If you sell products/ services, you perhaps realize that you cannot always meet your customers, but your customer meets you regularly through your products/services. You can construct the face of your company by using communication that speaks to the customer in your absence. Most companies have a logo, tagline and other communication elements that are geared towards constructing this face. Companies that have multiple products, as you might have, create separate identities for each by introducing a line of brands, for example. The challenge for a marketing professional, however, is to overcome the disparity between the kind of face the company wishes to project and the face seen by the consumers. It is a problem if the company wants to show a monkey face, but the consumer sees a bear face. To be more effective at creating company communication, a marketing professional should ideally understand how signs communicate. The field of semiotics can be helpful in this regard, since it is the “the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior” (Dictionary.com). In this post, I will explain how to conduct a semiotic analysis.
Goals of Semiotic Analysis
One goal of semiotic analysis is to verify how company communication is being interpreted. A marketing research study can be used to verify and refine the logo and other communication elements of a company. So, in the first stage the consumers are asked questions about what each communication element means. Based on these answers, the logo might be redesigned to make it closer to the meaning sought to be communicated. Multiple iterations of this marketing research and redesign process could continue till a marketing team finds the appropriate logo design.
Another goal of semiotic analysis is to compare brands. For example, the package design of five soap brands can be compared by asking consumers to deconstruct the meaning of each. The marketing team, in this case, with the help of marketing research professionals would want to understand how each brand is perceived based on their package design. The comparison may lead to the marketing team taking some key decisions regarding how to plan their own soap brand’s communication. It might also result in some revelations about the soap category itself, based on the analysis of the soap packaging design.
The analysis of brand semiotics can also help to segment the market, based on factors like the personality projected by each brand. Certain brands can be categorized as newer than others, for example, and one group can be categorized as more masculine.
Stages of a Semiotic Analysis
A semiotic analysis should be conducted in stages, with each phase adding to the learning from the previous round of analysis.
In the first stage of analysis, the semiotic elements need to be grouped together according to similarity. For example, the pictures could form one group while the logo elements form another group. This grouping itself might inform us about the text being analysed. So, groupings such as animal pictures or geometrical shapes would suggest that the text is communicating through animal pictures and geometrical shapes respectively. After the groupings are complete, it is important to complete a preliminary assessment of how the groups contribute to the larger picture or the overall message being communicated.
Stage 2–Independent Analysis of Groups
In the second stage of analysis, the previously formed groups should be analysed independently. So, a group of animal pictures should be deconstructed without considering their position alongside other groups, such as a group of fruits. The independent analysis of groups can seem vague at times, because one is not relating the objects to anything else. Yet, this makes this stage of analysis more powerful. What are the semiotic implications of a cat picture, for example, is an esoteric question that can help us understand the larger communication piece in later stages of the analysis.
Stage 3–Inclusive Analysis of Groups
In the third stage of analysis, the previously analysed groups need to be brought together and seen in relation to each other. The meanings of objects in each group may now differ as they are not being seen independently any longer. This stage of analysis will take us a step closer, and perhaps very close, to understanding the larger semiotic message, since the groups are being fitted together again.
Stage 4–Comparison of Independent and Inclusive Analysis of Groups
In the fourth stage of analysis, the independent and inclusive analysis of groups should be compared to understand how the relationship between elements changes the meaning of the groups. This comparison of the third and fourth stages of analysis will help us assess how the relationship between groups contributes to the overall meaning of the semiotic text.
Stage 5–Wrap Up of Semiotic Analysis
In the fifth stage of analysis, the semiotic analysis should be wrapped up using a summary statement of what each element and the associated group signifies and how this adds up to create the meaning of the entire semiotic text.
Techniques of Semiotic Analysis
The following are some techniques that can be used while conducting a semiotic analysis.
1) Use of open-ended questions
For a semiotic analysis, open-ended questions are essential as they help a research participant articulate their interpretation of a text. Closed questions with pre-defined answer choices or leading questions that influence the participant’s answer should be avoided. In comparison, open-ended questions are helpful as a semiotic analysis is almost completely subjective. These questions present an open slate that the research participant can fill in whatever way they choose. The meaning of the text can, thus, be constructed according to the participant’s interpretation. For example, if a researcher asks the participant what the picture of a lion signifies rather than whether the lion looks strong, the participant is free to describe the lion in their own words.
2) Re-articulation through probing
Research participants may have trouble articulating their interpretation of a text, during a semiotic analysis, as it requires a careful choice of words. The researcher can help by using probing questions that force a participant to rethink their answer and explain it further. This adds clarity to the analysis and makes it more detailed. For example, if the research participant mentions that the use of the square shape makes a logo look too structured, the researcher can ask the participant to explain the connection between a square shape and the structured look.
3) Use of abstract questions
Abstraction is a valuable tool during a semiotic analysis, so the researcher should not shy away from using abstract questions. The meaning of the color blue or the relevance of a piece of cloud in an open sky may belong to the domain of poetry otherwise, but they are also marketing research questions while conducting a semiotic analysis.
4) Use of projective techniques
A common tool used by qualitative researchers, projective techniques allows the researcher to gain insights regarding deep psychological attitudes of the research participant. A projective technique is a projection of an abstract question on to an easy to understand and structured concept. For example, during a semiotic analysis if a researcher wants to understand whether the logo is looking youthful, they can use a projective technique. Using this technique, they can ask the participants to imagine the logo to be a human being. So, if the logo is a human being how old would this person be. The answer (age of the human being) would give the researcher a sense of whether the logo is youthful enough.
5) Use of craft stationery
While conducting a semiotic analysis, it is important to use craft stationery such as scissors, glue sticks and markers. In addition, copies of the text (s) being analysed should be kept handy so that they can be used as required. While grouping elements, for example, it is recommended that the participant cuts out pieces of the text and groups elements as deemed suitable. The sketch pens can be used to highlight elements of the text as required during the analysis.
Overall, the questions used during a semiotic analysis ought to guide the participant through the five stages outlined earlier. For each stage, broad questions need to be used to direct the participant towards the task to be accomplished. So, in the first stage the participant should be given explicit instructions to group elements and then in the second stage to analyse each group independently. In the third stage, examples should be used to familiarize participants with inclusive analysis and, thereafter, how to compare the inclusive and independent analysis in the fourth stage.
Those starting out with this kind of analysis should keep in mind that the analysis is fruitful when the semiotic text is clearly and easily understandable after the first four stages. The larger picture should easily emerge in the fifth stage.
Guest Author Bio
Rohit Chattopadhyay is the founder of Culture Cushion™ Consulting, a firm that helps global managers develop cultural intelligence for team building. He is an intercultural trainer with a background in strategic communications and marketing research. Rohit has a PhD in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania, USA. He has conducted independent research on cultural identity issues, apart from working as a marketing research and marketing professional in Canada, India and the United States. If you want to schedule a training session or workshop, please send an email to Rohit@culturecushion.com.
Website: Culture Cushion™ Consulting