by Marguerite Coetzee. By definition, semiotics is the analysis of sign systems, and semiology is a scientific study of the life of signs within society. These signs may only be understood and made meaningful in a cultural context.

The study and theory of signs is built on the foundation of linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology – as well as paradigms such as structuralism (understanding human culture and behaviour within a broader system) and post-structuralism (a critique of structuralism, and a placement of the human being at the centre of knowledge production).

Hypotheses, challenges and semiotic models

Academics have long studied the hypotheses, challenges and semiotic models of Ferdinand de Saussure (a French philosopher and linguist responsible for inventing the two-sided sign – composed of the signifier/material object and the signified/mental concept), Charles Sanders Peirce (a philosopher and scientist who believed that one sign could trigger a chain of associations), Roland Barthes (a semiotician best known for his exploration of cultural myths and values, and analysis of semiotics within the frame of feeling, fact and imagination), Michel Foucault (a social theorist of knowledge, power and control),and  Claude Levi-Strauss (an anthropologist concerned with the highly complex and patterned nature of the human mind), among so many others.

Since the early 1990s, anthropologists and psychologists have explored the consumer mind beyond the results offered by quantitative surveys or qualitative focus groups. By the late ’90s, they had developed a deep understanding of experience, influence, perception, reaction, emergent language and imagery, cultural context and change, and future opportunities and thinking (read Semiovox: Why Use Semiotics).

The semiotics used by researchers, analysts, consultants, and creatives today is a combination of consumer mindset (perspective, understanding, and interpretation), motivation (their expectations, experiences, and subconscious drivers), and underlying cultural codes (meanings derived from their sociocultural context), as identified by Mark Batey. In a commercial context, semiotics is used to identify, anticipate and shape trends, to understand consumer behaviour, and to communicate effectively, relevantly, and accurately to consumers.


IKEA conducted ethnographic research in order to visually depict what “home” looks like in several countries around the world. The intention was for the Swedish furniture retailer to get a better idea of its consumers’ sociocultural contexts, their unique needs and expectations, and the role IKEA products could play within the home space.

Professional semioticians warn of amateur semiotic analysis as it “loses sight of the broader cultural implications of marketing signs for brand strategy” (read Creating Value: The Theory & Practice of Marketing Semiotics Research).

Johnnie & Jane Walker vs Jack Daniels

Johnnie and Jane Walker vs Jack DanielsOne such example might be found in the recent release of Jane Walker (in light of women’s history month – a female counterpart to Johnnie Walker). While the intention of the whiskey and female logo was to celebrate women’s rights and to encourage more women to consume the product, which traditionally operates in a male-dominated space, it was criticised by those who didn’t see this as a move towards gender equality. They found it unnecessary and segregating to distinguish between a drink for male and female consumers. Jack Daniels cleverly and simply voiced its opinion in an image of two identical bottles, with the titles “his” and “hers above each – to symbolically show that there is no difference in palate, preference, or person when it comes to their product.

Cultural meaning

Semioticians have the ability to distil complex meaning-making systems and culturally coded symbols into impactful insight, to translate their findings into actionable solutions, and to influence client perception and consumer decision (read Chris Arning: 10 Myths of Semiotics). Their work is increasingly being used in brand identity and positioning, communications, product development, packaging design, consumer segmentation, portfolio management, market development, innovative thinking, developing ideas, and more.

The value of a brand is found in cultural meaning. And semiotics is the key that unlocks this.


Marguerite de VilliersMarguerite Coetzee is an anthropologist at strategic marketing consultancy, Kantar Consulting. Fragments, the latest series in her regular column on MarkLives, explores the application of symbolism and production of meaning in a consumer’s world, inspired by semiotics and semiology (the scientific study of signs, symbols, and communication systems within sociocultural contexts).

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3 replies on “Fragments: Decoding semiotics”

  1. Disclaimer: I am the Mark Batey, author of Brand Meaning, referenced in the article (at least, I think I am!). But even if I wasn’t I’d post a comment in praise of this article. Very well written and provides a concise overview of this fertile field. The IKEA ethnographic research project is interesting (companies like Unilever have long reaped the rewards of similar programmes), and the Jane Walker vs Jack Daniel’s example is apposite and topical.

    1. Hi Mark,

      You are indeed the Mark Batey I referred to in the article!

      Thank you for your comment, your insight, and your perspective.


  2. Both examples present cases of poor and simple-minded execution.

    Jack Daniels’ effort – employing “his” and “hers” – was simply not enough to signify much. I would imagine most people probably didn’t even notice it save for it catching the corner of their eye.

    Johnnie Walker, on the other hand, missed several opportunities to drive home their intended ‘Women’s Pride’. The name “Jane”, for starters, signifies (for me, personally, with my uniquely informed dialogical viewpoints) three things:

    1) The universal designation for a nameless female – its male counterpart of course being “John”
    2) A literal example of a “damsel in distress” archetype (see Tarzan & Jane)
    3) A signifier of “plainness” i.e. “Plain Jane”

    While these three distinct semiotic associations must be considered transtextual within my personal heterroglossia, one can safely assume these three things to be well represented and potentially signified for many (if not most) people.

    While their intention may have been merely to create a female counterpart to their normal brand, they forgot that their product contains the name “Johnnie” and not “John”. This is pertinent when you consider the originator of the Whisky’s name was John i.e. an effort was made originally to promote a sense of unique identity to the brand by purposely avoiding the ‘plain’ moniker “John” in favour of the more playful, fun, youthful (etc.) “Johnnie”.

    One then has to question whether it would’ve been more effective to label the female promotion using a similar approach, e.g.: Jenny or Joni. This immediately eliminates the earlier-listed associations; it rhymes (Johnnie=Jenny); and both alternatives bring to mind powerful woman figures such as Joni Mitchell or Jenny McCarthy.

    Another (perhaps less effective) option would’ve been for them to employ (stereotypically) feminine colours in their blend labels e.g. Johnnie Walker Pink or Johnnie Walker Violet. This invokes a basic colour signification which, in today’s world, may be met with contention. Excepting the potential negative fallout from doing this, however, it could have proven successful had they replaced their most coveted Blue label with one of these, effectively feminising one of the most revered whisky blends in the world.

    Semiotics is key to marketing but the complexity of semiotic association and paratextual interaction cannot be ignored if said marketing is to be effective and successful.

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