Exploring the semiotics of loyalty


Flamingo’s head of semiotics, Alastair Cliff, was recently invited to speak to students at Kings College London about loyalty, as part of a wider module exploring consumer behaviour. His talk introduced the principles of the semiotic approach and how it could be used to explore concepts like loyalty, in order to build loyalty strategies for brands and businesses. Here’s a summary of what he covered.

What is semiotics? 

In order to be commercially successful, a business needs to understand the cultural context in which it’s operating. Culture is a key channel for the communication of meaning; it’s how products acquire significance and value. We use semiotics commercially to decode the ‘rules’ of culture so that we can help businesses better understand what drives consumers’ choices. 

This approach has lots of benefits. Typically, people struggle to accurately articulate their own attitudes and motivations due to implicit cultural biases; they’re oblivious to the true reasons that they make certain choices. Semioticians focus on unpicking these subconscious drivers. We then use this knowledge to advise brands on how to effectively speak to people and shape behaviour.

Thinking like a semiotician

We tend to follow a four-stage process to answer cultural questions for brands. Taking a laundry detergent brand as an example, the first step would be to gather source materials such as branded comms, packaging and social media to examine the meaning of cleanliness, its brand associations and cultural constructions. Next, we would cluster the source materials into areas of meaning, or codes. For example, one code could relate detergent to class anxiety; this would contain material like social media posts that indicate fear of judgement from society if your clothes aren’t clean. 

After this, we would move on to understanding discourses, which in this context could relate to broad cultural rules that drive loyalty. In order to create an effective plan, we need to ensure that our insights are culturally appropriate. For example, if you want to sell a European bathing product in India, you would need to alter your approach to cater to cultural disparity relating to the meaning of cleanliness.

So how would you use semiotics to understand and construct loyalty?

The first thing to consider is that loyalty means something different to every brand. For a bank, loyalty will rely on perceived dependability: consumers want to be reassured that they can trust you with their money. In contrast, loyalty to streaming services is largely driven by fear of missing out: consumers will subscribe to the service out of concern that they’ll be unable to participate in social conversation if they miss a popular show. 

In either instance, loyalty can be financially beneficial, and semiotics can be used to help construct it. When looking at this for a brand, we’d start by considering three key questions. Firstly, what does the brand stand for culturally? Brands are effectively shortcuts to meaning; when you see branded material, certain cultural connotations come to mind, and we seek to understand these. 

Secondly, we’d consider the functional services offered: how successful is the business in offering a good user experience? It’s vital to encouraging repeat behaviour, but often overlooked. Lastly, we’ll look at the brand’s category; no business exists in a vacuum and understanding the context in which you’re operating will help you gauge the type of loyalty you need to achieve.

A semiotics-focussed approach can also help brands understand nuances of loyalty that challenge common assumptions. For example, brand love doesn’t always equate to loyalty. In the UK, there are many brands that people profess to love (they tend to be the older, household names) but don’t actually purchase from. People are often sad when a Marks and Spencer store closes down, for example, even if they never shopped there. This demonstrates that although brand love and loyalty can co-exist, they are distinct concepts.

Businesses need to carefully consider their methods of stimulating loyalty and perhaps shift focus away from gaining love. A luxury brand like Chanel may be better suited to selling aspirations: that is, offering up a concept that makes consumers think about the type of person they might become if they bought one of its products.

Siobhan Collman, Flamingo

If you’d like to know more about how a semiotic approach could help your brand or business, get in touch: enquiries@flamingogroup.com