We solve all sorts of problems for old and new brands
Launch a new brand
Lawes has helped Lily’s Kitchen, Kraft Foods, Unilever, P&G, Morrisons and many more launch new brands.
A new brand needs several things to be successful. It needs to be culturally relevant; able to speak to consumers using ideas and values that are in tune with national or regional trends. It must address a genuine consumer need. It must be able to differentiate itself from local competitors.
Our unique suite of research methods, ranging from social psychology to semiotics, delivers exceptionally clear insights on culture. Drawing on research experience in 20 countries, we can show you what matters to consumers and what they see when they go shopping, organise their homes, make lifestyle statements and interact with the world around them.
Did you know?
- Semiotic signs in pet food brands can vary from one culture to the next in terms of how they present and depict animals as more or less ‘wild’ and therefore close to nature.
- Middle class consumers in the UK have all kinds of habits and tastes which are designed to support their middle-ranking position in the British class system – but tools such as coffee grinders often let them down.
- There’s such a thing as too much on-shelf standout. If you are introducing a new brand into a culture where consumers are shy and haven’t had much contact with non-local brands, don’t stand out too aggressively. Adopt some local traditions to appear less like an awkward foreigner.
Reposition brands and handle tricky mergers
When Lawes helped SCA Hygiene rebrand Charmin bathroom tissue after an acquisition from P&G, the performance of the new brand – Cushelle – exceeded all of SCA’s expectations and predictions. We presented a case study with SCA at the MRS Annual Conference in 2009. It was nominated for Best Paper and the judging panel said it was the most compelling case study of semiotics it had ever seen. SCA expected a difficult situation because Charmin customers were very loyal and the rebrand had to happen for business reasons that were unrelated to their preferences.
We also helped Halifax merge with Bank of Scotland in a move that needed careful marketing and communication in Scotland, where consumers were expected to be sensitive and protective of their well-loved Scottish brand. We used a mix of semiotics, ethnography and qualitative research with consumers to help SCA and HBOS get it right and make customers feel happy with changes to ‘their’ brands.
Did you know?
- Brand mascots, whether animals or humans, real or fantasy, are composed of semiotic signs which convey specific meanings to consumers. If you need to swap one mascot for another, semiotics will set out your options and help you select one with the right meaning.
- Brand names are also composed of semiotic signs and you can tweak elements of a brand name to alter its meaning.
- Countries such as Scotland have a national personality or character, reflecting the tastes, politics and everyday pleasures and annoyances associated with living in a particular place. This is more than an aggregated set of privately-held ‘attitudes’. In fact, cultures are unique because they are organised around their own, distinctive, local debates, controversies and issues which grip the national imagination – not every consumer agrees on these issues, but everyone has an opinion. These debates or problems are called ideological dilemmas and unlocking them is the key to successful brand communications with sensitive audiences.
Rejuvenate older brands
Lawes has helped Unilever, Diageo, Grey London and many more rejuvenate older brands.
Over time, brands sometimes become a victim of their own success. They develop an entrenched meaning in the minds of consumers – and all of it might be positive associations – but then there’s a risk that the brand finds itself unable to adapt to new, younger groups of consumers and eventually becomes regarded as slow-moving, tied to certain situations or demographics, and so on. There are lots of ways to tackle this: refreshing the brand’s meaning and purpose; innovating and launching extensions; changing its marketing communications, including its packaging. Lawes uses a suite of research methods which have in common their ability to penetrate consumer culture. Taking a cultural perspective helps brand owners and advertisers find a place for their brand and keep it looking fresh in times of social change.
Did you know?
- Some ideas seem timeless but can have very different priorities and expressions from one era to the next. For example, all consumers to some extent buy into ideas such as ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ but there are variations. How acutely do people feel these needs? Where is a sense of scarcity coming from? Where is home located (your parents’ home; your Airbnb network; the whole world) and how would you know when you have started to belong somewhere?
- Bling and elegance are not mutually exclusive. In certain categories, younger consumers respond well to brand extensions that offer them a more glamorous variant of trusted brands. While this may imply an amount or style of decoration that is not to the taste of conservative customers of the original brand, it does not require the brand owner to abandon elegance. We’ve shown clients how 18th-century European Baroque styles are used to successfully sell food, alcohol, cosmetics and department stores.
Make comms clearer and more motivating
Did you know?
- Lists of three items produce consistent reactions, where people treat the list as a complete set. This effect can be achieved even when there is not much variation between the items on the list – but it is lost if the list expands to four or five items. Its many applications include giving consumers instructions in a series of steps that seem complete and easy to accomplish.
- People find simple binary pairs even more attractive and easy to understand than three-part lists. To a large extent, people understand what things are with reference to what they are not. Clear communications work with this tendency rather than fighting it.
- There are concrete and abstract ways of talking about money. ‘£23 on your quarterly bill, Mr Smith’ is easier to understand than ‘everyone’s bill will go up by 18%’. While most consumers are capable of understanding percentages, they are a form of code that is used by mathematicians, politicians and social scientists and as such they lack urgency and real-world tangibility compared to expressing numbers in pounds and pence. What percentages do imply is precision, and this may be valuable in some communications.
Make just about anything seem more premium
While there is always going to be variation, from one category to the next and from one country or culture to the next, there are certain reliable techniques which can be used to unlock the secrets of premium and apply them to most brands. ‘How to make it more premium’ is probably the one question we’ve been asked more than any other, in two decades of delivering semiotic research and insight to brand owners in banking, food, personal care, homewares, retail and many more.
Did you know?
- Retailers and POS: make space more premium by copying the ways that humans use architecture to section off protected or sacred spaces. Portals and arches are one example and there are many more.
- Designers: semiotic codes that cue premium are useful resources, yielding information about colour palettes, typography, decoration and various design trends. A brand may visually communicate premium in a way that’s distinctively Indian, Russian, Chinese or it may draw on the historical and contemporary design traditions of Western Europe.
In our experience of working with consumer-facing brands and their communications, ‘value’ has two aspects. One is psychological, orientated to consumer need and built into the brand, its proposition and architecture. The other is more about visual communication and more anchored to price and promotions. Over a couple of decades we’ve helped brand owners and retailers work out how to design and communicate ‘value’ offerings in food, beauty, alcohol and many other categories.
Did you know?
- At a psychological level, many consumers find themselves on a quest for value which turns out to be complex and occasionally deceptive. Discovering something that feels like value can deliver a feeling of ‘winning at shopping’ that consumers relish. The shopping haul video is an interesting genre of consumer-made content where value is actively constructed, moment to moment.
- Red, yellow and white can all be used to communicate ‘low prices’ or ‘more for your money’ in stores and in visual comms such as direct mail. Semiotics can tell you how to manipulate the combination and proportions of these colours to communicate time-sensitive promotions versus year-round low prices.
- Some categories have their own cues. For example, in packaged cookies and biscuits, packs such as bags that open from the top cue ‘premium’ while packs such as tubes that open from one end cue ‘value’.
Identify emerging trends in categories and in society
Did you know?
- Where there’s a high incidence of some particular idea or set of semiotic signs in consumer culture, that’s often symptomatic of some anxiety at a societal level. That is, cultures place a lot of emphatic health messages on food packaging at times when there is anxiety about food processing and they generate a lot of messages about safety – safe spaces, tips for how to stay safe – at times when at a societal level, a great variety of perceived dangers have been socially constructed. These dangers extend beyond obvious physical dangers and may include things like being forcefully disagreed with or being obliged to moderate expressions of strongly-held beliefs.
- In entertainment, the zombie genre has lasted as long as it has because it allows consumers to safely experience and emotionally play out a range of anxieties pertaining to issues which are usually too large or complex to easily discuss. In the early days of the genre, issues included racism and the aftermath of slavery, later it was fear of disease (viruses, epidemics), more recently it has been immigration and geopolitics.
- Even seemily personal decisions such as how to decorate a home and arrange furniture are very connected to ideological movements, social change, class issues and conservative and liberal politics.
Unlock shopper psychology
Over a couple of decades of researching shopping and accompanying and observing shoppers in semiotic and ethnographic studies, enduring features of human psychology become apparent. These may be category-specific but sometimes transcend categories. These aspects of human psychology are partly a product of store design and are partly ignored by it. Most supermarkets default to a grid arrangement for aisles and fixtures. This is one way, along with car parks, trolleys, in-store signage and many similar technologies, that stores use to produce a shopper who is highly rational. This is accompanied by theories of shoppers who are on rational and discrete missions and who make linear decisions. Shoppers can be awakened and engaged afresh using insights from semiotics and ethnography which challenge this linear and rational model. Lawes has supplied retailers around the world with arrays of alternative in-store aesthetics which acknowledge non-rational shopper behaviour and engage people’s imaginations and emotions.
Did you know?
- Sometimes, consumption in one category is dependent on another and may even seem to disguise it. A consumer may become very expert in and engaged with particular categories because that is allowing them to enjoy secondary benefits. Many hobbies and sports fit into this category, where the activity itself may be less important than opportunities to buy materials, tools and clothing, and similarly engagement with lifestyles that are organised around self-improvement or health can function as the socially acceptable face of experiencing certain indulgences and pleasures.
- In affluent societies, some shoppers regard almost everything in their favourite stores as a collectible item. They will have completed the game of life when they have sampled every flavour or variant, a little like holiday-makers who make a point of visiting as many countries as possible no matter for how short a time.
- Not all shoppers are on missions all of the time. As much as they may have rational tasks to complete in store, they will also allow themselves to be entertained and diverted when presented with something new – but sometimes stores let them down in the exact categories where consumers need and want them to succeed in delivering an emotional and imaginative experience.
Make stores and fixtures more attention-getting
We’ve done a lot of work with retailers in Britain and around the world, including in South America, South East Asia and Africa, at the level of malls, department stores, supermarkets, owner-managed convenience stores and independent stores. In this context, semiotics means observing shoppers in store and pointing out the relationship between design and shopper behaviour. This can be good for planning and directing shopper journeys, getting the attention of shoppers who are on autopilot, managing categories and creating buzz around new brands and products.
Did you know?
- A distinguishing characteristic of the mall is its artificial, designed environment which is demarcated as separate from the outside world. Malls often feel safer than ‘outside’, shoppers relax and are more able to take in stimulating and soothing environments, which the large scale of malls are particularly able to provide.
- The single easiest way to get the attention of shoppers in a physical store is to show them something unexpected, even incongruous. Show them something that is out of place. We’ve seen attention-getting structures and objects placed in supermarkets and department stores and even airports such as a giant bull, a galleon, life-size trees and coffee cups that double as chairs. Almost anything becomes more engaging when blown up to several times its normal size and/or imported into a store from a radically different setting.
- Online and mobile retailing and shopping can be decoded using the same semiotic method as high street or mall shopping. Just like physical stores, digital stores produce certain types of shopper and shopper experience. In a digital setting, thanks to easy opportunities for creativity and experimentation in visual design, unusual heights can be achieved, whether in the direction of a Western platform offering a highly rational shopping journey or a Chinese platform offering chances to become excited while grabbing bargains.
Make local brands more global
Brands which are performing well in a few countries often develop ambitions for a larger multi-country or global presence. At this point, they want to communicate just a few things to a multicultural audience that is (usually) affluent and exposed to global media, including social media and entertainment media. To achieve these communications, both visual and verbal, they want to know if there are any global rules or universally understood semiotic signs which they can deploy.
- The ‘global brand’ code which comprises many semiotic signs and is discernible in lots of countries, takes much of its influence from the 1980s and 90s. This was a time when a lot of consumer ‘lifestyle’ brands introduced themselves into India, China and Eastern Europe, resulting in a recognisable global aesthetic or style which was then imitated by local competitors in response. Fast food and short order restaurants are particularly good examples of this, as are hotels.
- Luxury is more culturally specific than mass-market convenience and glamour because it relies more on myths of origin and provenance. Despite this, variations in luxury are not infinite and affluent consumers are literate in a handful of discourses of luxury which brand owners may choose from. American luxury is not like Italian luxury but both may be intelligible to consumers on a global stage.
Make global brands more local
Our clients include some multinational firms that own brands with a global reach. There are always ways to make brands more globally appealing and this is obviously very cost-effective. Eventually, though, there’s a trade-off and brands can become ‘too’ global which means they start to feel impersonal, detached and even generic. At this point, we can apply cultural and semiotic insight to give a more personal, local and credible flavour to big brands without compromising their core values. We’ve helped personal care brands, food stores and even tourist destinations find out what makes them special and how to embrace localism.
Did you know?
- Categories such as laundry detergent and deodorant often lapse into functionalism and it’s tempting to regard them as low-engagement. In this type of situation, Lawes uses semiotics to find out how local artists and even amateur interior designers are treating bathrooms and laundry rooms and technologies such as boxes and cans. This type of creative work by consumers is often emotionally engaging and packed with locally relevant semiotic signs.
- Categories such as beauty and bathing usually go to a lot of trouble to fall in line with global rules of appealing packaging, but local cultures may interpret the rules differently: this knowledge can be used by brand owners. For example, collectively, brands may have got the idea that they should leave a lot of unused space on pack because this signifies ‘premium’ – but this unused space may be treated very differently in different parts of the world. In China it could be the background of a painting of a landscape or wild plants. In the USA it could be a solid block of bright colour, after the American abstract expressionists. In India the unused space may sit behind a delicate filigree or mesh pattern.
Explain the culturally specific behaviour of certain demographics
There is global consumer culture, there is national culture and then there are subcultures of consumers which can be organised around almost anything that binds people together; a shared interest in video games; being a new parent; being ill. Some of the most interesting work Lawes has done in this area has concerned pharmaceuticals and consumers with specific kinds of health problems.
One health problem that we know a lot about is mucopolysaccharidosis (MPS). We conducted extensive research using in-home interviews, discourse analysis and semiotics to learn about how patients and their carers experience their journey pre- and post-diagnosis and eventually into treatment. We had an academic paper published in the medical journal Clinical Therapeutics in 2007 which sets out some of the many psychological and linguistic habits of individuals and families who are burdened with rare genetic disorders.
Did you know?
- When someone in the family receives a diagnosis of a disease that is genetic and life-shortening, it is a shock. Although charities, drug manufacturers and health professionals do their best to communicate in a way that is friendly and colloquial, affected families are faced with information that is hard to understand and quickly learn to become bilingual, in order to switch between a technical and medical discourse that is spoken by professionals, and a social discourse that reflects the needs and anxieties of the lay person.
- Participating in a normal social life is terribly important, especially for patients who are young adults. While medical professionals may be concerned with physical ability and bodily functions, patients themselves may rate these things in second place behind being able to participate in age-appropriate, sometimes gendered, social activities in a conventional way. Young women may place a lot of importance on being able to groom themselves, dress fashionably and engage in feminine social activities, while young men may attach a lot of importance to learning to drive.
Explain cultural and marketing issues that are specific to women and men
Over a couple of decades of research, Lawes has delivered a lot of insight to brand owners and ad agencies concerning issues that are specific to women and men. Women. We’ve helped tech brands address women customers in a way that takes them more seriously and acknowledges their individuality. We’ve helped OTC medicine brands develop variants for women. We’ve worked on feminine hygiene brands. We’ve published semiotic analyses of women’s resistance to body-shaming, which is a behaviour in response to a cultural idea. Women are quite politically aware and they can tell when they are being patronised, so it’s important to speak to them in the right tone of voice. Men. We’ve helped food brands understand what masculinity entails for young men right now – it’s a consequential for food because many young men will not eat just anything and are highly body-conscious, fuelled by selfie culture and social media. We’ve also looked at masculinity in specific regions of the world such as India, because these regions follow their own path of economic and social change. We’ve also done lots of work on men’s grooming and helped to decode shaving and growing a beard.
Did you know?
- Growing a beard can be about borrowing semiotic signs from revolutionaries. Your life may not resemble that of Fidel Castro in many respects, but you can borrow his commanding facial hair.
- Women invented a new aesthetic called CyberTwee. It is a recognised art movement and form of cultural expression in which women ask what would happen if ‘girly’ motifs in tech were encouraged and valorised instead of being ridiculed.
Supply creative ideas for ad campaigns
As well as brand owners, Lawes works with their ad agencies. At various times, Grey London, DLKW (now MullenLowe) and 18 Feet and Rising have used Lawes as a source of short-order strategic ideas that are relevant and motivating to consumers and can be easily given creative expression.
Nearly 20 years of looking at countries around the world through a semiotic lens provides cumulative wisdom and a unique perspective on the human condition. This perspective equips Lawes with the ability to make original and penetrating observations on almost any subject at short notice.
We have recently delivered eye-opening critiques of various aspects of consumer psychology and contemporary society for agencies who are looking for new things to say about food, families, money, technology, health, Christmas, Millennials, extreme sports and world peace.
Did you know?
- Semiotics supplies a set of conceptual tools that equip a person to look at almost any phenomenon from a new angle. Specific techniques can be applied, such as asking whether the inverse of a truism is also true, and viewing social relations as systems within which power is passed around. Fruitful insights then emerge from challenging orthodoxy and from asking who has power and who is prevented from using it.
- The personal is the political – even the smallest and seemingly most personal of tastes and habits, such as the names given to pets and items which are stuck to the fridge, are full of political meaning and have political and ideological origins.
- The idea of ‘influence’ is very important to younger consumers right now and this leads to both innovation and conformity in consumer behaviour as individuals try to gather influence, using what they know about their local culture and the people around them.
Supply brand stories
Over 20 years of working across a range of categories, we’ve found that alcohol is one in particular where a steady stream of compelling brand stories is always in demand. We’ve supplied stories for beer, whisky, rum and vodka, amongst others. Research methods that generate cultural insight become real power tools in this type of situation because stories are cultural products. While every consumer, like every brand, has his or her own story, the stories themselves are crafted from culturally available materials and are passed around among consumers as a form of currency. Stories are located in two places of importance for brand owners. They may be located within the category – many categories are very tight and limited with the repertoire of stories that they tell, leading brand communications to sound undifferentiated and repetitive. For example, Scotch whisky brands almost all tell the same story. Other stories are located outside the category – your target customer is exposed on a daily basis to a host of culturally available and relevant stories which can be co-opted by brands.
Did you know?
- Millennials are disproportionately susceptible to stories which are ‘inspiring’ – inspiration is a very powerful and dominant semiotic sign right now. Consumers look for inspiration because something in their environment is making it necessary. Some of them adopt inspirational stories as their own personal narratives which then dictate the course of their lives and career.
- Authenticity is both highly prized and scarce. The same consumers who want to feel inspired also highly value authenticity – but it can be hard to find because it is over-claimed. Semiotic analysis of communications which succeed in conveying authenticity yields a menu of semiotic signs and story structures that brands can use.
Seed ideas for innovative services and products
Over a couple of decades of researching consumers and consumer culture, Lawes has fuelled innovation in lots of categories, including food, transport and finance. In particular, we’ve done a lot of this work in retail banking, developing new reward mechanisms for credit cards, more culturally relevant pensions products and attractive, easy-to-understand mortgages. All insights, creative solutions and strategic recommendations arise from the close study of consumer culture. Thanks to digital culture, online public forums and social media, there’s more qualitative insight available than ever before about how people think about money, how it fits in to their lives and their expectations around being able to manage and deal with it. When this picture is clear, it’s a relatively simple matter to evaluate the performance of brands and spot service gaps and unmet consumer needs.
Did you know?
- Consumers may disengage from product categories when they don’t like the version of themselves or their future that is implied by the design of the product as well as its marketing. People have a mental image of themselves, which may be more flattering than most banks are able to acknowledge, and they have both fears and ambitions for their future, which may be more or less connected to reality as a doctor or insurer would see it. These mental images, fears and ambitions are culturally available and brands can use them to design products as well as marketing communications.
- Lawes has presented on innovation at various Market Research Society, IIEX and ESOMAR events. A paper on the semiotics of innovation, which describes how to make something appear innovative, was presented at ESOMAR in 2005. In 2006 we developed a method for a brand owner that showed how to innovate by identifying and breaking cultural rules around food. A 2016 presentation at IIEX Europe set out a formula for innovation as a clear series of steps which shows how to develop and harness creativity.
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