shopper research: applying semiotics for packaging success

by: Klara Bruveris


“Large corporations have been built with the aid of effective symbolism of imagery and colour. Colours and images with favourable symbolism promote a product, a brand, a company. Wrong symbolism often keeps a company from making progress. It can ruin a business and often does.” 

(Louis Cheskin)

Over half a century ago, Louis Cheskin, psychologist and marketing innovator, published his manifesto Colour for Profit on the importance of colour and symbolism in packaging.

It was one of the first books to take a scientific approach to brand imagery and design. Cheskin began a tradition of applying semiotics to packaging design in the search for bigger profits and higher brand awareness.

Semiotic analysis has been used to create some of the best innovations in recent years, helping brands fit seamlessly into society; connecting them with consumers' lives and addressing real problems.

Read on to find out why and how semiotics is important for successful packaging design.

What is semiotics?

Semiotics is, quite simply, the study of signs and how meaning is derived from them within specific cultural contexts.

The method first developed within the fields of linguistics and philosophy, before being absorbed into anthropology and cultural studies.

The main things to remember about semiotics are that: 
  • All signs have two levels of meaning.
  • No sign has a natural meaning, everything is culturally constructed.

The two levels of meaning.

The two levels of meaning are called denotation and connotation.

The denotation of a sign is its literal meaning, so for example the word ‘cat’ conjures images in your mind of a four-legged animal with a tail and two pointy ears.

The second level is the connotation - the cultural meaning of the sign.
A black cat, for example, is much more than a cat. When we see one we think of bad luck, evil spirits, witches, etc.

This second level of meaning is not something that is naturally connected to black cats, but has developed throughout the ages.

Our negative associations of black cats in western countries stems from the Middle Ages, when black cats were linked closely to 'witches', with many believing that black cats were witches in disguise or witches reborn.

Along with this follows the idea of mystery, intrigue, danger and other connotations that have been used in advertising for a long time now, continuing to reinforce this understanding of the black cat as a symbol of unrestrained feminine power.

Below is an image of a late 1960s advertising campaign for Martini & Rossi Imported Vermouth...

Martini&Rossi applied semiotics for packaging success

While the advert itself does not overtly reference witches or witchcraft, the inclusion of the black cat, entwined with the model’s fur coat and her alluring, albeit challenging front on gaze, suggests that the woman in the image is strong and mysterious, challenging the status quo and perhaps even a little bit dangerous.

All qualities that were arguably attractive to a late 1960s Manhattan woman in the midst of the second wave of feminism.

This symbolism then becomes associated with the Martini & Rossi brand.

Symbols in packaging.

Symbolism and connotation is just as important for your packaging.

As we all know, the packaging in which your product is housed is the final and most important touch point for a sale.

It is the last thing that communicates to the shopper what your brand stands for and what they can expect if they buy your product off the shelf. When scanning the supermarket aisles, we don’t at first recognise words, but rather, colours and shapes.

Colour is, therefore, crucial for shelf stand out and drawing the shopper’s attention to your product. But it does a lot more than that.

A couple of weeks ago we introduced you to some of the key ideas in psychology regarding colour and the effects it has on the brain.

Below is a little chart made by GraphicSprings for a refresher on some key associations…

Symbols and colors in brand packaging

Residual, dominant and emergent.

However, it is not just what is on the packaging that conveys symbolic meaning, it is also the type of packaging, the functionality of the container or the bottle that conveys meaning to the shopper and can influence purchase decisions.

Product categories have 3 types of symbols: residual, dominant and emergent.

Residual symbols are historic codes that are less used today.

Dominant symbols are the most common ones used by brands, and emergent symbols are ones that only a few brands are using, and highlight a shift in the category.

How is this connected to the functionality of the packaging? Let’s have a look at the humble shampoo bottle.

Shampoo was introduced to Europe through India. It was a luxury item that only appeared over the counter in the 20th century, before that it was only available in public baths as a special treatment.

In fact, liquid shampoo was only invented in 1927. Shampoo was first sold in glass bottles before plastic became a popular material.

This is the residual code, reflecting the introduction and use of shampoo as a medicinal, rather than beauty product.

We then move to shampoo in plastic bottles which are not transparent. This was, until very recently, the dominant code in the category. Shampoo labels sold the product, increasing the opportunity to reinforce brand symbolism.

The emergent code now entering the market is an increasing propensity for transparent PET bottles. A trend that PLAY is excited to reveal was led by one of our clients, Natures Organics.Bottles with packing success

“The most important part [about packaging] is making sure it is visually appealing. But for us, especially for the majority, Earth Choice and the hair care ranges that we’ve produced, it’s about showing consumers what’s in it. Transparency is the key, and PET works really well for that because it’s like glass - you can see everything that’s inside it […] consumers know exactly what they’re getting when they buy our products, so that they can feel comfortable and trust that what we are saying and what we’re giving them is what they expect.”

(Justin Dowel, Natures Organics)

Transparency is key in today’s consumer environment. People are becoming increasingly skeptical of large conglomerates and are seeking out brands that they feel are honest and trustworthy.

Concerns over what goes into mass produced consumer goods, is also a growing trend.

The symbolism of the transparent bottle suggests to the consumer that there is nothing to hide and that what they see is what they get.


Signs are key to your product's success.

Understanding what the key symbols are in your category and which symbols will best communicate your brand identity and values to a potential consumer, is central to the success of your product.

It is worth your while considering semiotics as a valuable methodology in your research toolbox!

"Semiotics delivers strategic research and analysis that generates robust and inspirational outcomes that can be used for a range of activities from brand strategy, planning to creative development." 

(Dr. Kishore Budha)

As we discussed in our report 'Driving brand Growth: The Secrets Every Marketer Needs' (you can download this HERE), building your brand with cultural relevancy creates icons. Iconic brands resolves a conflict or bring to life a dream (providing a solution), and with semiotics, brands can even create culture, rather than just responding to it.

As Dr Kishore Budha adds, 

"Even in today’s time-pressured society, taking just a little time out to think semiotically can help answer the one hard question your brand is facing and solve problems which may take huge amounts of time with traditional methods. Semiotic thinking really is the brand management tool of the future."

(Dr. Kishore Budha)


Over to you. 

Feel like delving deeper into the mind of your shopper?
PLAY are a team of shopper research specialists. Get in touch on 02 8097 0200 or email if you've got any research problems you'd like to chat about - we're happy to share our veteran advice!

Click below to learn how to 'Mind Hack Your Shopper' in their decision-making process and optimise your packaging for a retail environment: 

DOWNLOAD: Mind Hack Your Shopper


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Klara Bruveris

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