, ownership of a washing machine may be a very proud matter, just like owning a car, there’s an incongruence in many homes between the large, car-like object parked in the kitchen and the cosy narrative that the homeowner has attempted to weave around the machine, with sweet fragrances and homes for orphan socks.
There’s a reason why small children sometimes think that cats are girls and dogs are boys. From our earliest years we are all exposed to cultural messages about different types of animals, the meaning of wild versus domesticated, the role of animals as workers and pets. These messages, which vary somewhat from one region of the world to another, shape adult experiences with their domestic animals – not just what they feed them but how they care for them and how they experience an emotional relationship with the animal. Internal, psychological experiences are set up within a cultural framework. Semiotics shows how all of that works and helps brands and pet care organisations communicate more effectively with owners.
Our pet care clients include Lily’s Kitchen as well as the Veterinary Marketing Association.
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- Dogs and cats are the subject of a rich fantasy life for humans. This exists not just at a household level, where pets are routinely anthropomorphised and invested with human cognitive abilities and personalities. It also exists at a societal level, where pet owners co-operate in a shared fantasy that is manifest and sustained in places like YouTube and Twitter.
- In these group fantasies about pets, fascinating differences between dogs and cats emerge. Dogs are portrayed as lovable buffoons – they are goofy, have a silly sense of humour and are regularly featured in absurd costumes or situations, apparently willingly. Cats are snooty, remote and occasionally tyrannical. In the popular imagination, cats condescend to be fed and cared for and think they are doing humans a favour by permitting it.
- Some of the research we do is ethnographic and here we learn how some people arrange their lives and homes around their pets. We’ve also done lots of creative work with consumers in which they draw panel cartoons, depicting the emotional challenges and rewards of pet ownership. Some of these are similar to the challenges of being a parent. Are you a good cat mom? Is your pet fully involved in family occasions?
Lawes experience with presciption pharmaceuticals and OTC medicines and health products spans a wide range of categories. Our research concerning the language, psychology and journeys through diagnosis and treatment of sufferers of MPS1, a rare genetic disorder, was published in the journal Clinical Therapeutics. We’ve also worked on digestive disorders including IBS, mental health disorders including ADD, diabetes, erectile dysfunction and coughs and colds. We’ve worked with hard-to-reach patient populations in multi-country projects and have provided practical advice to drug manufacturers, patient advocate groups and health care providers on better ways to communicate with sensitive and anxious client groups. This type of research typically involves a mix of semiotics, discourse analysis and ethnography, as we show our clients the power of words and visual symbols to change patients’ experience of illness and treatment and their perceptions of brands and organisations.
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- Patients are very sensitive to visual and verbal representations of themselves which they find in communications and literature about their disease. The word ‘patient’ is itself not neutral and well-intended photos of patients and their families can be disturbing and anxiety-provoking for those who are newly-diagnosed.
- The general public and health care professionals tend to speak two different dialects when talking about disease and why it is a problem. Experienced patients learn to switch dialects but this is not an ideal situation and professional organisations could do more to speak to patients in their own language, reflecting their own concerns.
- Experiences of illness and reactions to healthcare options can be highly culturally specific. For example, English-speaking North American culture has its own ideas about health and illness which don’t straightforwardly correspond to Spanish-speaking Latin American ideas. This is not just a case of different ‘labels’ being applied by users of different languages, but involves qualitatively different ideas about what health is, what types of illnesses humans suffer from and what the appropriate responses are.
Political communications are packed with semiotic signs and symbols and are some of the clearest examples out there of how semiotics makes communications persuasive. Over about 13 years, Lawes has delivered several research papers to industry conferences showing how to decode political advertising and also how to make sense of consumer responses to political issues. These responses can range from very serious debates about national and class identity through to spoof ads which are powerful tools that consumers – and sometimes rival professionals – use to tell politicians how they really feel. Titles include The semiotics of political advertising (2015), Understanding engagement with political advertising (2007) and Unamerican: The semiotics of national identity (2005).
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- ‘Labour isn’t working’, a campaign poster for the Conservatives by Saatchi and Saatchi is one of the clearest examples ever seen of a phenomenon called ‘the Western visual semiotic’. According the WVS, Western audiences expect that the past should appear on the left hand side of a frame and the future should be on the right. The Saatchi ad expertly used this principle to show Britain under a Labour government, with a long line of people in a dole queue, all facing towards the left, implying that a Labour vote would be a vote to take Britain back down the path of civilisation and away from prosperity and progress.
- Politics in the United States particularly lends itself to semiotic analysis because the US is possibly the world’s most binary culture. It is a culture which is at its happiest when everything has been reduced to two, clearly differentiated and competing sides. A challenge for politicians who want to introduce change is to find ways to reconcile change with the components of political and national identity that people want to protect and hold stable. For example, patriotic Americans do not want to give up being patriotic, so liberal reformers have to find ways to reconcile programmes of social change with patriotic instincts.
- Younger consumers can be quite politically engaged but they are very issues-focused and personality-focused. They believe in direct action but they also trust themselves and hold themselves in higher esteem than they do establishment figureheads. It’s important to address them at the level of consequential, real-world causes and not rely on corporate branding to get the message across. One reason why Islamic State was successful in recruitment was because it promised to be very empowering for individuals who did not necessarily feel that democracy was offering them a lot of advantages.
Lawes has been providing semiotic and cultural insight on travel and transport since opening for business in 2002. The details of a project concerning bus travel are set out in Demystifying Semiotics [hyperlink], a seminal paper on how to plan and conduct semiotic projects which is used by researchers and students around the world. We also have extensive semiotic and ethnographic knowledge of metro systems and airports, in multiple countries. We’ve provided insight about passenger behaviour and its relationship to transport design to Transport for London, Arriva and JCDecaux, to name just a few.
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- Sociologists of transport have described a phenomenon called ‘pop-up cities’. It happens in cities where large volumes of public transport users are non-resident (visitors, commuters from other areas, tourists) and where there is heavy reliance on underground metro systems. In this situation, some passengers remain in a state of ignorance of the above-ground geography of a city; areas of a city simply appear or ‘pop up’ when the consumer emerges from the underground system.
- Our research among airline passengers showed that levels of physiological arousal rise and fall as they move through airports. How that arousal is interpreted depends on signs in the immediate context: passing through security is experienced as stressful and this can be converted into feelings of mild euphoria as people successfully clear it and are expelled into the international departures lounge, causing them ‘to gaze around as though in an enchanted forest’, in the words of one annoyed frequent flyer.
- Using the bus can be scary, especially in unfamiliar cities, and there is evidence of this fear in consumer culture, in personal anecdotes and media stories. Fascinatingly, issues of gender, race and politics play into these stories. For example, in stories about assaults or similar crimes which take place at bus stops, which are outdoors, the victim is likely to be characterised as female or non-white; these groups are capable of functioning as semiotic signs for ‘vulnerable’. However, in stories where the assault or similar crime takes place within the confined, internal space of the bus, women and non-white groups are liable to be cast as perpertators as well as victims. This perhaps expresses a degree of concern in certain societies or demographics about who really owns the bus system and the internal spaces of the bus. Who is the bus for? Who does it rightfully belong to?
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