When people look at your product what does it say to them? Semiotics is the science of signs and sign meaning.
When I teach Semiotics to marketing students I usually draw a tree on the blackboard and ask them what it is. Someone always says “it is a tree”. I then invite them to come to the board and break off a leaf or a twig. Then someone says “it is a drawing of a tree”. I point out that it is actually just chalk on a blackboard. But I encoded the image “tree” and it is correctly interpreted. So it is in effect a sign. It is a cheap version of Magritte’s pipe.
Everything about your product is a sign, the product itself, the package, the place where it is sold, the price, the bag it is placed into, the aftersales service, the person selling it and the performance that is given by the seller and the buyer.
Are you a discrete luxury brand, a popular family brand, an old-fashioned granny brand or a crass and vulgar display? Do you know? Are you a designer brand in New York and a grunge brand in Tokyo? Can you reconcile your image in the digital world where all information settles in the end to a single image?
Ignore semiotics at your peril – know the code.
Every product group has a “code” and it is vital you know what it is for your category. Do plain biscuits sell in red or blue packs? Does a red bag mean “natural chips” or “Cheese & Onion flavour”? What colour is the strongest detergent? If you are selling beer what does “Lite” mean, is it a light flavour, a light colour, low calorie, low alcohol?
Codes vary by market, country and region. So you can’t just take your blue bag of cheese & onion flavour crisps from the UK and put them on a shelf in Ireland, because everyone thinks they are salt & vinegar flavour. First know the code. Break it if you choose, and are aware of the risk, but don’t break codes from ignorance.
Look at your product
The very first step for a new product manager should be to lay the product out beside the competition. Take a really hard look at it. What makes your product different to the others. Are you higher or lower quality? Really look at the detail. What % cocoa is your chocolate? Does it melt at lower temperatures? Does your Pizza have more ingredients? Is your beer fizzier? Does your holiday insurance cover scuba lessons?
Go through all five senses. How does it taste? And yes, you too Mr Banker, lick your return envelope!
How does it look? On the shelf, on the counter, in the bag, out of the box, in use.
What does it sound like? Does your watch tick, does your car purr or hum? Does your packaging rattle or crackle? Shake the box and what do you hear?
How does it smell? Before you open it, before you use it (eg tobacco), during use, after using it (eg perfume/aftershave), the next morning, on your breath etc.
How does it feel? – in the fingers, on the skin, in your mouth, wherever you are supposed to put it.
Look at your package.
Do you fill the box or leave large gaps? What is your packaging code? Do you show or hide the product? Is the packaging clean, like an iPhone box or is it busy like a Cereal box? Does it come with instructions, guarantees, certificates? Is it disposable or something you would keep? What is core to the product and what is an extension?
Think 4 P’s
You have looked at the product, now think about what your Price says, and the Place where it is sold and how you are Promoting your product.
Think 7 P’s
For services think about the delivery Process, the People who deliver and the Physical Evidence, the delivery van, the uniform, the tablecloths in your restaurant, the security measures in your bank, the weight of your wheelie bin!
Nothing binds customers like a good ritual. What is the ritual for the consumption of your product? If there is none can you create one? If there is one can you own it?
If you are interested in learning more about the fascinating world of Semiotics then here is a good starting point: http://dominicpetrillo.com/ed/Semiotics_for_Beginners.pdf