Review of Using Semiotics in Marketing by Rachel Lawes

Rachel Lawes new introduction to the art and science (she prefers science) of semiotics is a welcome addition to the literature and definitely the most readable introductions to the topic. She does a good job of explaining the relationship between ethnography, semiotics and discourse analysis and how they can work together to help researchers understand culture and its impact on behaviour.

As she points out, an incidental benefit of semiotics as a research method is that you don’t need to talk to consumers. However, she points out, “When we do semiotics, we are not removing ourselves from consumers … but we are considering them collectively rather than making them fill out surveys and interviews one at a time”. That also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk to people too (if and when we can!

Rachel addresses another common challenge with the comment, “We are not sampling people, we are sampling cultural output. One way to achieve validity is to make sure that we cut a generous slice of culture for inspection”. She provides many examples of the different kinds of material that can be sampled.

One chapter is devoted to a single case study on rebranding Charmin. The chapter takes the reader through a project from start to finish, including business context, objectives, methods, findings, and the commercialization of the results. The following chapter digs into how you ‘sample’ culture and the kinds of data that can be used. Wisely, Rachel Lawes argues for the importance of field trips as part of the process (something I recommend).

I was very interested in Rachel’s differentiation of bottom-up and top-down analysis methods and how they might apply in different situations for answering different kinds of problems. On the same topic, she explains very clearly the differences between signs, texts and codes, and provides clear guidelines for how to analyze images.

In other chapters Rachel moves on to some of the practical issues around semiotics, including writing briefs and proposals, defining the right ‘culture’ questions, writing reports, technological innovations, how to do field trips, finding insights and writing reports. She is clear on the differences and the process of moving from data to insights to strategy. She is not a fan of ‘quantitative semiotics’, arguing that humans are more sensitive than machines to context, irony, form vs content and the underlying theories of representation.

Overall this is a very practical introduction, written in very clear and easy-to-understand language. In the end, the only way to learn semiotics is to do it, and each chapter has practical exercises for the reader. Although the book is targeted at researchers, I recommend it for anyone who wants to understand about the process of doing semiotics. Even if you don’t end up being a semiotician, (or semiologist – who cares about the name?) it will enhance any research study you are involved in.

[This is one of ten books I recommend market researchers to read if they time on their hands. You can find the other recommendations here.]


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