5R. Semiotics - Weekly readings

A. Introduction

A research approach developed in the past 100 years to decipher the signs that are around us.

Why do we study it in this course? Helps us understand how brands construct meaning.

B. Signs

A sign acquires meaning through its cultural context: in relation to other signs in the text, through what is not present. It is defined by what it is not, as much as by what it is

  • Signifier - A sign’s physical form as distinct from its meaning
  • Signified - The meaning of a sign

C. Importance of Culture

Semiotic analysis looks for the meaningful cultural and psychological patterns – codes - that underlie language, art and other cultural expressions.

  • Semiotics emphasizes on shared culture rather than individual psychology alone
Culture matters in the interpretation of signs.

There is no such thing as a single, “correct” interpretation of any text. There are large numbers of possible interpretations, some of which will be more likely than others in particular circumstances.

D. Codes

A cluster of signs that together constitute a meaning. Codes help to simplify phenomena in order to make it easier to communicate experiences.

  • Codes express the worldview of a particular culture at a given moment in its history.

Culture theorist Raymond Williams classifies codes into three categories:

  • Residual codes: are the codes of the past - leftovers from an earlier set of cultural values and usages;

  • Dominant codes: are the codes of the present - the current set of cultural values and usages;

  • Emergent codes: are the codes of the future - the new set of cultural values and usages that are emerging.

E. Binary Oppositions

Claude Levi-strauss
Claude Levi-strauss

Anthropologist Levi-Strauss insisted that relations among units in a structure (e.g. a piece of communication) occur in binary pairs. Signs are defined as much by what they are not, as what they are.

In fact the universe is described as an almost infinite process of binary opposition. This provides the model for our way of thinking.

Virtually every consistently successful brand today embodies its own particular myth. Successful brands resolve contradictions by creating myths. Levi-strauss words:

“The purpose of a myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction”

F. Analyzing brand communications semiotically

  1. Visual
  2. Linguistic
  3. Aural
  4. Protagonists
  5. Time
  6. Non-verbal communication
  7. Technique
  8. Genre

G. Identifying and ordering the codes

Fig: IBM and Apple Logos
Fig: IBM and Apple Logos


  • IBM codes are more about professionalism and service
  • Apple are about spontaneity and fun

Each brand’s communication will have its own set of residual, and dominant codes, and some might have emergent codes.