You would drink carefully from this bone china cup and wash it carefully after drinking.  It’s a part of the ‘English Tea’ culture

You would be happy to slurp from this kulhad.  And throw it into the bin after drinking.  It’s a part of the culture of Indian train travel.

You would also slurp from this paper cup, crush and throw it after drinking.  It’s a part of the modern ‘disposable’ culture.

About Semiotics

The Power of the Shared Imaginary in Consumer Behaviour.

Often, researchers tend to model the buying process as an individualistic activity that is motivated by a person’s specific needs and desires. In this model, however, what is overlooked is that consumers are members of a collective. Their behaviour is often influenced by the learning and conditioning of the collective. A classic example that is often cited is of Harley’s tribe of loyalists. However, even in the choice of everyday products such as Diwali gift boxes or dermatologically advanced skin creams or Ayurvedic / herbal shampoos, consumers are motivated as much by the shared values of the collective as they might be by individual choice.

Semiotics studies this Shared Imaginary as a meaning system that is constructed from signs, symbols, codes and narratives.

The Holy Trinity: Semiotics, marketing and consumer behaviour.

Marketing semiotics looks at categories and brands as ‘meaning systems’ that have their own rules or codes.

Some of these codes are drawn from culture and some are specific to the brand or category. For example, established global brands such as Dove or Nike or Coca-Cola define their own rules / codes of design – be it in terms of colours, shapes, graphics, logo etc used in their packaging. Whereas other brands in a category follow the norms or rules acknowledged by all players and visible in their packaging design. A few brands aim to challenge these category codes.

When Semioticians decode categories and brands, they go beyond individual consumer motives; they analyse the shared meanings in the minds of consumers that actually motivates their behaviour.

Consumers experience products and services in three ways:

By way of facts and objective truths. These would include technical specifications and scientifically measured data about the product’s composition as well as comparative performance. Quantitative surveys to measure consumer behaviour, attitudes, perceptions and preferences also aim to gather the relevant facts.


By way of personal and subjective experience. These would include their own, individual experience of the product or service, their thoughts, feelings and preferences about it. Voice of consumer, qualitative research is most often used to understand consumers’ own viewpoints about their experience of a product, service or brand.


By way of symbols and narratives. These would include the representations and symbolism that is attached to the product or service in the shared imaginary or cultural discourse. This is the realm of Semiotic study, to decode the meaning systems that motivate consumers.


Semiotics and Mental Models

Lying beneath and behind what consumers’ perceive and what they speak about, are the conceptual structures or mental models that they use to understand their experiences. The names, labels, classifications as well as symbolic references, including visual and verbal language are all clues to the underlying mental models that shape their thought and from thought, their beliefs and ultimately their choices and behaviour.

Semiotics and Consumer Behaviour

Consumers are both individuals and members of a culture and that culture shapes their knowledge and conceptual thinking. They are constantly learning, unlearning and relearning concepts and ideas and this shapes their beliefs. Whether reading the visual language of packaging, the design language of apps or the processes required to operate systems, cultural membership shapes their thinking and it precedes their shopping behaviour as well as consumption practises.

Quick Recap

Marketing semiotics decodes products, packaging, categories and culture as meaning systems to gain deeper insight into underlying mental models as well as learned concepts.  These are the hidden influences behind consumers’ perceptions and choices as well as decisions.