THURSDAY 4 MAR 2021 4:04 PM


Max Wiggins, insight and innovation Lead at VERJ | A LAB Group Agency, speaks to Communicate magazine about the revolutionising aspect of semiotics for comms. He explores how semiotics offers a way to understand the deeper meaning behind what is going on in the current culture, how to best identify underlying messages and how to best present them in content, comms and creative.

What is semiotics and why should brands care about it?

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. It is used to perform deep analyses to uncover the cultural meanings of words and images. Brands should be acutely interested in semiotics because it provides a method for understanding which words and images matter to specific consumer groups and why. Knowing these enables brands to create a certain version of reality for consumers, which in turn tells them how to behave. Semiotics offers insights to reveal what brands should do to present themselves as ‘helpful’, ‘authentic’ or any other desired quality to align with the set of culturally specific ideas or beliefs.

How do semiotics offer brands a way to understand the deeper meaning behind what is going on in the current culture?

Unlike other research methods, semiotics takes an ‘outside-in’ approach. It observes culture to understand consumer thoughts, how they’re shaped and how they got there. Exploring which cultural artefacts and cues are present and shifting in a particular culture or industry allows semioticians to discover which factors of society are important to people, now and in the future. Unlike other analyses, semiotics often uses a wide array of materials to perform a cultural contextual audit (e.g. social media posts, flyers, shopping signs, web pages, etc.).

How can brands best identify underlying messages and how can they best present them in content, comms and creative?

Brands should look to a wide selection of materials associated with a particular topic of interest. By gaining a deeper understanding of the various cues/signs presented to audiences from a visual, symbolic and mythological perspective, semioticians can provide vital evidence to help enhance content. In effect, semiotics helps brands reach the ‘codes’ within culture that unconsciously shape consumer behaviour (e.g. white flakes of dandruff on black silk equals social death!).

Questioning the differences and similarities of ‘how the way things are’ and what it indicates is an effective start point for discovering deeper messages rooted in culture. For example, why are English cheese brands closely associated with historic meaning, such as castles, cathedrals and historical nouns? What does this indicate? When you spot the deeper meaning, you’re able to align content, comms and creative to pick the right sets of culturally specific ideas or beliefs. 

 How does behavioural psychology help identify and solve problems in a commercial setting?

 Behavioural psychology enables us to understand how people think and approach situations. If you understand the cognitive biases and ways people think, you’re able to expose how commercial problems could be made simpler or reimagined. But knowing how people think also allows you to deviate, which brings about innovation necessary for commercial problem solving.

Psychology and neuroscience give the rationale that often explains data about consumers. It becomes possible to appreciate why problems arose and how they can be addressed in the most cognitively salient fashion in-line with target customers.

What effects has the Covid-19 pandemic had on your work?

Luckily, our work has been relatively unaffected by the pandemic. The monotony of working from home and not interacting with colleagues has definitely made spontaneous creativity harder. Personally, I’ve had to enforce a ‘virtual commute’ on myself where I take time before and after work to decompress, not jumping straight into the next thing. Despite all of its flaws, pandemic life has led to unexpected productivity at VERJ, maybe as a side-effect from the saved commute time.