Using Semiotics in Marketing, 2nd Edition with Dr. Rachel Lawes

Dr. Rachel Lawes returns to discuss the newly expanded second edition of her book, Using Semiotics in Marketing, which takes readers on a complete journey from identifying business problems to publishing and debriefing. Learn how to develop publishable semiotics research by following the step-by-step guides in the book. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can claim a 25 percent discount on Using Semiotics in Marketing at by using the promo code BIGEYE25 at the checkout.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS: 

Rachel Lawes: Everybody does semiotics all the time, every day. Consumers do this when they encounter your brand, your advertising, your packaging, your corporate website, or whatever it may be. They’re constantly decoding things and interpreting them in light of their signs and codes. That’s why brands and marketers need semiotics so that we can have a role in that process of communication.

Adrian Tennant: You are listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Today’s episode is part of our Bigeye Book Club series in partnership with Kogan Page. April’s book selection is the newly expanded second edition of Using Semiotics in Marketing: How To Achieve Consumer Insights For Brand Growth And Profits. The book’s author is the preeminent authority on commercial semiotics, Dr. Rachel Lawes. As the founder of Rachel Lawes Consulting, she has over two decades of commercial experience providing brand and marketing strategies to clients, including Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, Kraft, Diageo, and Nike, among many others. A regular international conference speaker, Rachel is a fellow of the Market Research Society and the author of Using Semiotics in Retail, which was a Bigeye Book Club selection last year. To discuss the new edition of her book Using Semiotics in Marketing, Rachel is again joining us from her home in London, England. Rachel, welcome back to IN CLEAR FOCUS! 

Rachel Lawes: Thanks very much for having me on the show.

Adrian Tennant: For anyone listening who missed the episode last year, could you give us an overview of what semiotics is? 

Rachel Lawes: Yes, of course. I would love to do that. So the simplest possible definition is it’s the study of signs and symbols. And the simplest possible examples of signs and symbols are the components of, for example, brand marks. So if you look at your own brand mark, you’ve probably had to make a lot of design decisions along the way. Is it red or is it blue? Are we going to use nice, bold, capital letters, or are we going to use a cursive typeface with lots of flowing scripts and curlycues on it? So these are what we would call semiotic signs, and they’re loaded with meaning, right? You can probably already detect that I’m thinking in my mind about the difference between Coke and Pepsi, and they manage to convey hugely different brand values just through these small design decisions. So things like color and what typeface are we using? These are the really entry-level examples of what a semiotic sign is. Now, there are many more types of semiotic signs in society, but essentially, the practice of semiotics is about recognizing semiotic signs in the wild and in your, um, consumers’ lives and in your own brand communications and, manipulating them, using them consciously so that you can convey brand messages that you want to convey and which are going to land with your target audience. 

Adrian Tennant: How is semiotics typically applied to marketing contexts? 

Rachel Lawes: That is a great question, and it’s one that I can answer with reference to three different kinds of clients. The first group is brand owners, often global brands, and they are often people who know my work. I’ve been writing and publishing and doing this work for 20-odd years now, so are people out there who know who I am. And because they know what I do and they’ve seen examples of my work, they’re confident about bringing me strategic problems that need solving. So it could be something like, maybe there’s a household brand that is, you know, well established, everybody knows its name, but it’s going out of date. It’s becoming a bit locked and out of touch with contemporary society. Or maybe they’re looking for opportunities for innovation, as it’s so often the case, they want to think up some new products or new services, or they wanna identify some new markets they could tap into. Or another common situation is that they were very comfortable in their category, but now the category is changing quickly. There are lots of new entrants, challenger brands out there, often direct-to-consumer brands, and so on and so on. So these are the types of, quite strategic marketing kind of problems that brand owners will bring to me to solve, Occasionally they’ll come to me with very straightforward questions about things like the packaging at the level of, should we do this in red or blue? but that’s often where they start, and then they evolve and grow and get into the bigger questions. The second group of clients who I work with frequently is ad agencies. ad agencies are loads of fun to work with. They do everything at high speed and, they frequently will find themselves in competitive pitch situations where they need to come up with original ideas at a short notice. and often it’s as if that were not enough of a challenge, they’re expected to come up with original ideas concerning, some quite everyday things, right? Processed cheese and laundry powder and that type of stuff, right? So because semiotics offers a lot of tools for thinking, I’ve got a good track record of being able to come up with winning ideas at speed. So for me, this is a fun challenge. It’s a bit like shorter order cooking, but you need to make a dish that’s new and different every time. So that’s another group of customers who I work with. And the third group of clients is market research agencies. the usual situation is they’re doing some qualitative research. Maybe they’ve done some depth interviews and they will often share, a selection of transcripts with me because I can see things in those conversations that might otherwise go unnoticed. And this is partly arising out of the tools that semiotics equips you with, but also just cause I have a lot of general knowledge that I can draw on about psychology, history, culture, anthropology. I’m saying these things not as a way of saying look at my hobbies, but, because continuing education in all of these subjects, in my view, is a requirement for being able to do semiotics and keep getting better at it.

Adrian Tennant: The first edition of Using Semiotics in Marketing was published in 2020. You’ve added a lot of content for this expanded second edition, including three entirely new chapters. Rachel, what prompted you to update it? 

Rachel Lawes: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, we’re three books in at this point. So there’s a story here that links these three books together, right? So the first edition Using Semiotics in Marketing, back in 2020, was a book that I’d waited years to write. I just waited until I wanted to do it, and the time was right in my own mind. You know, I could have written it many years ago. It needed writing for a long time. What it does is provide a self-contained course in semiotics for marketers and market researchers. And, you know, we can discuss what kinds of things it teaches you to do, but let’s just say for now that it goes a long way beyond analysis of data, So the first edition then was a kind of handbook or a guidebook, a self-contained course in semiotics with anybody who wanted to learn how to do it. The second book then concerned retail, partly because there’s a lot of interest in that topic. Unilever, uh, very kindly contributed a lot of content to that book and generally endorsed it and helped promote it because I improved sales for them, in the area of shopper marketing. So, while I was writing this book about retail, I took the opportunity to do a deep dive into the future, cause it’s one of the more exciting things you can do with semiotics right? Is to, form an opinion on where we’re heading, you know, in the near and more distant future, So, I wrote like almost the second half of the book on retail is actually about the future, about the future of retail, also about the future of humanity, about the future of cities and urban living and all that type of stuff. And when I was researching and writing this, material, I essentially uncovered a lot of problems that people were enduring. Now, a lot of pain out there, you know, a lot of anxiety, loneliness, depression, depersonalization, which are really interesting topics, and various other problems that people are encountering right now. Now marketers usually like pain points because where there’s pain, there’s an opportunity for us to do something about it. But I wanted to not stop at pointing out problems. I’m a great big believer in using semiotics to find solutions, One of my personal rules of thumb is that if consumers are having a problem, they’re probably already on the case finding ways to solve that problem, And so, I sent myself this challenge of finding out what kinds of solutions and coping strategies people have identified for themselves? How are people finding ways to be happy? How do they find ways to preserve their mental health, to have good-quality relationships? To feel safe in the world, to feel that society’s moving in a good direction, to feel that we’re making some progress? This is quite a challenge if you look at the state of the world, right? You know, the planet’s on fire, there’s a widening gap between rich and poor. Covid hasn’t gone away, et cetera, et cetera. There’s a lot going on, There are plenty of reasons to feel despondent. So I wanted to do a deep dive into how people are, attempting to resolve the situation for themselves. Because as marketers, that’s what we can learn from. we are not going to be able to, most of the time, come up with something that’s miraculously better than the solutions that people have already developed. It’s just a case of, identifying what those solutions are and then building them into something. Making them into something, using the assumed wealth and power of your brands to really build something positive. So in retail, I identify several problems and, in the new edition of Using Semiotics in Marketing, I set out to find how people are building their own solutions for those problems and what marketers can learn from that.

Adrian Tennant: The book starts with a tongue-in-cheek quiz designed to reveal the reader’s cognitive style. Rachel, can you explain why it’s important to understand one’s true generation? 

Rachel Lawes: Yeah, I think it’s really important not to take this too literally, you know, I mean, I have a sense of humor and to some extent, this quiz is just me joking around. It’s a fun little multiple choice quiz. I think one of, from memory, one of the questions I asked was imagine that you’re in a situation where a coworker that has somewhat of an emotional breakdown at lunchtime in the break room. Okay. And reveals a lot of their personal problems to you. How do you respond to that? You know, and the options are things like, “Well, I’m sympathetic, but I really think they should talk to HR,” through to “All this emoting is making me uncomfortable, but I managed to make them laugh with a few on-point jokes.” So there’s that through to “I feel really happy that they felt safe with me and were able to share their feelings and we were able to talk about it in a respectful and compassionate way.” So these are just to put a simple gloss on it attitudes which are characteristic of different generations. Now, again, we don’t need to be too literal about this or too set on it, you know, it’s really, just a way for me to use a fun engaging little exercise to actually get people to then accept what I have for them, which is some quite heavy duty theory about metamodernism and Western culture and why we like this. But having said that, you know, as much as it’s, an easy entry point for thinking about Western culture, there is also some value in it. You know, we can clearly see that there are, generational differences have emerged, over the last several decades, and that can sometimes make it hard for people to understand each other. So, for me, one of the reasons why I went looking for metamodernism theory was because I wanted to understand what was driving all of this change? We can see that people behave differently now than they used to. I wanted to know why. I wanted to know where the Be Kind movement had come from. I wanted to know something about the sudden ascendance of identity on all of these topics because they’re connected together. And so, I went to find some solutions and so this little fun quiz, I hope is an engaging, lighthearted way of getting people to join me in exploring this question of why has the world changed in this particular direction?

Adrian Tennant: Using Semiotics in Marketing is designed to be a practical manual. What are some aspects of conducting consumer research and developing creative ideas using semiotics that you cover?

Rachel Lawes: Yeah, I’d be really happy to talk about this. So, as I mentioned, this book, Using Semiotics in Marketing, is a self-contained course in semiotics for marketers and market researchers. So you might say, well, there’s already books out there on that. And that’s true. There are some really good ones as well. But the books that are out there tend to focus almost entirely on the business of analyzing data. And these are very exciting and engaging activity, right? It’s the part of semiotics almost everybody starts with. So you’ll take some item of packaging or a bit of advertising; even better if you’ve got contrasting ones that you can compare. You start sort of picking them apart and looking for semiotic signs and figuring out what they all mean. Now, this is super fun, and it’s a great way to get going. But for people who are academics, they’re often very advanced in thinking about semiotics, but they, by almost out of necessity, they don’t have loads of business experience or marketing experience, you know? And so that is why, these enormously instructive and helpful books, which we couldn’t do without, are often focused solely on the kind of data analysis element of things, But as anybody who’s ever done consumer research knows, there’s a heck of a lot more to a market research project than data analysis. And so this is the first book, and I think as far as I know, the only one printed on semiotics, which takes the readerIt takes ’em on a complete journey from, starting with, I have a business problem, we might need some consumer research. Maybe we need semiotics. I don’t know. I’ll take you from there through how to write a brief, how to write a proposal. How to plan a project, including things like, do you want to include some field work? Do you wanna meet some consumers? What kind of sampling are you going to do through different ways to do the analysis? how to, then write a report concerning your findings, how to quality check that report and make sure that you’re saying something that’s both true and helpful, and also how to publish and debrief, right? So it’s a really, is a complete end-to-end journey Which, is also accompanied by exercises throughout. So the kind of proposition of the book is that if you do all the exercises in each chapter in the order in which they’re presented by the end of the book, you’ve got a publishable piece of work, a com. It might be your first effort with semiotics and maybe you’ve got a long. Journey ahead of you, but you’ll have a competent enough, good enough piece of work that you can share with other people to, make their lives easier and to, show off your own skills. So that is why, using So In Marketing is a different book. And added to that, as you mentioned, I included chapters on,how to use semiotics to become more creative and how to innovate as well, because those are very exciting topics for business clients.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages. 

Adrian Tennant: Each month in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page, the Bigeye Book Club features interviews with authors who are experts in consumer research, retail and brand. Our featured book for April is Using Semiotics in Marketing: How To Achieve Consumer Insights For Brand Growth And Profits by Rachel Lawes. In this second edition, Rachel has added new revelations about brands, consumers, and their emerging needs, plus three new chapters. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can save 25 percent on a print or electronic version of the book with the exclusive promo code BIGEYE25. This code is valid for all products and pre-orders and applies to Kogan Page’s free paperback and ebook bundle offer. When you order direct from Kogan Page, shipping is always free to the US and UK, and it helps the authors too. So, to order your copy of Using Semiotics in Marketing, go to That’s K O G A N, P A G E .com.

Michael Solomon: Hi, I’m Michael Solomon. During my 40-year career as a marketing professor, consumer psychologist, speaker, and author, I’ve had the privilege of developing strategies with many Fortune 500 companies to help them connect with their customers. Now, you can have access to these strategies through my online course. It’s called Engage! How To Turn Your Bored Customers Into Brand Fanatics. I’ll show you how to apply years of research on consumer psychology to your brand or business. And as an IN CLEAR FOCUS listener, you can receive a hundred dollars discount on your enrollment. Just follow the link in the transcript for this podcast on Bigeye’s website and use the provided coupon code to take advantage of this offer. I hope you’ll join me for Engage! to learn how to turn board customers into brand fanatics!

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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Dr. Rachel Lawes, semiotician, futurist, marketer, and the author of this month’s Bigeye Book Club Selection, Using Semiotics in Marketing, Second Edition. Rachel, How do signs, texts, and codes work?

Rachel Lawes: You know, there’s a little bit of jargon in semiotics. In the material and the books that I write I try to keep it to a minimum and I try to, where I have to use these words, I try to define them as crisply as possible because it makes everybody’s lives easier. So let’s take a nice, easy approach to this. Okay. let’s imagine that, one morning the postman arrives at your. And, something in an envelope lands on your doormat. And, this envelope and its contents are what we would call a text. It’s a little self-contained object. It didn’t exist in your world a few minutes ago, but then it arrives through your letterbox and now it does, know it’s a thing in your world. And that right there is a text, you know, doesn’t depend for its meaning on, the color of your carpet or what type of lock you’ve got on your front door or that type of stuff, right? It’s just a little self-contained text all by itself. And, it’s entirely composed of semiotic signs. So let’s imagine that you open this envelope, which is white and, rectangular, not too large. when you open it up, there’s a place of folded cardboard inside and you take out this folded cardboards. And on the side facing you, there’s a brightly colored picture, right? And you can recognize some elements of this picture. There’s some, balloons in different colors, and maybe there’s also some glitter and, there’s, some party poppers and a few stars maybe, and that type of stuff. And it says, there’s a word at the top that says invitation all looking good, right? And before you’ve even opened this thing and looked inside and you know there’s going to be some script inside some text, before you even have opened it, you can already detect all these individual Semiotic signs, right? The balloons, the particular choices of colors. this word up at the top that says invitation, the particular typeface. also what sort of card stock has been used here? The one I’m visualizing and maybe the one you are thinking of too, if it’s got balloons in glitter on it, it’s fairly, probably moderately cheap shiny card stock. It’s not super heavy white ivory paper that’s been embossed. You know what I mean? So all these things are individual semiotic signs, right? And they all mean things by themselves. Like you could get any consumer to free associate around the idea of a balloon, and they’ll come up with all sorts of rich stuff about childhood and happiness and being carefree and that type of thing, So all of these are individual signs in themselves. Useful, but more than that, as you interpret the meaning and significance of this card and what it wants you to do, we start to deploy the idea of a semiotic code, You will quickly perceive, assuming that you know you are old enough and you’ve had enough, experience in this particular culture, that a birthday party or something like a birthday party is happening. You’ve got an idea of what a birthday party is, how you’ll be expected to dress, what sorts of things will happen, likely what kind of day or day of the week it’s likely to be. And so what you are doing there is identifying a code, which is to say that you are recognizing that these , balloons not just meaningful in themselves, but they are, often found in the same place at the same time in the company of other semiotic signs, Just like people, semiotic signs tend to have friends, right? They have mates and champions who they hang out with, So where you find balloons, you often find glitter and, silvery cursive scripts in reference to parties and stuff like that, SoThis is an example of how everybody does semiotics all the time, every day, you recognize the individual semiotic signs are adding up to something, a code, which is greater than the sum of its parts, So in a sense, every time you receive a piece of mail through your front door and open it and make sense of it, you are doing semiotics, right? Consumers do this all the time, and they do this when they encounter your brand. When they encounter your advertising, your packaging, your, corporate website or whatever it may be, they’re constantly decoding things and interpreting them in light of their signs and codes. And it’s because consumers do this all the time and without thinking about it, and because they do it in this really unstoppable way, that’s why brands and marketers need semiotics so that we can have,more of a role in that process of communication.

Adrian Tennant: Could you explain the differences between bottom-up analysis and top-down analysis In semiotics?

Rachel Lawes: It’s a question that I get asked a lot, and I’m always happy to talk about it because it’s really important. So, a couple of times already in this conversation, I’ve characterized a situation where you might be a newcomer to semiotics, either as a practitioner or as a buyer of research. And, I’ve said a couple of times now that when you are a beginner, you’re going to start in predictable ways. The common scenario is that you might start with decoding packaging. It’s the easiest possible thing that you can do. And, honestly, a lot of practitioners will stop there. They will collect a few texts, identify some signs and symbols, sort them into codes. And that will stop there. Now this is an activity, which in my view is one-half of semiotics, which is called bottom-up semiotics. And you can perhaps see why it’s called bottom-up, right? We start with very tiny little units of communication, like semiotic signs. We figure out what they mean and we gradually work up to something larger, often identifying codes. so there’s something I wanna say at this juncture, which I think is important. I’m speaking to you if you practice semiotics. Okay. I know this activity is easy and fun and useful, I know, but, if we, stop there, then our client is justified in asking how this is different from, let’s say, a focus group exercise. Because you know, let’s say that you want to research tea. You know, you could type 20 packages of tea, put them in front of a focus group and they adeptly sort the T into groups, which we could regard as codes, and they’ll point out the symbiotic signs and make the difference. So the, is it a really relevant, salient question, right? How is this different from anything a focus group can do? It’s because there’s a missing piece that is not as available commercially, but is absolutely vital, which is top-down semiotics. So the thing to know about semiotics is it’s very interdisciplinary, and it has at least two parents. One of these is linguistics, which is where this detailed focus on individual signs and symbols comes from. You can see how words are semiotic signs, right? But the other parent of, semiotics is anthropology, and that means this, often quite broad brush thinking about culture, about what makes, the UK different from the United States, for example, or what makes Anglo-American cultures different from Europe and, and so on and so on. And so, the reason why we want this kind of thinking in our semiotic practice, Is because it gives some points and purpose to that bottom-up activity, So, instead of like using the birthday invitation example that I was talking about earlier, we don’t just stop at the point of observing that there’s a semiotic code, which has to do with parties and celebrations, even though that’s easily converted into something like an ad campaign. using a top-down approach, we are,then invited to consider, what in fact is the status, of, let’s say birthdays and celebrations, in this particular culture for this particular market. how does it differ in other parts of the world? How does it differ historically?. How might it differ in the future? And, what kind of, I wanna say philosophical experiments can we do with this idea? imagine we were doing some work for Hallmark, let’s say. And we wanted to,uh, give them some new ideas about things like birthday cards and greetings cards, One of the first things you’re going to want to do is take your target market, let’s say the United States, and make a complete list of everything which is conventionally believed and accepted about birthdays, And then you start turning those ideas on their heads. Look for reasonable oppositions or reasonable reversals to those ideas. all your time. You’re trying to break out of the frame of common sense, So you can break out of it by going to a different point in history, by going to a different part of the world, by going to the future. And you can break out of it by philosophically crash-testing the foundational beliefs about why birthdays matter and what a celebration is, and all of these are ways of,giving you a fresh point of view on familiar subjects, and now you’ve got some real power in your hands. Now you can really start to develop creative ad campaigns. You can genuinely start to innovate. You can start to, identify,opportunities within a category that other people haven’t spotted, and so on and so on. So, bottom-up is great and it’s where everybody starts, but if you want to prove that you are better than and different from a focus group and if you really wanna start shaking things up and being innovative and creative and special, and getting paid a decent daily rate for your work, top-down is the necessary complement to your bottom-up work.

Adrian Tennant: I’m curious, how does semiotics make you more creative? 

Rachel Lawes: You have to constantly look for ways to surprise yourself. That’s really what keeps the creative duties flowing. You know, back when semiotics was first taking off, people used to sometimes, talk about it as desk research, which was always a description that I felt really uncomfortable with because yes, you’re going to have to sit at your desk at some point, you know, there’s going to be a lot of reading and there’s going to be a lot of writing of PowerPoint decks and so there is going to be sitting down. But to describe it as desk research is really to miss the point. I think the thing is with Symbiotics, it’s a lifelong commitment. You know, you can’t just do a bit of packaging analysis for a couple of hours at the office and then forget about it the rest of the time cause you’re never going to make any progress. You know, so much like being an artist, it’s a kind of lifelong thing. Artists are constantly looking for ways to feed their own creativity and feed their own imaginations. And you need this with Symbiotics as well. a key question in Semitics that I use all the time when I approach anything is, um, ask myself, where have I seen this before? it could be a visual image, like in somebody’s ad. It could be a mission statement, could be a strapline. Could be just do an interesting turn of phrase or an interesting expression on someone’s face, right? And one of my first questions is going to be where have I seen this before? So you need to give yourself as many reference points as possible in order to answer that question, So, obviously that’s why you wanna read a lot, but you also wanna have as many different experiences as possible. You want to go out and meet people and you need to travel as much as possible and see the world as much as you can. I try to go out of my way to see a lot of art, because it refreshes what, I guess you could say, neural networks. It helps me to, combine pieces together in this new way. I try to have new experiences a lot of the time and I also do exercises, which might be surprising to people, but I do formal exercises which encourage me to look at the world from another point of view. and there are so many of these things you can do. You know, like if you’ve got a very particular point of view on how your categories should operate, try and just write a page of stuff where you argue the opposite point of view because it will really help you, you know. or another thing is to express yourself creatively through lots of different media. symbiotics doesn’t mean endlessly writing all the time on a keyboard. You know,your mind will be more flexible and you’ll be more able to have new ideas for brands if you allow yourself to explore ideas through lots of different things. I make collages and, you know, I’m like visual art and a thing that’s worth exhibiting, but it helps me think. in case this sounds a bit abstract, I’m just going to quickly share with you, an example of one of the things I do, which was a bit too spicy and controversial to be included in the book my publisher told me. So, one thing that’s really fun to do that I really recommend if you’re trying to explore a category, is to, take your client brand Mark and, apply it to some ads, not just competitor ads, but ads in completely unrelated categories or even at different points in history, because you’ll learn something, So one of my students did this. I mentioned that I’d do some academic work from time to time. So at the time I was teaching a course on creativity for business students at Regent’s University, one of my students did some excellent work where, her brand of choice was Heineken. she worked with physical media, you know, she was printing and cutting out and sticking things, sticking bit of paper together. And she, cut out the, Heineken logo and essentially made stickers out that, and applied these, brand marks to, lots of other ads with interesting results. so one was like a early 1980s ad for Pampers talking about how to get babies to be quiet. Another one was an ad from the 1960s for, I think it was Lux soap featuring a woman lying in a bubble bath, surrounded by pink bubbles, you know, with a big pink bow in her hair. I think she might have had a telephone in one hand, and it was a message about kind of self-care and self-indulgence, you know, so doing this a really interesting exercise because when you apply your client’s logo to another ad, you’ll find that it’ll either make sense or it won’t, right. When you try to read it, which is what consumers do all the time, when you try to read this new text that you’ve created, you’ll either make sense or else it won’t. And if it immediately makes sense, often with humorous results, then you’ve learned something from that about your category about, in this case, alcohol consumption actually is a form of self-care about relaxation and pampering and about its pacifying and soothing abilities. 

Adrian Tennant: Rachel, could you share a couple of case studies from your consulting work where using semiotics significantly impacted your client’s marketing strategies? 

Rachel Lawes: Last year, I was a finalist in the Business Impact Awards, known as the Bobby Awards, along with a client of mine – a market research agency called Narrative Health. And they operate in the pharmaceutical space. And so together we were nominated for this award for business impact. So, the client was a company called MSD and they make drugs that treat cancer. And it’s important to realize, I guess, that, you could have the best cancer drug in the world, but if people are not willing to take it or if they’re disengaged from their own healthcare generally, then they’re not going to be able to benefit from it. So, the business impact of this piece of research that we did together concerned, identifying and bringing on board new segments of consumers who, for whatever reason, are disengaged from treatment itself and from their various treatment options. And I wanna say that in fact, this situation is not limited to cancer. It’s a very common problem across pharmacies causing healthcare, right? So people will try things and start out full of hope. You know, they get diagnosed. They’re initially dismayed, but also sometimes relieved and also sometimes full of hope because their doctor’s telling them that there are treatment options, And then they try a few things and they get burned out. And then their resistance, trying anything new because they’ll take this attitude that, well, we’ve tried this before and nothing works. I’m doomed, and so on and so on. So this is a known problem across lots of different healthcare, situations. So I mentioned earlier that sometimes people will share transcripts for me to look at. As you can probably tell based on the things I’ve been saying today, semiotics is, very concerned with the stories we tell ourselves and, because we use these stories on a daily basis to build the world that we live in. like I was describing about the birthday card earlier, and probably if listeners are from a similar culture to me you could picture a lot just from those few words. Maybe you could picture the kind of hallway, maybe you can picture the front door, the letterbox, what kind of floor covering is there, exactly what does this envelope look like? What are its dimensions? You know, there’s a lot of shared cultural knowledge there that enables the speaker and the listener to cooperate in a, story in which there’s a, a birthday invitation with all that that implies, right? So these stories that we tell ourselves in which things like birthdays and birthday parties happen this is how,cooperatively and collectively we build certain versions of reality for ourselves, right? Now exactly the same thing happens when you get a diagnosis of, let’s say, cancer or some other incurable condition. What will happen is that people will start to, they’ve got it’s shocking thing to happen, and you’ve gotta try and make sense about that. So people will search around and they’ll start to craft a story about themselves, about the state of the world, about society, about their relationships, about, medical, institutions, about sometimes about doctors specifically. and they quite quickly will build a version of reality for themselves in which certain things happen and certain things are impossible. And so because, I’m a semiotician and I’ve got a good eye for language, I’m quite, able to spot when this is happening. And more to the point, it’s not just about being able to identify when people are telling themselves a negative story that might be keeping them away from treatment, but you can actually identify quite a number of different stories which people are deploying, and you can specify what that’s doing for them, how they’re benefiting living in this version of reality. And you can also start to have an informed point of view on things like patient information materials and how we can align those to unmet consumer needs. it’s a fairly specific example, but essentially semiotics will enable you to spot when semiotic signs become stories and stories become very specific versions of reality and a real-world that may or may not exist. So you can do a lot with that. And essentially, sales for MSD went up. So there’s the business impact of that. A more prosaic example: I was involved in the creation of a very successful campaign for McVitie’s with Grey London, in which they, with my help, managed to make biscuits into a very powerful symbiotic sign, signifying the kindness of strangers, which is a compelling emotional concept. It’s very timely and relevant. And, it was something that hadn’t been overdone already. So quite a nice example of the ways in which quick semiotic insights can convert into a new and different ad campaign.

Adrian Tennant: Fantastic conversation, as always, Rachel. I know you’ve got some upcoming speaking events, so where can IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners find you?

Rachel Lawes: So my next conference is going to be EphMRA, that’s the European Pharmaceutical Research Association, where I’m going to be giving a presentation of some original, semiotic research concerning menopause. And then, in May, I’m going to be at IIEX, the innovation conference in Texas. And the reason for that is because I was invited out there by McDonald’s. They also have a podcast, and they want me to be a guest. So I’m going to go all the way out to Texas so that we can do some live streaming from the show. 

Adrian Tennant: And if you’d like to obtain a copy of Rachel’s latest book, Using Semiotics in Marketing, Second Edition, as an IN CLEAR FOCUS listener, you’ll receive a 25% discount when you purchase online at Just enter the promo code BIGEYE25 at the checkout. Rachel, thank you very much indeed for being our guest again on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Rachel Lawes: Thanks very much for inviting me, Adrian. That was great.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Dr. Rachel Lawes, prominent commercial semiotician, and the author of this month’s Bigeye Book Club selection, Using Semiotics in Marketing. As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation along with links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at Bigeye Just select podcast from the menu. Thanks again for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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