The power of context

How a semiotics collaboration can reach hidden depths

In recent projects we’ve worked on, our semiotics collaborations have added value with measurable outcomes.

The best insight puts customers at the centre of strategy to drive and inspire change.

This is the stuff that gets celebrated by the C-suite, embedded in brand culture as well as winning the Insight department plaudits. It does this by delivering value that radiates beyond the scope of a specific project and can be applied universally to other areas of the brand.



Why semiotics?

Semiotics is the study of meaning. Within the realm of market research, semioticians work to decode culture through an examination of everything that’s relevant to a specific target group. This includes visual and verbal language, current affairs, arts, music, local conversations and talking points. One of Quadrangle’s partners, Ruth Somerfield, director of Ruth Somerfield Semiotics (, says, ‘It’s about understanding patterns in culture. It uses a different lens, so it adds another layer of understanding to research.’

Sign of the Times

Examining your customers from the inside out is obviously important in research. You want to know how they perceive the brand along with the products and services offered. The best qual and quant delivers on this.  However, when it comes to assessing why they think the way they do; that’s where the  value of an additional filter comes in. Understanding cultural context is important.

Picture a polar bear balanced on an ice floe. The associations that spring to mind might be the climate emergency, extinction of species, or perhaps BBC wildlife programmes. But a decade or more ago, your first thought may have been a mint flavoured sweet. Unravelling the cultural associations around this for a brand like Fox’s confectionary would unlock an added layer of insight and help them reposition for future success.

Collaborative working

‘Brands are generally strongest at assessing what they look like from the inside out,’ says Somerfield, ‘What’s harder is getting people to articulate how they feel about things at a wider level.’

Agencies differ on how they incorporate semiotics (if at all) but a credible plan should include researchers and analysts working in partnership with the semiotician. This can take the form of a collaborative workshop with client, consultancy and semiotician at the project’s inception, or a semiotics presentation to the consultancy which the analysts then use to assess how the quant stage is put together or to assess the framework for a focus group.

On a project for a major corporate client about what it means to be Scottish, Somerfield’s research was extensive, meticulously compiled. It sat at the heart of the project because it illuminated the areas of Scottish identity that the brand could potentially play in and led to the development of key territories stimulus that were subsequently tested in focus groups.

Peter Hasler, Quadrangle Insight Director, who worked on the project said, ‘The semiotics collaboration analysis built a richness into our research, particularly how historical and cultural references link to customer’s pride in Scotland today. The depth of insight gathered would have been impossible to access through traditional consumer methods.’

Somerfield agrees, ‘It can stop brands from becoming tonally deaf and helps set up the right questions that brands can ask for the main body of research.’

Looking to the future

Arguably, the most significant area in which semiotics delivers an impact is in brand foresight. ‘Semiotics can identify the potential white spaces that brands can move into. It’s investing for tomorrow,’ says Somerfield. ‘It highlights emerging patterns as well as identifying past and current ones. Semiotics provides inspirational platforms to take forward across other areas of the brand. It helps in moving brands forward to create long-term perspective. Semiotics has value beyond today.’

What to look for when bringing semiotics to a project

  • Find out how it’s going to be deployed and what the cost is. How does that relate to a quantifiable value. Your agency should make clear what a semiotics collaboration will bring to the project.
  • Your agency should make sure that the semiotician is fully integrated into the project, so that the research is well blended.
  • What stage is semiotics going to be used at? If at the beginning, how will it inform other stages of the research?
  • If it’s used to sense check further down the project, what checks will be in place to change direction if necessary.

"Semiotics can stop brands from becoming tonally deaf."