Every so often, something happens in culture that causes us to stop in our tracks. It jolts us out of our routines and makes us re-evaluate. Of course, COVID-19 is the most obvious instance of this: it’s disrupted our wants, needs, values and subsequently our routines; trickling through to how we behave, shop and consume.


Brand managers panic. Where are their loyalists now? Are their products relevant anymore? How do they adapt?


We’ve never witnessed such demand from clients to understand cultural change as we have since the pandemic hit: the insight industry is seeing the value of methodologies that enable cultural understanding. Semiotics, cultural analysis, trends research and future forecasting are proving their value alongside traditional qualitative and quantitative research.

Reflecting this shift, the MRS recently held their first Semiotics & Cultural Insight Conference, from which emerged some fascinating themes.

1. Semiotics for better D&I

Sensitive topics such as Diversity & Inclusion require nuanced cultural understanding. Semiotics, as a method of deeply analyzing content to understand how meaning is being communicated, is a great solution to untangle complex topics.

We heard Unilever ‘unstereotype’ their communications, and the BBC more accurately represent cultures in their content. In both cases, semiotics was used to de-code what ‘good’ representation looks like, and interrogate existing client communications, to understand the scope of the disconnect.

For topics like these, traditional research may only take us so far. An ad may test positively for a large group – but that group may not notice subtle but problematic implications in the content. For example, ADIDAS’ recent campaign is widely celebrated as ‘best in class’ representation. However, although the campaign attempts to normalize and de-stigmatize breasts (and their many different shapes and sizes), the ad fails to recognize the trans community in its definition of ‘woman’, which led to a large group of women feeling excluded from the campaign.

2. Combining Research Methodologies

As with any research methodology, semiotics has its can only go so far. Throughout the day we heard of the benefits of blended research programs, by combining semiotics with the likes of qualitative research, AI analytics and behavioral science.

Leveraging these methodologies before a semiotics stage can help sharpen the brief for the Semiotician to explore. For example, the qualitative research may have highlighted a particular problem, an area of cultural disconnect - semiotics can then be leveraged to investigate the ‘why’, and offer the solution.

Likewise, behavioural science understands that humans are irrational beings, and often act in the opposite way to their claimed behavior. Behavioural science helps understand the disconnect between desired behavior and actual behavior, and semiotics helps brands design in ways that better target that desired behavior – leveraging the right signs, symbols and signifiers to communicate in the way we intend.

3. Taking application further

Semiotics often delivers codes of meaning as an output – essentially a ‘recipe’ on how to achieve a certain meaning. However, clients often get stuck on how to apply these codes to their challenges; or how to disseminate the semiotics insights internally to cause change.

As a result, improvements can be made in the actionability of semiotics insights. Part of the solution is a thoroughly collaborative approach between clients and stakeholders – helping them to explain what semiotics is to their stakeholders, to garner their interest in the project.

We can also be more open about the actual process involved with semiotics research. We think it’s important to invite clients to analyse with us; encouraging them to visit stores or locations (if time permits!) to reduce the mystique by sharing what it is we do.

Finally, we can offer more facilitation after the work has been done - bringing together our clients’ insights managers, designers and product developers, to workshop the findings and ensure the codes are translated in a way that works effectively for the specfics of the business in question.

Semiotics and Cultural Insight at VERVE

At Verve, we believe in a ‘culture and people-first’ research approach – combining both culture and consumer research for true understanding and actionability. In our toolkit sits qual, quant, cultural analysis, semiotics, behavioral science and social intelligence; and we leverage them in combinations to suit the brief in question. Our cultural researchers and primary researchers work collaboratively as a unified team to help clients understand the full picture of consumer lives today.

Find out how we apply Semiotics and Cultural Insights