Knowledge Center

When Packs Speak

By Rasika Batra


Our eyes linger on these packs for a moment before we fully comprehend what they stand for. The various elements don’t add up that easily. An ice cream called ‘Sisters’ that has faces and coloured hair!

However, on looking again we might feel that even though ice cream and hair seem incongruous and not a typical or familiar pairing it is not overly offensive. It gives us an idea of the texture, flavour and arouses some curiosity as to what the actual ice cream will be like. It acts as a colourful frame to the face and places other elements as secondary.

The graphics are black and white line drawings and seem like someone sketched them. Is there a connection between the drawings and the fact that this is artisanal ice cream? The descriptor says ‘homemade’ and we instantly recognise that no one ice cream will be similar to another. Each will have some minute difference, enough to make it a unique an experience. Yet, each line allows the viewer to get to know one of the sisters- her expressions, quirks or preferences through the colour, form and texture. This makes the ice cream recognisable as different and special.

While ice cream bars look masculine, that is not the first thought that crosses our mind. The name, the line drawings and colours neutralise this. In addition, so much white space gives us a hint of the consumption experience- cooling and uncomplicated, layered but not overly complex, homemade, honest and packed with flavour.

‘Sisters’ instantly reminds us of a trusted and nurturing relationship. The brand name evokes a sense of safety, being cared for and for some, might even seem unconditional.

Once we learnt that this ice cream comes from Iran, key elements of the pack take on added meaning. The hair itself no longer just stands for an elaborate hairdo but symbolises progressiveness as it is uncovered and visible. While it seemed from the graphics and colours that this would be for younger people, we now know for a fact that it is for those who are willing to be adventurous and taste something that defies the norm. ‘Sisters’ too takes on a deeper meaning as we identify an entrepreneurial spirit in starting an enterprise of home-made ice cream. It makes us think of what might have prompted them to start this in the first place?

What seems like a simple pack now takes on multiple levels of meaning that are shaped by the context in addition to other aspects. Sometimes using elements that defy combinations that are learnt through culture and seem strange, can be a gold mine of hidden meanings for consumers to explore.

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FAQs on Semiotic Decoding of Packs vs. Qualitative & Quantitative Pack Research

  1. How does semiotic decoding help in the evaluation of radically innovative packaging?

It allows us to see the pack for what it represents in culture, what it symbolises and what it could come to mean, or stand for, over time.? It allows us to identify the different entry points for consumer perception and interpretation of meaning which have been deliberately designed into the pack.


  1. Isn’t it sufficient to show it to consumers and get their feedback?

Qualitative and Quantitative depend primarily on consumer responses and articulation. Displaying a single pack and eliciting feedback from it places undue emphasis and scrutiny of the pack and removes it from its natural context. This in itself changes the meaning.

Also, the emotional responses of affect (attraction-repulsion) to the design often overshadow everything else. If I like it, then everything about it is good, if I dislike it, then everything about it is bad. Despite the researchers best efforts, consumers may be unable to go beyond liking and attraction-repulsion. Thus, aspects that could affect the packs success in the real world could get overlooked.


  1. Is a Semiotician supposed to anticipate consumer response? Is a semiotic decoding a substitute for consumer feedback on the pack?

Semiotics works best when it is complemented with qualitative research. Semiotics provides insights from the senders (brand/category) perspective whereas Qualitative research provides insights from the receivers (consumer) point of view. This brings holistic learning, which is particularly important when evaluating a radical departure from the familiar.


  1. What can semiotic analysis of a pack reveal that other methodologies don’t?

It reveals the signs and codes of a category and outlines the boundaries within which they function. It is especially useful in creating a design brief and offers specific direction. Other methodologies are unable to do this as they rely on responses by individuals.

Especially when testing radically different design which intends to jolt consumers out of the familiar, create a disruption, relying only on consumer response can be misleading. A combination of semiotic analysis which takes a holistic approach along with voice of consumer research (Qual/Quant) can give marketers the insights that they need to aid their judgment and anticipate as to what might happen in the real world outside of test conditions.


  1. What is the best way to use semiotic decoding along with Qualitative or Quantitative Research?

There are a few ways in which this can be done. Qualitative research can elaborate and extend from consumers what semiotics has outlined. Quantitative research is able to put a number on the responses indicating which gains preference. This makes the Client very confident about the direction they decide to move in.

Voice of Marketer/Insights Head on Semiotics for Packaging:

Plugging semiotics right at the beginning was a game changer for us. Not only did it enrich the entire equation, but it also saved us precious research dollars. Because rather than becoming a very iterative approach, it turned out to be a linear approach. We ended up doing just one qualitative exercise and right now we are in the validation phase, so for me and the team, it was certainly enriching.

Even from a stakeholders’ perspective, this kind of different approach was found much more relevant. Because right from the beginning, we understood how the Indian culture has impacted some of the choices when it comes to colours, codes, and symbols “what is that collective conscious which is playing up in this space.”

Deepak Mann (Regional CMI Head, Europe India Africa at Amway, Europe India Africa Region)