The power of Semiotics and its application to Marketing

Semiotics is the study of sign process. In other words, Semiotics aims at explaining all possible interpretation of visual (color, texture and/or form), auditory or language signals coming from the outside world.

Words by: Little Buddha

Photography : Ed Reeve (Design Museum)

Semiotics is still a relatively unknown approach* but it is gaining momentum in the marketing sphere as it offers a great theoretical platform to design your next campaigns or packaging executions. The number one rule of Semiotics is: the world can be seen as a combination of potential metaphors. Let’s dive into a few concrete examples that will allow you to easily grasp the true power of Semiotics:

Amplify your designs with Visual Semiotics

(Case study: Merck X Little Buddha)

For any Brand Design agency, mastering the intricate teachings of Semiotics and their dynamism means that it becomes possible to 1) fully integrate visual symbolism into marketing creations and 2) anticipate the reactions (conscious or not) of the public regarding these creations.

Since our beginnings, we at Little Buddha have always put the principles of Semiotics at the forefront of our methodology. These key principles of visual interpretation are indeed paramount for us and allow us to carry out all our projects in an impactful manner. One of the best examples of this is our Ilvico brand redesign, executed on behalf of MERCK Labs:

Let´s break it down. First off: there´s a lot of negative visual influence going on in this design. The faces printed on the packaging evolve from blue to red before ending up on a solid black, symbolizing a rather fatal progression from well-being (blue) to pain (red), before finishing with the color commonly symbolizing mourning (in Western cultures). The line separating each face is black, making the design rather gloomy. Not very attractive for an anti-flu medicine, to say the least… Moreover, these faces are oriented from right to left, seemingly going against natural progress and thus symbolically opposite to a remission of the symptoms (the natural reading and progression in the Western world going from left to right).

As you can see, many changes have been applied to the original design, all following simple Semiotics rules:

  • Faces rotated 180 degrees, now facing right to comply with the commonly accepted positive progression
  • Inverted color scheme, now ranging from a crisis situation (red symbolism) to a state of well-being and calm (blue tones)
  • Removal of all use of the black color, including the faces´ contours. The pack now boasts a clean white background, bringing lightness to the final design and reinforcing the impression of relief
  • Remodeled typography to complete the packaging update.

Taken separately, all components of this makeover could seem benign and insignificant. But a quick glance at the full result, compared to the original design, should be enough to convince you of the importance of Semiotics. Indeed, it is Semiotics who was the driving force behind the decisions taken and which allowed a comprehensive approach to rebranding the Ilvico packaging solution, from a visual and symbolic point of view.

Note that this final design also incorporates data from a consumer test further enhancing Little Buddha´s vision on this project. For instance, the agency’s preferred option had originally equally-sized faces printed, thus maximizing the impact of color (which is a common pre-requisite for Over The Counter medicine and which would help compete visually with FRENADOL, the leading anti-flu medication). However, the feedback from our panel indicated that consumers saw the faces going from “swollen” to “non-swollen” as a metaphor for remission of flu symptoms and therefore the design was updated to include this new element. This proves that consumers´ feedback is always an important component to take into account as it will always help crystalize your vision around a few ideas and corroborate the rules of Semiotics.

Other examples of the application of Semiotics in design

Let’s go back to one of the elements mentioned above: the reading direction (naturally left to right in the Western world). Semiotics dictate that this direction is synonymous with logical and positive progress, which will be amplified if a rising vertical component is added (from bottom to top). For example, an arrow going from left to right and from bottom to top immediately conveys, more or less consciously, a positive idea. This may seem extremely logical and obvious but we still realize that, although some major brands have assimilated this concept, others have yet to catch up.

On the positive side: the DEUTSCHE BANK, with its famous blue logo untouched since 1974, intends to symbolize “growth in a stable environment”, as stated by its designer Anton Stankowsli. Stability is conferred by the solid square frame, and growth, of course, by the central diagonal feature, rising from bottom left to top right

On the negative side: for decades DANONE had displayed a logo representing the profile of a young boy looking to the left, contrary to what we believe would be a Semiotics compliant logo.

A few years back, Little Buddha proposed a restyle of this logo to DANONE´s CMO.  This remodeled logo directed the boy to look right and gave him a more smiling demeanor. This idea must have found its way and have an impact within the DANONE group as in 2017, the brand switched to the logo below (designed by another brand design agency).

Another example of Semiotics application: CONEJO HOME CARE

Taking advantage of the launch of the TOTAL ACTION bleach formula by CONEJO, Little Buddha proactively proposed a restyle of the design of the household bleach product. This project, you guessed it, included various Semiotics-driven elements:

  • Reversed orientation: the rabbit, formerly leaping down and to the left (sense of nostalgia), is now jumping up and to the right (positive vector, as we have seen with the DEUTSCHE BANK case earlier)
  • Redefined contours. The rabbit’s “aura” goes from an evanescent contour (evoking a ghost) to a much more defined execution, while the rabbit itself takes on a much more symbolic (not realistic) outline.
  • Cleaner, leaner visuals. We got rid of the yellow circular light behind the rabbit (evoking a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car) and used a yellow spiral to create a dynamic contrast with the rabbit’s icon and the blue background.

Semiotics : the next game-changer

Little Buddha is well aware of the potential of Semiotics when applied to brand design, but we remain an exception in Europe, as Semiotics remain a relatively obscure field of expertise on the old continent, while it is booming in the USA. Many US agencies now use Semiotics as a dominant tool on which to base their creative strength. The video below, from Athena´s Brands Wisdom, perfectly summarizes this trend:

If you have any doubt about the perception of your brand, feel free to contact us to schedule a complete analyze of your brand or to pilot a consumer test.

* For those wishing to know more about the origins of Semiotics, especially Visual Semiotics, we highly recommend reading the work of famous Group μ of Belgium and especially “Traité du signe visuel » (1992), a staple in Semiotics literature. The name of this group refers to the Greek letter μ (“mu”), initial letter of metaphor.