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When marketing common sense has reached its limits, call a Semiotician! | Classification Confusion

There was a time in Indian marketing, 30 years ago, when product launches were few, choices were limited, there were a handful of channels and media to advertise in, and distribution was the main driver of sales. Life was pretty simple and the average product manager could do a 9 to 5 job and go home easy.

Fast forward to today and a brand/marketing manager’s life is far from simple. Product launches rapidly crowd the same market space; consumers are spoilt for choice; advertising has morphed into content marketing, PR and social media engagement; and distribution is now carried out through traditional stores, retail chains and e-commerce.

The complexity has multiplied 100x. Therefore, the need for sharp product classification is key.

Now, classifying and categorizing is intuitive to people. They do it automatically, without even thinking about it, almost on auto-pilot. So do marketing people, within their category. And even within their brand, when they launch multiple variants of a product with minor changes to the features. All usually goes well and common sense pays off in most instances.

However, there are times when this easy classification runs into problems. It usually arises due to invisible benchmarks set by consumers. Or from the need to be distinctive. Sometimes due to the dominant leader brand being the default shaper of consumers’ mental references. Or even from being caught between two points of comparison. Let’s consider some examples to better understand this dilemma.

Although all Indian women know and swear by the benefits of oiling hair, the hair oil category faces a challenge in a slow decline of the habit. The market leader in coconut oils, Parachute has launched a scientific breakthrough product which delivers the goodness of oil, without its inefficiencies: the smell, the stickiness and the leave-on-for-some-time requirement.

Interestingly, the name and packaging of the product place it between two opposing product types: high-end ‘scientific’ serums, and traditional hair oils with natural goodness; two category types with strong histories, narratives and meanings.

How does Parachute’s product begin to navigate the space in between? How does it classify itself? And what ideas can it combine?

Think now of the herbal toothpaste category, which was a sleepy non-starter until Patanjali and Dabur shook it out of its lethargy.

Suddenly, the Ayurvedic toothpaste segment showed rapid growth. Now, toothpastes made from ayurvedic formulations are popularly known to be strong and sharp, look brown and ugly, and leave strong sensations in the mouth post brushing.

Colgate VedShakti was launched to defend Colgate’s user base and prevent them from switching out, by offering a herbal toothpaste, that mimicked Ayurvedic pastes in some key aspects. Its in-mouth experience though, was much milder, because a pleasant in-mouth sensation was something that Colgate users associated the brand with.

While this variant has gained traction in terms of market share, post launch, it still doesn’t score with ayurvedic TP users.  So is it Herbal? Is it true to Colgate brand values? Or is it Ayurvedic?

It may be tough to figure out the answers to these questions. But that is where Semiotics comes in.

Being a discipline devoted entirely to obtaining a deeper understanding of signs, symbols, representation, meaning and culture, Semiotics can provide a wider insight into issues of classification.

Semioticians are trained to identify codes or rules for grouping, and combining signs in a way that makes sense. They are the strategists to call when, despite conducting consumer research, classification and referencing issues threaten to derail sales.

So the next time, debates on identity and classification grow more heated and the answers seem elusive, just call a Semiotician to shed light on the issue.