by Marguerite Coetzee. When we try to make sense of signs and symbols, there is an interplay between our outer world (our environment and cultural context that we live in) and our inner world (our mental ability to make sense of what we see, based on our existing knowledge). When it comes to advertising, packaging design and marketing-related practices, it is important to keep in mind how consumers might decipher the codes that we put out there.

We need to consider the context in which people operate, and the meaning or value they place on particular signs and symbols.

Hidden message

Take, for example, the symbol of the bull in South Africa. The local Bull Brand — a corned meat product — draws on particular qualities of the bull in its slogan “strong like a bull”. Semiotically, the bull is both a sacred and profane metaphor symbolising wealth and social value in cultural practices (such as lobola negotiations), as well as a spiritual link between humans and ancestors. We also see the bull appearing as a character in folklore, and it has even inspired songs and dance movements (some Zulu dancers have imitated mannerisms of the bull to signify their strength, courage and dignity).

The colours we see in the branding and packaging also have certain significance. Depending on the context, the colour red has many meanings that range from violence to passion, from sacrifice to good fortune. If we look at Red Bull — an Austrian energy drink — the bulls are said to depict strength, while the colour red is interpreted as power, aggression and risk-taking behaviour.

Clear meaning

Cape Town-based gourmet coffee bar, Rosetta Roastery, has pioneered a creatively informative packaging design to help consumers learn about and understand the different characters of its coffee. The design features an overlay of shapes — circle, square and triangle — and colours to represent origin and taste experience. Its name comes from the Rosetta stone, said to be the first ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times that could assist in translating hieroglyphics.

Another example of inspiration drawn from the stone is the Rosetta Stone language programme that applies learning methods with speech recognition technology. By drawing on existing symbols that already convey particular meanings, these brands are able to enhance the associations consumers make.

Finding value

The technique of applying semiotics to meaning-making goes beyond our world of marketing and advertising. We see signs appearing in the world around us on a daily basis, often without us even noticing that we are decoding them. Musicians might communicate their status or wealth in music videos by surrounding themselves with expensive cars and flashy friends. We are able to instantaneously identify these symbols of access without giving it much thought.

In a recently popular and thought-provoking, tear-jerking TV series, This Is Us, there are scenes in which no words are needed to tell a story. Even if you’ve not watched the show, you would be able to decipher — to an extent — the scene below. A full understanding of the story requires context.

Through the visuals, tone, and emotions that it evokes, we can piece together a story about two young people meeting (one a poet), falling in love, falling prey to drugs, losing themselves, creating life (a baby), and the mother losing her own. Take note of how the weather changes from sunny to stormy to mimic their inner turmoil, how the music is hopeful yet sombre, and how the poet’s handwriting changes to indicate a change in circumstance and character.

We use signs and symbols for different purposes: to help consumers navigate products, to code specific messages into our brands, or to conjure up particular meanings associated with the images. It is important for us to anticipate how consumers might decode these signs, in order to communicate clearly, relevantly, and effectively.


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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