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Signs, strategies, and brand value

The semiotic paradigm in market research gives new meaning to the expression, “You are what you eat.” The semiotic value of goods, from foodstuffs to cars, transcends their functional attributes, such as nutrition or transportation, and delivers intangible benefits to consumers in the form of brand symbols, icons, and stories. For instance, Coke offers happiness, Apple delivers “cool,” and BMW strokes your ego.

Brand meaning is not just a value added to products but has direct impact on financial markets as well. Market experts find a direct relationship between semiotics, the science of signs, and economics since they evaluate brands on the basis of their semiotic reach, depth, and cultural relevance. In effect, brands structure an economy of symbolic exchange that gives value to the meanings consumers attach to the brand name, logo, and product category.

Marketing semiotics research enables management to leverage consumer investments in the cultural myths, social networks, and ineffable experiences they seek in brands by finding out what consumers yearn for, what new cultural trends they are following, and how they incorporate brands into their lifestyles and social media streams. Rooted in the theory and methods of Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, semiotics-based market research accounts for the mutual influences of category codes, brand codes, and cultural norms on the perception of value in a given market. These codes and norms apply not only to the structure of advertising and popular culture, but also to the organization of retail space, the ritual behavior of consumers, the meaning of package design, and the structure of multimedia hypertexts.

For example, package design conforms to general category codes that represent, in shorthand, the product’s value proposition in relation to other products. In the Food and Beverage category, for instance, contrasts between the perceived quality of Natural and Processed foods are inscribed on packaging in terms of binary oppositions related to colors, shapes, and even the rhetorical style of the message. As illustrated in Figure 1, Processed foods use chemical flavors and preservatives, featuring bold primary colors on their packaging. Natural foods, on the other hand, are chemical-free and feature muted earth tones.

Given the current demand for food health and wellness, consumers are willing to pay more for brands that are Natural. Thus, the Processed/Natural binary generates a paradigmatic system of binaries that structure the representation of value on the supermarket shelf. They include chemical free/chemicals, earth tones/primary colors, and lower quality/higher quality. These kinds of binaries have strategic implications for brands because they entail shifts in the perceived quality and value of the products they represent. The introduction of Organic products added another level of quality to the equation because Organic foods are chemical free at the food source. The Natural/Organic binary entails a paradigmatic series of its own, including contrasting signifiers and quality standards [See Figure 1.]

Created by Laura Oswald. Used with permission.
Created by Laura Oswald. Used with permission.

In the same way they acquire language, consumers acquire fluency with these codes through repeated encounters with packaging in the supermarket. They learn to associate the bright primary colors, flashy paper, and hyperbolic product claims with Processed products; they associate clean lines, whites, and earth tones with Natural products; and associate dark greens, browns, authenticity claims, and muted colors with Organic products. Each design scheme also references a different value proposition based on quality.

To develop a design scheme for a new product, management must adhere more or less to these codes or risk confusing consumers and losing brand equity. Marketing semiotics research defines these codes by tracing recurring themes and patterns in a generous sampling of ads and packaging for the category. Researchers submit findings to a binary analysis, which reveals the underlying paradigmatic structure of value for the category.

After decoding the product category, management must then decide on a creative strategy for the brand that both adheres to the general category codes and also differentiates the brand from competitors. For another business case, semiotic research in the disposable diaper category revealed an underlying paradigmatic system based upon the binary opposition of Dry Baby/Wet Baby. Dry babies are happy and reflect the Good Mother and the victory of Culture over Nature; wet babies are unhappy and reflect the Bad Mother and the victory of Nature over culture.

The Pampers brand claims the dominant share of the category by mastering the semiotics of the Good Mother in advertising and on packaging, including serene moms cuddling quiet babies in their arms, rendered in soft pastels. Competitors face the challenge of differentiating their brand from Pampers without falling into the negative territory of wet, unhappy babies and bad mothers.

Researchers mapped the Dry/Wet paradigm on Greimas’ double-vector Semiotic Square, which deconstructs the strict binary logic of the Dry/Wet binary into a series of negations, such as not-wet/not dry, not good/not bad. The analysis illustrates that the Dry/Wet binary is an ideal, since real babies soil their diapers no matter how virtuous the mother. Likewise, real mothers are never just good or bad but do the best they can. The semiotic research process identified a distinct cultural space and competitive positioning for Baby’s Best as a realistic brand for real mothers, and proposed a creative strategy that substituted bright primary colors for soft pastels and featured happy, active babies and independent moms. The semiotic strategy grew brand value for Baby’s Best by strengthening the brand’s competitive positioning in relation to category leader Pampers.

Image Credit: “Times Square, NYC 2011” by Pauldc. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

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