As a newcomer to AQR, I am fascinated by the various qualitative methods we use to understand both our customer base and the markets they are embedded in. Attending Dr Rachel Lawes’s (Lawes Consulting) Semiotics Session, hosted by AQR’s Young Disruptors and sponsored by Roots Research, has now extended my intrigue into the world of semiotics.

Rachel presented a thought provoking and engaging workshop that dissected the cultural messages in alcoholic beverage branding. With cogent examples and drawing on her extensive field experience, she illustrated how semiotics provides a simple framework to understand what a beer brand’s symbols and signs communicate to us.

For instance, without seeing any text, how do you know that certain beers are Scottish? American? Or even Russian? It was interesting to hear that Scottish beer branding typically departs from historical iconography of kilts and bagpipes to clean and simple aesthetics which communicate messages of modernity. Contrastingly, US beer brand designs, such as Jack Daniels, use historical motifs, like cursive script that appear hand engraved, to evoke nostalgia. These revelations provided plenty of nods and ‘ah ha’ moments from the audience!

The interactive workshop allowed us to become "cultural detectives" using semiotics to decipher the cultural codes of global beer branding. Rachel’s passion for semiotics energised the room as she weaved valuable insight into each group’s analysis. To minimise subjectivity, she encouraged us to search for visual evidence in different sectors to support our analysis; and to always ask the question “Where have I seen this before?” This activity clearly demonstrated how brands are ultimately embedded in the wider culture they operate in.

The session helped me to seriously reflect on the "taken for granted" nature of branding. I’m now more aware that everything in the shopping aisle or on a billboard communicates a cultural message. Because such messages come from a rapidly changing world, how can we as researchers ensure that the meanings of our client’s brands stay relevant? Applying semiotics can offer a viable tool to achieve this goal.

Kudos to AQR for offering a forward-thinking and highly recommended session.