Power of semiotics in action

Topic: Facts and Opinion, Other, Semiotics   |   30 May 2024

Power of semiotics in action

In the first part of the series, we looked at how semiotics fits into market research and adds value to a project brief. In the second part we explored the nuts and bolts of semiotics and its relevance to marketing. In the third article we examined how brands marketed globally can benefit from semiotics. In the final article in the series we use a case study to bring to life applied semiotics. 

This article covers a case study of over the counter (OTC) cold and flu remedy category in the UK and how they use signs and symbols to communicate both functional benefits as well as creating differentiation in a visually busy retail environment. Popular brands in this space in the UK are Lemsip, Sudafed, Beechams, store own brands, and Haleon.  

cold drug packages uk

Here’s a topline gist of what the signs and symbols in the packaging are coding the brands as: 


Language Signs 

Colour Signs 

Design Element Signs 

Semiotic Codes 


"Max strength all in one capsules" 




Rays of white-hot orange being targeted by an angular block of deep blue. The brand name Beechams is racing towards the orange rays in the form resembling a bullet, image of two capsules, typography with sharp edges 

  • Speed 
  • Efficacy 
  • Authority 
  • Power 
  • Advanced 
  • Precision 

Boots Pharmaceuticals 

"Max strength sinus pressure & pain relief capsules" 





Image of calm face with arrows running through the sinuses, checklist, bold and narrow Typography  

  • Efficacy 
  • Potency 
  • Soothing 
  • Medical expertise 

Haleon Cold and Flu Nurse 

"All in One", “Cold and Flu Nurse” 






Green medical cross, checklist, image of two capsules 

  • Comprehensive  
  • Medical expertise
  • Maternal care 


"Congestion & headache relief max strength capsules" 



Image of face with highlighted sinuses expressing relief and calm, radiating aura around the face, single capsule 

  • Efficacy 
  • Specialist 
  • Soothing 
  • Medical expertise


"Max Cold & Flu capsules" 




Red block colour being cut into by an angular  green block with a metallic coloured sharp edge 

  • Efficacy 
  • Specialist 
  • Soothing 
  • Precision 

In the OTC cold and flu category, different signs are used to communicate product efficacy and brand values. For example, Beechams and Lemsip both use angular shapes, which convey medical precision, efficacy, power, and speed of effect. They both use the colour red, which codes not only the infection but also the insides of the body. The colour red is contrasted by a second colour, which communicates both the remedy as well as brand values. For example, Beechams uses blue, a colour associated with authority while Lemsip makes use of green, a colour associated with care and vitality. Sudafed takes an entirely different approach. For its packaging it uses white, a colour associated with medicine, science, and purity. Sudafed makes subtle use of overlayed colour on a nearly white model to indicate infection and relief. For example, red is used as a colour for sinus infections and orange is used for congestion and headache. We notice that store own brands borrow signs from market leaders. For example, Boots’ own brand remedy borrows from Sudafed conveying to the consumer that its product is similar in terms of expertise and efficacy. This kind of semiotic analysis is useful for brands in the following ways: 

  • Understand what is going on in the category
  • Identify areas for packaging optimisation
  • Create new packaging innovation ideas

Myths and Ideologies

Everyday usage of the term myth might indicate something that is not real. Similarly, the term ideology is understood within the narrow definition of political values. Myths are oft-repeated stories about people or phenomenon, whether real or imagined while ideologies are normative values and belief systems. For example, King Arthur’s myth is about a heroic leader who embodies the ideologies of chivalry and honour, justice and fairness, sacrifice, national identity amongst others. King Arthur conveys Christian English values. Similarly, Coca Cola conveys the myths of American Culture, happiness and unity and the ideologies of consumerism (that consumption gives us happiness), democratisation (they make one product for all consumers), and globalisation.

Marketers typically take a brand globally or localise a global brand. The second part in this series of articles on semiotics in market research talked about culture as being the hidden part of the iceberg. Brands are often developed within the culture of their country of origin.

The analysis of the OTC cold and flu medicine category reveals the following myths and ideologies:

blade doctor potion

  • The myth of science and technology: The category taps into science being able to solve problems. The packaging makes use of signs associated with precision medicine (e.g., angular shapes of surgical knives). 
  • The myth of the quick fix: Language such as “All in one”, “Max strength”, “Max”, “ultra” tap into the enduring human story of seeking miracle potions and remedies. 
  • Ideology of authority: All brands tap into the belief system of the authority of scientific expertise and clinical efficacy through the use of medical language , colours (white), icons (cross), imagery (human anatomy) 

Bringing it all together

Marketing activities range from brand and product planning, product launch, marketing optimisation and brand management on an ongoing basis. From crafting the brand and product to its launch and optimisation, semiotics can be used in both strategic and tactical ways.  

  • It useful when a product, communication or category needs to be analysed to understand their underlying meanings the brand may be communicating. This is helpful for marketing optimisation.  
  • It can be used as a complementary diagnostic tool to provide context for consumer behaviour and responses. This can be done via desk-based research or an ethnographic study of the context. For example, when consumers say a brand or category is not “fresh”, semiotics can study how consumers are being influenced by ideas about freshness in the wider cultural landscape and specific category or analogous/adjacent categories. 
  • Semiotics can also be used as inspiration for brand strategy or creative thinking. Here semiotics can uncover relevant codes, myths and ideologies in emergent cultural trends and identify signs that best communicate these meanings. 



Strategic Use 

Tactical Use 


Brand planning 

Development of brand vision and strategy 

  • Identify the Recessive, Dominant and Emergent (RDE) cultural trends that impact the category. E.g., personalisation and self-expression within garments category;  
  • Analyse category response to trends, identify positioning and innovation  opportunities lie. E.g., niche product lines, co-creation experiences. 

Assist brand strategy develop culturally informed brand platforms and concepts by outlining the cultural codes, myths and ideologies relevant to the category. 

  • Semiotic reports on cultural RDE trends, their codes myths and ideologies, and how the trends impact category. How are the trends expressed within culture. 
  • Brand platforms or Brand concepts that serve as launch pads for marketing and creative thinking. These contain clearly illustrated cultural trends, marketing opportunity and signs and symbols. 

Product Planning 

Development of product or service features and their design elements. 

  • Audit brand and competitive product or service signs and symbols for how they communicate intended and differentiated cultural codes for brand. E.g., what are the important cultural codes of a product category and how are they mapped in a cultural axis  

Develop semiotically inspired creative concepts or final product via identification of signs and symbols relevant to marketing and creative development. 

Semiotically inspired creative concept toolkits which consist of:

  • Emergent cultural codes relevant to creative concepts. 
  • Signs and symbols relevant to the concepts 

Product Launch 

Development of communication and Messaging 

  • Develop campaigns that are aligned with the cultural codes and myths underpinning the brand platform or product concept. 

Identify relevant signs and symbols to assist marketing and creative teams in their campaign development. 

Semiotically inspired creative concept toolkits which consist of  

  • Emergent cultural codes relevant to creative concepts. 
  • Signs and symbols relevant to the concepts 

Marketing Optimisation 

Product, service or  communication  performance monitoring and feedback 

  • Analyse and decode consumer response using a semiotic lens. E.g., what are the signs that are communicating to consumers a crafted product is artificial? 
  • Help product improvement or refreshment. E.g, discover that clean lines in packaging is communicating corporate rather than minimalist. 

Refine messaging or product based on semiotic analysis of product. Depending on the context, it may require analysis of the competitive and analogous categories. 

Detailed diagnostic semiotic report analysing product or communication; the signs responsible for meaning making;  suggestions for modification of existing signs or usage of new signs. 

Brand Management 

Brand refreshment and evolution 

  • Analyse whether an emergent trend is a threat to the brand. 
  • Monitor emergent cultural trends and how they impact brand. E.g., how an emergent culture of mending, repairing and upcycling would impact a home goods retailer. 
  • Keep brand messaging culturally relevant and authentic. E.g., how trends in mental health can be adapted by a gym chain. 
  • Identify new products or variants of existing ones based on cultural trends. E.g., how the personalised skin care trend provides an opportunity to launch new products or services. 

Adapt brand offerings and communication to stay aligned with emergent cultural codes while being true to brand core values.  

  • Semiotic reports on cultural RDE trends. 
  • Semiotically inspired creative concepts to refresh and evolve the brand offerings and communication. This is in the form of creative toolkits. 

Get in touch

Kishore is a trained semiotician with over 20 years of experience in cultural research across a range of categories including retail, FMCG, technology, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, automobiles, consumer electronics and government services. 

Bryter are experts in retail research across a range of product categories. Get in touch to find out how we use semiotics plus a range of other approaches to support clients with their retail strategy and execution. 

Web: www.bryer-global.com 

Email: kishore.budha@bryter-global.com 

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