Class or Crass? : The science of semiotics


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!

Think Ritual

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:

Mirror Mirror


Titian:  Venus with a mirror
As you trowel on the ol’ slap tonight in preparation for your big rosemantic night of the year, bear in mind that you are engaged in one of life’s key rituals. What BBDO call “Sexing Up” in their Ritual Masters study.

In MCCP we found that, for women anyway, the moment of truth, the key win of the night, the high point, is that final check in the mirror. You know that moment, in the hallway, the door is open, the taxi is waiting, you turn to the mirror and there you see her, your radiant self, the special you, gorgeous. Yes, you are worth it!

Most men don’t realise that this is make or break time. If the date with the mirror is good, the night is a hit. If the date with the mirror goes wrong the poor guy is left dazed and confused, wondering what he said that put her in the bad mood. Truth is he was never even in with a chance.

For many women a girls night out is far better than a date. You have the added benefits of getting ready together, helping each other to look good, going out with people who understand the trouble you have gone through to look this good. They have a clue about fashion too.

Preparation starts days before going out. Some call and talk about the evening ahead; teenage girls photo message pictures of their outfits for approval and reassurance. People eat and drink luxury foods, forget diets and treat themselves.

The music you listen to as you get ready has the power to put you in a certain mood. It’s amazing we have lots of “driving down the road” music compilations and “love” compilations, but wouldn’t it be great to have a “putting on the ritz” compilation record?

Lots of brands participate in the sexing up ritual, starting days in advance with restaurant and event bookings, clothes shopping, waxes, hair colours, plucking, exfoliating. On the day we have shaving of all sorts of body parts, men and women, tooth whitening, brushing, flossing. Makeup (insert tech piece here). Deodorant, anti-perspirant, spray on smelly stuff, nail varnish, eye drops, alcohol, over the counter drugs, recreational drugs, contraceptives etc etc. Sexing up is a brand marketing wet dream.

Bottom line: when “sexing up,” people are transforming from their normal to most confident selves. They use special products to make themselves feel special.

Was it better in the good old days, when a man could get by on his dreams?

HE wishes for the cloths of heaven: William Butler Yeats

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Securing the castle


The final daily ritual we engage in is what I call “Securing the Castle”

Some people think of this as locking up for the night, making sure the house does not burn down, by making the fire safe etc.

For me it is far more than that.  I rise early and have a set routine to follow to make my train on time.  My wife, Louise, is the one who puts the spark guard on the fire, turns off computers, makes sure the doors are locked and so on.  For me it is a process of leaving packed bags by the door, laying out clothes for the next day, setting up the coffee machine, making lunch, charging the phone/alarm etc.

Sequence matters the least for this ritual because this is a time to let go:  less than 50% of people have a  sequence to end their day.

The important part of this ritual is to free the mind of concerns so that you can relax into a deep sleep.  If you forget a step it will niggle away at your mind and prevent you from relaxing.  You end up having those awful dreams such as the one where you find yourself in school in your underwear, or you arrive at an exam and realise you haven’t studied for the paper.

A Locked House:  by W.D. Snodgrass
As we drove back, crossing the hill,
The house still
Hidden in the trees, I always thought—
A fool’s fear—that it might have caught
Fire, someone could have broken in.
As if things must have been
Too good here. Still, we always found
It locked tight, safe and sound.
I mentioned that, once, as a joke;
No doubt we spoke
Of the absurdity
To fear some dour god’s jealousy
Of our good fortune. From the farm
Next door, our neighbors saw no harm
Came to the things we cared for here.
What did we have to fear?
Maybe I should have thought: all
Such things rot, fall—
Barns, houses, furniture.
We two are stronger than we were
Apart; we’ve grown
Together. Everything we own
Can burn; we know what counts—some such
Idea. We said as much.
We’d watched friends driven to betray;
Felt that love drained away
Some self they need.
We’d said love, like a growth, can feed
On hate we turn in and disguise;
We warned ourselves. That you might despise
Me—hate all we both loved best—
None of us ever guessed.
The house still stands, locked, as it stood
Untouched a good
Two years after you went.
Some things passed in the settlement;
Some things slipped away. Enough’s left
That I come back sometimes. The theft
And vandalism were our own.
Maybe we should have known.

Prepare for Battle


BBDO, the ad agency, published a piece of research called “The Ritual Masters” which identified a set of daily rituals that provide humans with structure in our day.

Rituals are transformational.  They move us from one phase of existence to another.  Marriage is a ritual that moves us from a state of being single, to a state of being a couple.  In our daily lives our rituals may not mark such significant transitions, but daily rituals remain very important.  Perhaps more important than the big, infrequent ones, the rites of passage.  Where would we be without small daily rituals?

The first ritual we perform every day they call “Preparing for Battle”.  It is the process of transforming ourselves from a dream/sleep state into an energised, active, waking state, ready to go out and take on the world.  Dreaming and Sleeping are states which allow the id to project itself, to wander in the world of the possible, to imagine and fantasise.  Our inner child can play the game of “what if”.

When we wake we must rapidly move the id closer to the ego, and engage with the cold hard real world of facts, hard surfaces, life commitments, taxes, bills to pay, places to go before I sleep.  The morning ritual is a group of activities we perform which wake us up and ground the id.

The most common  task is brushing teeth, performed by 82% of people around the world.  Brushing of teeth could be the most unifying act performed by humans of all races, ages and status all round the world.  If you want to identify with everyone, talk about the experience of brushing teeth.

Next most common, in diminishing order of importance are taking a shower or bath (74%), having something to eat/drink (74%), talking   to a family member/partner (54%), checking e-mail (54%),   shaving (male – 53%), putting on makeup (female – 47%), watching TV/listening to   radio (45%) and reading a newspaper (38%). Notice anything missing?  Well, they forgot to mention getting dressed!

If you examine all the possible combinations for putting on the average 9 clothing & jewellery items, the permutations are enormous.  The human brain cannot handle the stress of making decisions every morning, so we follow a routine.  Same sock on same foot.   Same leg goes into the same side (left or right) every morning.  Dressing is like a well rehearsed dance, same moves every time.

Many of the actions we take every morning are almost automated they are so routine.

Breakfast is the most boring meal of the day.  Look at the foods we eat.  Oatmeal, maize, bran, toast, eggs, simple foods, basic foods, unchallenging foods.  Who prepares and eats a roast chicken dinner or a vindaloo curry for breakfast?  (Last nights leftovers excepted)

So every morning we gird our loins, like putting on a suit of armour to do battle with the big bad world.  When you open your door and step out of your house you need to be ready for business!  But sometimes, when you are riding on the bus, you may slip back a little into that cosy warm womblike dream state, for just a few minutes more.

A day in the life:  by John Lennon & Paul McCartney

I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure
If he was from the House of Lords.

I saw a film today, oh boy
The English Army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
but I just had to look
Having read the book
I’d love to turn you on

Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
and somebody spoke and I went into a dream

I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
I’d love to turn you on

Food Ritual

Spit roast

Social carnivores have strict hierarchical rules for access to food, to reduce fighting and limit injury caused by fights for access to meat.  The Pride leader eats “The Lions Share”.  Hunting dogs, wolves and Hyenas all maintain an ordered approach to who eats and when.

Jane Goodall in her studies on chimps observed how the eating of meat from a hunt was different in nature from the “normal” grazing behaviour of the animals.  Chimps have a highly ordered tribal society.  This organisation is most important during the hunting process, where male chimps must co-operate if the hunt is to succeed.  When a hunt is successful the meat is portioned out by the alpha male and it is used to cement loyalties, reward service and exclude those who may challenge the status quo.

In primitive human hunter-gatherer society we can see a similar dynamic at play.  Gathered foods are unremarkable staples.  A large kill, on the other hand, is a cause for celebration and feasting.  Tribal leaders or the leader of the hunting party apportion out the prime cuts according to a complex mix of societal needs.  They decide who gets the desirable cuts of offal, and how the meat is apportioned.

Fast forward to modern society and we still celebrate our feasts with a big “kill”.  It may be a Turkey or a Goose for Thanksgiving or Christmas, in the South Pacific it is more likely a suckling pig, in Muslim countries a sheep or a goat.  Nothing quite sets up a festival like the sight of large animals roasting over an open fire on a spit.  It speaks of plenty, it says there will be something for everyone.

We have different rituals around feast meals than we have around our daily fare.  And what is most interesting is that a ritual surrounding a food makes it taste better.

For a food marketing company, the secret to the success of a product may be to design a ritual for its consumption.

In one experiment, Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota and colleagues explored how ritual affected people’s experience of eating a chocolate bar. Half of the people in the study were instructed to relax for a moment and then eat the chocolate bar as they normally would. The other half were given a simple ritual to perform, which involved breaking the chocolate bar in half while it was still inside its wrapper, and then unwrapping each half and eating it in turn.

Something about carefully following these instructions before eating the chocolate bar had a dramatic effect. People who had focused on the ritual said they enjoyed eating the chocolate more, rating the experience 15% higher than the control group. They also spent longer eating the chocolate, savouring the flavour for 50% longer than the control group. Perhaps most persuasively, they also said they would pay almost twice as much for such a chocolate.

This experiment shows that a small act can significantly increase the value we get from a simple food experience. Vohs and colleagues went on to test the next obvious question – how exactly do rituals work this magic? Repeating the experiment, they asked participants to describe and rate the act of eating the chocolate bar. Was it fun? Boring? Interesting? This seemed to be a critical variable – those participants who were made to perform the ritual rated the experience as more fun, less boring and more interesting. Detailed analysis showed that this was the reason they enjoyed the chocolate more, and were more willing to pay extra.

So, rituals appear to make people pay attention to what they are doing, allowing them to concentrate their minds on the positives of a simple pleasure. But could there be more to rituals?

In his book, The Symbolic Species, Terrance Deacon claims that ritual played a part in human evolution at the transition point where we began to acquire the building blocks of language.  The point when we rose above chimps to become humans.

Deacon’s argument is that the very first “symbols” we used to communicate, the things that became the roots of human language, were extended and complex sequences of group behaviours, rituals. These symbols began as family groups shared the spoils of hunting. Early humans needed a way to tell each other who had what responsibilities and which privileges; who was part of the family, and who could share the food. Rituals were the answer to the conundrum of connecting human groups and checking they had a shared understanding of how the group worked.

So, according to this theory, our love of rituals evolved with our need to share food. Primitive humans who performed rituals had less in-fighting and more offspring. We programmed ourselves to enjoy food ritual.  As a result, foods with rituals are more enjoyable.

Feast;  by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I drank at every vine.

The last was like the first.

I came upon no wine

So wonderful as thirst.
I gnawed at every root.

I ate of every plant.

I came upon no fruit

So wonderful as want.
Feed the grape and bean

To the vintner and monger:

I will lie down lean

With my thirst and my hunger.