Categories and Context (Introduction to Semiotics Part 3)

May 20 2012

Everything in context

The second key principle of semiotics is that any sign needs a context to make its meaning clear. For example, although the word ‘CAT’ in many contexts signifies a cat, on a building site or clothes shop it may signify something else (a construction equipment brand which has now branched into fashion).

The same signifier can signify many different signifieds as context changes. For example, a red dot might just be a red dot, unless it’s surrounded by a red doughnut in which case it signifies the Target retail brand. Or if surrounded by yellow and green dots it might signify ‘stop’ in a traffic light. On an Indian lady’s forehead it may signify a bindi (the area between the eyebrows is the place of the sixth chakra or “seat of concealed wisdom” in Hinduism, and an exit point for kundalini energy. The bindi protects the wearer from demons and bad luck, and helps them retain energy and concentration). The same red dot, placed on the nose can signify a clown or Comic Relief (Red Nose Day) in the UK. Placed on a flag with a white background, the red dot can signify Japan, and finally on a board with multiple other colours it might signify the game ‘Twister’.

Signs of signs

Signs come in many forms, and semioticians often refer to ‘texts‘ which are literally systems of signs which can be read to understand their meaning, based on the conventions of the type of text, genre and medium through which the text is communicated.

Examples of texts include the following (non-exhaustive) list:

  • colour
  • shape
  • smell
  • icon
  • image
  • words, names & language
  • facial expressions
  • body ‘language’
  • graphic devices
  • fonts
  • materials
  • formats
  • size
  • sounds
  • weight & substance

Any sensory experience or sensation can form a text (read more on sensory ¬†touchpoints here). In decoding a category (next section), it’s important to look for all of these different texts and their potential to reveal meanings.

Category understanding

How can semiotics be used to enhance research? One of the easiest and most frequent applications is in the analysis of category codes. If we take the ‘energy drink’ category, although the number of brands is limited in Singapore (there are many more in Thailand and other Asian markets!), there are consistent themes in the signs used on product packaging and its meaning.

Most products are in cans (for easy consumption on the go) and many use bright colours (gold, red, yellow, orange) to signify the heat of energy, although there are also brands which use blue and silver colours too (inspired by the Red Bull international packaging style).

Brand names include Red Bull (in local and international versions, both standard and sugarfree), Shark, Livita and Naughty G, and the use of strong, aggressive animal names is quite common in this category (signifiying …. ?). The name of Naughty G is perhaps more explicit in pointing to one of the underlying motivations for buying energy drinks (it also comes from Austria).

Many of the drinks mention ‘energy’ but again some are more explicit in their language on the pack. Red Bull (international) states that ‘Vitalizes body and mind’, Shark only states ‘Energy drink’, Livita says ‘Gets you going!’ and Naughty G states, “Work hard, play harder” and also “Energy, stamina & performance: Supplement drink for him & her.” So while there are differences in the explicitness of the messages, the meanings are consistent and very clear in terms of energy, stamina and their link to sexual performance.

All products explicitly state their formulations & ingredients on pack, no doubt because of regulatory requirements but also emphasising the reason to believe the product claims, based on their active ingredients. There are other medicinal cues in the category too, most explicitly the smell and taste of the products which is often closer to medicine than soft drinks.

Looking at the alternative versions of the Red Bull packaging the international version is endorsed as “Made in Europe – Preferred Worldwide” to support its authenticity and quality, while the local version of the packaging claims, “Singapore’s choice” endorsing its local identity.

There is much more that could be said about the packaging, but a very quick analysis reveals the key category cues and meanings, and is therefore a great starting point for developing a brand identity or communication strategy in a new category, or simply setting up hypotheses for a research study.

Category context

Take any of these signs and put them in a different category or context and they may have different meanings. For example, in the coffee category signs that indicate energy (bright colours, wording), are more likely to mean the energy to stay awake than the energy to perform, and red colours are much less common (brown is the dominant colour) but can indicate the heat of the drink or of the roasting process for beans.

Other signs may have exactly the same meaning across categories. For example, “Made in Europe” will have similar meanings of quality in other categories, although the meaning of authenticity may be stronger and more relevant in some categories than others. Names of fierce animals (or sexual predators) are not (yet) used in the coffee category, as the meaning doesn’t match the overall category values (although that may change, and there are some new coffee products which are explicitly targeting the energy drink category).

In summary, semiotics is a great way to develop a quick understanding of category values and meanings, and something that many researchers already use implicitly, and would benefit from using more explicitly with structured approaches to interpretation. Most importantly, remember the second principle of semiotics which is that any sign (text) needs a context to make its meaning clear.


Mythologies by Roland Barthes (1972)

Semiotics: The Basics by Daniel Chandler (2007) [an online version is available here]

Of Cigarettes, High Heels and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics by Marcel Danesi (2008)

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