In this thinkpiece, Chris Arning outlines the position of semiotics within the insight industry, the threats to its future growth, potential substitute methodologies and outlines what he sees as the exciting opportunities within this evolving field.

The core of the piece covers other similar methodologies used to generate insight for decision making such as ethnographic techniques, trends syndication gathering, behavioural economics, neuro metrics, implicit response and neuro-metrics and semantic image search. All these approaches potentially replicate aspects of the practical semiotic toolkit. However, the author argues, that there is actually rich, and as yet untapped potential for symbiosis and cross-fertilisation between these various areas. All of them help to highlight different facets of the unconscious factors that underpin consumer mindsets and behaviours to sketch out the context for decisions. He believes that it is the simultaneous deployment and ideally interplay between all these approaches that helps get us to a richer, fuller more complete picture of insight via triangulation.

The author goes on to look at what semiotics does uniquely well as a discipline and methodology and thinks about some future scenarios for the discipline, extrapolating current trends and tendencies. He concludes that in a world of artificial intelligence and progressive automation of rote, linear and algorithmic thinking, and anything amenable to standardisation, the provocative suppleness and highly interpretive nature of semiotic thinking will retain its niche as other domains human endeavour are colonised by machine learning. Semioticians and stand up comedians will be the last to succumb to the march of robot general intelligence!

The title of the upcoming Semiofest in Mumbai later this year is Metanoia. Metanoia can be defined as

"Metanoia is the name for acts of resilience and adaptive learning in times of turbulence and opportunity."

I have decided to adopt this 'spirit of meaningful change' in writing this blog post. I plan for it to form part of my book but I also think large chunks of it may be useful to clients (and perhaps an abridged version is required) since I see a lack of clarity amongst clients around how these methodologies work together. Some of the queries or areas of doubt I have come across recently range from confusion between semiotics and ethnographic approaches, lack of understanding on what data semiotics can analyse - yes, we can analyse consumer generated. In general though, I am pleasantly surprised that semiotics seems to be on more people's radars. It is also spoken about as a respected and useful methodology. This is hopefully due to the work done by me and esteemed counterparts - fellow semiotics practitioners, the people for whom I Co-Founded Semiofest. Whenever I hear that a semiotics project has gone to another agency (as it sometimes does), I always check in with that client affords to see how it went and rejoice if it went well (as it usually does these days).

I believe that Semiofest, can play a role, not only as a forum for celebrating thinking, but hopefully as a hub where clients can feel that they have some basic trust building and credibility about some fundamentals for the methodology - i.e. what sort of business or research challenges semioticians tackle? how does a semiotic analysis proceed? how valid are the findings from such studies (on what are they based).


I write this for fellow semiotics practitioners, but I also write this for ambitious insight specialists, clients who want to have a better grasp of the value and applications of different methodologies, sharper sense of the demarcation lines between them and how they can best work together as a consolidated insight suite.


We have just announced the programme for Semiofest 2018. It is happening in Mumbai in October this year.  Please come. You can find more details here. It'll be a jamboree. Jamboree, that's an Indian word! Plug over.

Our Keynote this year at Semiofest, Carlos Scolari, also presented at 2013, and he suggested there that semiotics can only develop in two ways, by analysing new phenomena and by cross-fertilising with other disciplines. This statement is now looking quite prescient! 

Anyway, the programme has a number of abstracts that show a hybridity of semiotics with other disciplines. Semiotic Explorer: Software for Automated Opposition Analysis, Designing Change; NeuroMedia As A Metanoic Practice, Meaning Architecture: Semiotics meets Systems Thinking to Navigate Business Sense, AI Powered Semiotics: One step closer to a predictive semiotics, Finding the sense(s) in semiotics.

Some of these papers are about semiotics turning its lens on things other than the visual with sensory semiotics  - but others are about combining semiotics with other methodologies such as semiotics and image sorting driven by AI, semiotics with neuro-metrics, semiotics with software and semiotics in concert with behavioural sciences. I can't wait.

This shows the appetite for experimentation and actually how open semioticians are for collaboration - which often surprises people who come to Semiofest for the first time - but also is a symptom of a wider shift, that semiotics is itself undergoing a paradigm shift. There is certainly something in the air. One of my students this year submitted an excellent paper on semiotics and Big Data where the author made a strong argument for semiotics needing to adapt to a world where consumer generated content and meta data is exceeding human capacity to encompass it (due to bounded rationality) so semiotics may be left behind.


So, how is semiotics doing?

  • Well established in pockets of branding / design industry
  • A burgeoning list of successful commercial case studies
  • Gaining in institutional weight (via Semiofest etc)


  • Not enough education on what semiotics can do
  • Too many people doing it superficially or badly
  • Still seen as a discretionary purchase by clients

Michael Porter used a Five Forces model to analyse and characterise the ease of doing business in any marketplace. If we were to look at semiotics using Michael Porter's Five Forces model we would write:

  • Buyer Bargaining Power: not seen as mandatory for specific brand problems
  • Seller Bargaining Power: not a huge number of good commercial semioticians
  • Intensity of Competition: not hugely competitive, only a small number of players
  • Threat of New Entrants: intellectual credibility remains a barrier for many entrants
  • Threat of Substitutes: proliferation of superficially substitutable methodologies

This blog post focuses on the last point, the threat of substitutes, though as I will argue this is as much an opportunity as it is a threat. The opportunity here is to educate clients as to the various strengths and merits of these methodologies, to show how they relate to semiotics and to show how they work together.


I would say that LSN would be a good prototype for this sort of operation. I went to the LSN Trends Briefing which was extremely pricey but great.  The Moral Uprising - Subconscious Commerce 

They leverage constant intelligence gathering, with a network of mavens, bloggers, photo-journalists and others. In an accelerationist and hyper-cycling culture industry where things move faster than ever, and we all infected by a FOMO this sort of insight helps clients spot innovation opportunities and help see where the cultural zeitgeist is moving.


trends agencie produce trends bulletins on an ongoing basis and charge on a subscription basis. They also hold showcases to present collections of trends data. Their trends represent market intelligence for anyone involved in innovation and ideation or working in fast moving industries (like fashion, retail, music and technology). The benefit is being up to date as an Innovation Manager, and to have access to spot on trends. For example Trendwatching writes:

"Disruptively affordable trend intelligence. Anticipate what your customers will want next."


Trend Watching, WGSN, Contagious, Future Foundation, Canvas 8, Contagious, K-Hole Collective, PSFK


Trends houses sit upstream of the research commissioning process. This is ongoing harvested or farmed insight rather than the project based hunted for insight of semiotics and others.  What trends houses seem close to within the semiotics armoury are the 'what is the future of' questions and most likely to substitute for the idea of emergent codes. This would most often overlap with culture scope work that identifies some emergent cultural area. Conceivably, they could work together.  Canvas 8 and others offer blah blah blah...


The trends in general are very well curated, smart. The only rub is that trends are often not situated within a cultural context, and the trends identified can be rather frothy, i.e. ephemeral and transient. There is also sometimes a lack of nuance towards the way culture works. The inherent neophilia in such places blinds them to the deeper patterns of recurrence and repetition and longer arcs and trajectories of change. The threat to semiotics comes when subscription agencies upset visual cultural analyses on a bespoke basis for subscribers. The quarterly trends reports help with natural PR that then gives these houses great visibility. These reports might not have the sophistication of visual analysis of semiotics, but be perfectly serviceable.

For example Creative Semiotics recently collaborated on BackSlash on their piece Wacko World which was a timely exposé on the explosion or excrescence of crazy kitsch aesthetics on and offline. Semiotics can give a perspective on this historical perspective (Dadaism), ideological (kitsch is often about totalitarianisms), and media, that of Marshall McLuhan, which helps to give some informed speculations on what is driving things.


The combination potential for trends and semiotics is enormous - the semiotics gives macro cultural context to micro trends - so Athena Woman in the context of feminist movement, Polarity Paradox in terms of binary oppositions. Semiotics offers the cultural memory that underpins the story. We should not try and vie with the Trends Agencies on the more ephemeral and new, but should seek to place these in a wider context. i have worked with trends on the World Gold Council, where the semiotics provided a diagnosis of how and why it was that the perceived value and the attractiveness of gold as a jewellery medium was on the wane.


I was at Nudgestock 2018 two weeks ago. Very inspiring! It is an event that feels very close in spirit to Semiofest. More people but only a day versus 4 days for Semiofest. Behavioural Economics has striking parallels with semiotics. Both focus their attention on context, and the unconscious factors that influence decision making looking for patterns in order to create insight. As a qualitative researcher colleague wrote:

"As I know of it, behavioural science tends to start with a behaviour and seeks to explain it; its expertise is centred on its ability to drill into psychological process, but not so much on understanding the environment's inputs into those ‘machines'. Semiotics on the other hand starts by describing the environments/stimuli and what they mean to people apprehending them - what are they transmitting. It is a two-way communication between people and environment. You need to understand what is being transmitted by the environment as well as how the ‘machine’ works that actually receives it." 


Behavioural economics tends to be used anything relevant to where a decision is to be made. As Nick Southgate writes, with some exceptions, it tends to be used as an add on to other methodologies.

The basis for the use behavioural economics is:

"a corrective to the marketing/communication presumption that consumer behaviour is solely the result of an information or comprehension gap that can be solved by information/comprehension of product superiority. It makes it intuitive and clear why people choose sub-optimal solutions even when they both know and understand that alternatives are available. It's a far more human view of decision-making."

I have worked with a very good Behavioural Economist on a Pharma project and his explanation of the way in which Social Norms, Choice Architecture, Cognitive Overload, Heurists, Endowment Effect and Loss Aversion were hindering the brand totally explained why the packaging wasn't working. It had that same effect of blowing your mind and having a sixth sense for seeing great significance in what others overlook.


Ogilvy Change, Behaviour Architects, Behavioural Insights Team, Irrational Agency, Behave London, Monkey see. As with semiotics, some market research agencies also claim prowess within this space.


The portion of semiotics most likely to be swapped out for behavioural economics is anything to do with consumer-brand interfaces, service design or consumer journey work where the principal interest is the nudges or levers of engagement at every point. For example, a recent enquiry for some semiotics read:

"we are exploring the moments of high arousal and aggravation when shopping in a co-op by combining eye tracking and GSR data with qualitative questioning and observations. We’re interested in adding a semiotic layer of analysis to the outputs"

What is required is scrutiny of brand or service touch points and their likely effect on the user. In this context is probably best arrayed at the overall design ethos, aesthetic and the design discourse, but the  choice architecture, priming, framing and other factors is best provided by some behavioural science.  


The threat to semiotics from behavioural economics in annexationist mode is considerable. This is because behavioural economics has a higher profile, and perceived relevance (due to its institutional weight, greater media visibility, links with the corporate world and government and its credible experimental corroboration). for some clients it covers off the same domain as semiotics - analysis of the context of communications and decision making and it can seem more relevant because it focuses on the mechanism by which influences cause behaviours, rather than the visual signs and culture. Phil Barden refers to 'diagnostic cues' and 'signals' - because of  System 1 agency claims to cut out the need for research, by building in an evaluation of performance into the creative process using behavioural principles combined with affective priming.   


Probably, along with Ethnographic research, the most compatible with semiotic data. This is because though the pure academic subjects are based on different epistemological foundations, they are siblings within market research and consumer insight industry for the reasons of shared concerns and premises set out in

"BE says framing works. Semiotics, at least commercially applied, could be seen as the analysis of framing - the cultural norms, symbols, etc. that are part of the implicit message of the presentation of any decision. when BE identifies a framing issue, semoitics should be able to suggest the widest array of levers to pull"

As I have seen, Behavioural Economics and Semiotics were together extremely well together and are extremely complementary, and there is a very high degree of symbiosis between them. Consultants like Neil Gains already use both methodologies together in their work. Martina Olbertova will be presenting on the topic of semiotics, behavioural economics, Ogilvy Change case study on Gatwick Airport at Semiofest 2018.


Ethnographic and semiotic work are neighbours - they both study culture, though whilst ethnographic research does blah blah

Claude Levi-Strauss the founder of structural anthropology was at the root of the semiotic square and the myth quadrant used by Virginia Valentine and Monty Alexander who founded commercial semiotics in the 1980s in the UK derive their work from his structural semantics frameworks.

i have seen semiotics and other - agencies such as Year Zero swear by it since it... And my Co-founder of Semiofest Lucia Laurent-Neva uses ethnographic approaches such as visual shopping in her work in order to


Capturing behaviours and patterns the subjects themselves are not aware of. Typically any study where the client wants to understand how their product, service or brand fits into their consumer’s everyday life. Leading to NPD, positioning and communications outcomes.




Semiotics is key to creating a solid cultural backdrop to help understand how and why decision making and other behaviours are influenced. 


I don’t think it’s growing. I think it has hit a wall and is going stale. Mobile ethno tools are part of the problem in that many platforms are trying to automate the analysis process using machine learnings and AI to code mostly the verbal outputs of ethno projects. Pushing our method into the ‘quick & dirty’ territory.

Cymbol the semiotics app has been a good one for this.


Semiotics lays the groundwork for understanding the mechanism of culture and communication for the segments. And face to face research (ethnography) could be a next stage.  Ethnography can enrich and validate the semiotics findings with insights from consumer reality and how these values, passions and media choices play out in the messiness of daily life.


Much of commercial semiotics is concerned with associative thinking. Brand equity is at least partially built via the associations and values accumulated by brands. Semiotics focuses on how these associations work through the web of culture and how they are reliant on cultural codes and can be complex and multi-layered and inter-textuality or work through subtle metaphor or allusion. But implicit response claims to be able to somehow measure the relative speed of response to different types of stimulus to determine how closely associated a given brand or visual brand asset is with a desired brand value. This is clearly very since it chimes in with the focus on distinctive assets as a discriminator and driver of brand choice - as promoted by Byron Sharpe in his book How Brands Grow so it is about owning this equity irrespective of whom else does.

"If much of the engine that generates feelings towards a brand is largely unconscious, then explicit measures may merely capture attempts to present oneself in a favourable way (Vianello et al. 2010), or to relay global and generalised feelings (Priluck & Till 2010), or to appear consistent (Friese et al. 2006), or to hide feelings (Houben et al. 2009); in some settings they may even be guesses (Oskamp & Schultz 2005)."


Implicit response as a commercial methodology is based on the implicit association test invented by Greenward – project implicit it is most people – only one – implicit reaction time test – a global project.

In a nutshell, as Andy Dean of System 1 Insights writes: Implicit tests are based around affective and semantic priming. Concepts that are most closely related in your mind are stored more closely together (e.g. a brand and the specific feelings and perceptions it evokes). By triggering concepts in consumers’ minds and requiring them to respond indirectly within a very short time window, tests measure precisely the strength of association between a brand and a fragrance/packaging/ad/taste and related concepts it evokes.

The idea is to circumvent an individuals' conscious mind, to do this they are confronted with alternatives and purely react to how they see on the screen. They don’t know what the test is about. The test sets up a prime expectation – a prime up then the concept they want to test – no free will – and the respondent is asked to rate something that is either congruent or incongruent with the first thing 500 – 600 milliseconds

has an advantage over some other forms of neuro-metrics in that it does not use the volume of equipment. It is based on associative and semantic priming, which typically would involve – 2 or 4 different concepts and attributes, statements and images and more commercially acceptable.

For instance, a case study for MTV Viacom shows how this would work combining implicit with explicit research.

"The main finding of this global implicit survey was that MTV’s audience felt much more positive towards the brand than prior explicit data had indicated. When compared with their main global competitors across ten countries, the results of implicit attitude testing revealed that MTV viewers were faster to implicitly associate the brand with the six positive psychological dimensions included in the survey than the competitor brand(s)" By tapping in to their viewers’ implicit feelings and revealing the depth of their engagement with brand, MTV can offer significant benefits to brands advertising on its platforms."

Gemma Calvert, Eamon and Geraldine Fulcher 'Using implicit methods to develop an objective measure of media brand engagement' International Journal of Market Research Vol. 56 Issue 1


Decode, Neuro-insight, Ohm Consulting, Nielsen Implicit, Mindlab 


When I spoke with Andy Dean of Implicit he spoke about the main areas of usefulness for implicit being Brand Category Positioning, Sensory aspects, so how something smells, Advertising Sponsroship and Product Placement, Celebrity Endorsement – how to match an individual with a brand and how closely various alternatives might match up. Packaging – stand Out or other values associated with these.


This service is clearly a potential substitute for the 'brand evaluation' service offered by semioticians.  A brand audit by a semiotician would pull out the various cultural and inter-textual references on pack or can even go into the cognitive and neuro-aesthetic potential giving a rich account of the meaning potential in each alternative. implicit response cuts through all this by simply assessing the gross relative tightness of association between some stated desired attributes and the brand name or other forms of communication. however, the limitation for this method is that there is no interpretive weight to the findings. Such agencies often do not offer a huge degree of insight into WHY or even, WHAT, specifically, about 'winning' alternatives is the 'difference that makes the difference' on the basis of cultural resonance or other explanatory factors.


This is a very strong symbiotic relationship between semiotics and implicit response since semiotics has the inside track on what is likely to be congruent. We ignore the subtlety of communication at our peril. For example understanding the underlying rhetorical figurations, the metaform - and for example the ways in which colours carry connotations, patterns carry aesthetic or ideological messages and music has meaning and can reflect or dissent or work in counterpoint to visuals in non obvious ways. So this can help in the post rationalisation of results or in helping provide more interpretive guidance to development pointers 

Semiotics can also be used up front to sort and sift alternatives and help to design the study, for instance paring down an unmanageable sample of alternatives into something a little more manageable. This is something that is being experimented on at the moment between semiotics and implicit response between Sign Salad and Phil Barden at Decode. 








the service substituted is that ability, particularly with moving texts - so with videos or things in time such as naming to mark the peak points in engagement with these various pieces of creative. Neuro-metrics can identify the creative factors correlated with peaks of brain response across a range of measures. These measures can be correlated with desirable consumer responses, for instance, emotional intensity, approach -withdrawal or long term memory encoding). the latter, in particular has been shown to correlate and to be correlated with advertising effectiveness. So, theoretically, being able to discern the sinusoidal spikes in these categories should enable advertisers to hone in on and enhance the effectiveness of their advertising. This can be done through interpolating theories such as conceptual closure, peak shift effect etc.

This seems on the face of it to cover off the fundamentals of creative development research, i.e. narrative storytelling, casting, use of music and product placement ad other aesthetic choices. Given that this is also the purview of semiotics, you might assume that this is a direct threat.  


What neuro-metrics lack is the textual literacy needed to dissect and pinpoint what elements in the given stimuli cause which meaning. Brand communication is multimodal and human imagination is metaphorical. Creative texts are more complex than jut a one to one correspondence between stimulus and response. The meaning is shot through the entire entity and shifting around slots across a sequence, the syntax, only gets us so far without thinking about the cultural context, channel, the semantic units and how they fit together.


Semiotics can give some contextual and interpretive weight to the neuro-metrics findings based on common sense and experience. Precisely, semiotics brings heightened awareness to analysis of visual affordances, their semantic content, syntactical construction, multi-modal aggregation of meaning, the ecological variables, and various contextual factors at play in semiosis. It can create workable and testable hypotheses for thinking about the causal factors leading to response, and can help formulate stimulus accordingly. This is called a commutation test in which certain data are removed or deliberately distorted in order to test the criticality of meaning in a visual text. This allows greater depth of investigation of all elements presented to the respondents, particularly ones that may be overlooked or thought to be unimportant by creatives. This holds out the fascinating possibility that semiotics might devise a continuum of visual options or affordances for brands across a gradated spectrum of abstractness or detail. This can then allow maximum performance.












I am very keen to 'right size' semiotics amongst the world of research and insight and to give respect and gain respect from neighbouring disciplines. Semiotics in and of itself is not a panacea, and is not appropriate for all the issues, but neither are the other disciplines catch-all solutions - they are all mental utensils to be used in the right circumstances, and invariably this means that they need to work together in co-ordination.