My colleague Neil and I attended the recent AQR Spark event, an introduction to Semiotics, held by the incredibly engaging Alex Gordon. The talk was well pitched, both for those with previous experience of working with semiotics and for those for whom it’s all a bit ‘black box’.

A common critique of semiotics — by clients and quallies alike — is that it can be too cerebral and lack relevance to the day to day. This is often sparked by marketing’s drive for commercialism, and living in a world where project timelines are increasingly compressed. Alex struck the perfect balance between giving the history of semiotics as a discipline — but making it relevant. Many lively, amusing examples of the Royal Family, Mr Kipling and the Labour Party’s ‘rose’ symbol were used to illustrate his thinking, and remain stuck in our minds.

I was particularly struck by the idea that things that go way back to the foundations of western culture can affect consumers implicitly (e.g. the Adam and Eve apple affecting the iconography of Apple). It’s not just about analysing what we see in the present day, but also looking back into the past and contextualising our frameworks of understanding.

It was also interesting to hear how we can use semiotics to cast different perspectives on a marketing problem to unlock growth for brands. For example, if we use semiotic analysis to understand how the narrative of a category is very different to the world consumers operate in, we can either align the two, or consciously choose to change the paradigm.

And finally we were left with the idea that everyone’s a semiotician. Semiotics is a complementary — not competitive — discipline to qualitative research, and you build the evidence in the same way as we build a body of evidence to illustrate our own qualitative findings. Alex gave us the confidence to go forth and use more semiotic thinking in our everyday worlds by suggesting that we all have the tools and techniques innately, plus the ability to unlock these to add another string to our bow.