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What is Semiotics?

Lollipop on the floor with ants leaving it to show the power of semiotics
September 17, 2019by Clare Warren


A.k.a: the study of how people create and communicate meaning.

A.k.a: A highly skilled, highly specialised way of researching and analysing brand communications and consumer behaviour.

What happens when you marry that with AI?

Communication is an ambiguous thing. We’ve all encountered situations in which we’ve misunderstood someone or someone has misunderstood us. And when we try and upscale our communication and talk across cultures – whether those different cultures are generational; geographical or simply social – the potential for misinterpretation becomes even greater.

It’s the ambiguity of communication that provides one of the greatest challenges within marketing. How do you identify the needs of your audience? How do you best position a brand to resonate with a particular group? How do you assess how a message has been received and understood?

What is Semiotics?

Semiotics has always been an invaluable tool for unravelling each of those knotty problems. A discipline born in the 19th century, semiotics is the study of meaning: how we construct; communicate and interpret information about our world. It’s a translator of signs and symbols, able to explain:

  • Articulated information – the words that are actually said.
  • Encoded information – the layers of meaning that can be conveyed by different words, images or sounds, implicitly – in ways you may not be aware of or able to explain.
  • Cultural/ contextual meaning – the way that signs may be interpreted differently by different groups. As an example, imagine that someone posts an image of an owl in response to a comment. In the West, owls are associated with wisdom. So, in the West we might “read” the owl as a positive response, suggesting that the original comment was wise. Alternatively, the broader tone of the exchange might imply that the owl should be read as an ironic statement: with the original comment being viewed as obvious, rather than wise. Another alternative is that the owl reflects a different cultural meaning. In India, owls have the reputation of being dimwitted. In that context the image of the owl would suggest that the original comment was viewed as stupid.

The role of semiotics in marketing

So, semiotics considers deeper meaning.  That is what makes it such a valuable resource for anyone involved in marketing or communications. Semioticians can look at unstructured data – text and imagery – and look at that data through an interpretive lens to understand what it is conveying to people, and how people are responding to it. That information can then be used to present and position new marketing messages; to inform product development or to open up new markets. It can be used to evaluate advertising, packaging, and marcomms and what is being transmitted.

But historically semiotics has been a time-consuming and expensive discipline. It takes a high level of skill and specialism, so it comes with a corresponding price tag – precluding smaller businesses from enjoying its benefits. A further issue has always been that even the best semioticians are only able to explore a limited amount of data. Until now.

Signoi converts unstructured qualitative informaton into measurable insight and foresight

Now there is a way to gain the insights of semiotics at a price that is accessible for organisations of all sizes and to explore vast amounts of data. How? By using Signoi – a new platform designed to marry the deep insights of semiotics with the speed and processing heft of AI.

Signoi’s founders – Andy Dexter and Andrew Jeavons – have backgrounds in psychology and quantum physics and have worked in both computing and marketing. They’ve brought that combination of skills to Signoi (a name that highlights the idea of extracting signal from noise). The result is a unique tool, one that:

  • Analyses vast amounts of data in a way that is both fast and consistent. While an individual semiotician might analyse just hundreds of data points (and take a while to do it) Signoi can analyse hundreds of thousands of data points within hours and do that with machine level consistency.
  • Draws on well developed concepts of archetypes to gather and analyse the values and feelings that are likely to sit behind the narrative.
  • Provides insights and foresights for people working in any industry or organisation who have data that they want to unpack.
  • Explores facts and You can use Signoi to explore your brand positioning… or to identify where there’s white space in the market…or to ask what a concept like trust means today. This is a tool that can handle questions big and small!

Conventional analytics tools simply slice and categorise data. Signoi accelerates the interpretation of your data to show how your customers – or service users or staff – are understanding and reacting to the messages that they’re receiving. It’s AI fast. And the amount of data that Signoi can process means that the platform picks up even on small trends: helping you to understand both what’s happening now and what may come to be of increasing importance in the future.

That is not to say that it will replace human insight. Rather, Signoi creates quantitative semiotics – a means of getting 80% of the heavy lifting out of the way before the brand or insight professional steps in to fine tune interpretation. It’s an accelerated reading, both above and below the surface.

Get in touch. Ask what we can do for you.