Signs are all around us.
Whether it's directory signs in an office, traffic signs on the street, a tube map or a campaign ad, each sign points to a certain idea, understanding or mental concept; this is the essence of semiotics.
Developed by Ferdinand de Saussure, semiotics explores the meaning of signs through the signifier and the signified:But how does semiotics feature in the pharmaceutical industry? Can cultural insight and semiotic-led decisions distinguish health brands and give them competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded market?To answer the above questions, we must first explore one of the most important questions for the pharma industry:
How can you differentiate your brand?
Semiotics is used in marketing as a persuasive device to influence buyers to change their attitudes and behaviours in the marketplace.
Two ways that Epure, Eisenstat and Dinu (2014) state that semiotics are used are:
1/Surface: signs are used to create personality for the product; creativity plays its foremost role at this level.
2/Underlying: the concealed meaning of the text, imagery, sounds, etc.
In health, through association and inference, we often depict ‘recovery’ as a tranquil process, adopting metaphorical imagery such as flowers or fruit to underpin the idea of healing. These are clichés, of course, but they also represent the ingrained cultural requirement to see recovery as a calm, smooth process. In truth, such codes are repetitive, and success can be achieved when you break these cultural conventions. For instance, health can also be credibly constructed as tortuous and complex, pessimistic, optimistic, angry or defiant – in fact, these more authentic codes are how a brand can really distinguish itself.
In past HIV campaigns, the recovery process of the patient has always been presented in a linear narrative, for example, a patient walking through a park in the summer with a smile on their face. Health brands are obsessed with emphasising positive facial expressions such as smiling, as well as blissful environmental cues like butterflies, birds and the sun to represent recovery. However, research has shown that the impact of HIV campaigns increased as soon they introduced friend or family constructs within the narrative due to the normality they represent. In fact, it's the notions of socialising, undertaking day-to-day activities and ‘supportive-chaos’ which act as the signifiers of normality. Relevant cultural constructions such as these resonate, which in turn maximises engagement in audiences.
Let's take a look at herbal remedy producer Bach. Below we see a very ‘vanilla’ ad, with a dated background colour, unimaginative typography and an outmoded landscape format which wasn't adapted to fit the vertical form of mobile. These factors meant that the brand was alienating itself from younger consumer groups who, due to factors such as mental health consciousness and openness, could represent a lucrative market.As a result of semiotic and cultural insight, as well as a lofty bit of market research, Bach realised that they needed to ditch their outdated, dull and linear branding. Interestingly, in addition to the social media presence and a mobile-friendly portrait format conveyed in the ad below, Bach also started to move away from their overly delicate, feminine tone. In the brand's more recent ads, you can see how Bach have rebranded their ads to connect with consumers who are more receptive to minimalistic, dynamic and genderless branding, with evocative copy as the focal point.To grow, Bach identified the potential of younger demographics and, through semiotics, explored the way in which signs and creative execution could help them to define their brand.
So, more generally, health brands should look at semiotics to create a brand narrative; to develop a strong personality and visible history in order to communicate convincing legitimacy and efficacy. They should also embrace vivid, engaging and authentic branding to develop trust and loyalty.
To achieve this, brands should:
- Select influencers not on their reach alone, but on their ‘fit’ with the product as a sincere user;
- Display a richer history and persona than previously given;
- Recruit an agency with local copywriters, designers and illustrators who can bring nuanced, culturally resonant stories to life;
- Tell resonant, relevant semiotic stories about themselves and the health benefits they offer
As differentiation becomes more important in the marketplace, medical brands have started to adopt semiotic codes from other areas. Healthcare companies have begun to add warm ‘knowability’ into the code mix.
Semiotics, as a holistic process, can ensure the messages conveyed by a medical device, its package, its marketing and its advertising are optimised to connect effectively with your target groups. Ultimately, a stronger understanding of consumer perception as a result of semiotic analysis can be used to enhance the influence of your brand. Semiotics can explain what the consumers themselves cannot, elaborating upon and describing their perceptions in a way that enables you to transmit lasting and impactful information.