Semiotics value to global marketing

Topic: Facts and Opinion, Other, Semiotics   |   29 May 2024

Semiotics value to global marketing

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. It is highly recommended you read the second piece as a primer to this third article, where we examine how semiotics can help with global marketing. 

Two routes to global marketing

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 jollibee leeds live review

Semiotics and global marketing: Glocalisation 

Roland Robertson coined the term glocalisation in 1983 to explain the process by which products and services were customised to fit local preferences. Some product categories do get away with selling a core product or service globally. Examples of this include consumer electronics (Apple and Samsung), fashion (luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci), online streaming (Netflix, Amazon), social media (Facebook , Instagram). On the other hand, many other food and beverages (McDonald’s), personal care products (Unilever), toys (Lego in Japan), financial services (Citibank communication in China) have to make sure that the product and communication are made to local preferences. 

Global marketing: Mind the gap 

kia ora mate coca cola

Despite established marketing management knowledge and practice of ensuring cultural fit of brands, mistakes continue to be made. Examples include Pepsi ‘Live for Now’ (USA, 2017), Coke “Kia Ora, Mate’ (New Zealand, 2018), and Umbro ‘Zyklon’ (UK, 2002).  

Brand and insights managers need to be aware of the deep symbolic meanings of their product categories. Money, food, clothing are some example categories. In fact, Harvard Business Review’s case study of KFC’s expansion into China provides a window into the importance of cultural fit of the food category: 

 “food is at the very heart of society, inextricable from national and regional cultures, and that an abundance of flavours and an inviting ambience would be necessary to win over consumers in great numbers” (source:

kfc restaurant china

Semiotics can add value when customising a brand for markets with unique beliefs, rituals, and material aspects related to them. Thus, semiotics is useful in “glocalising” product and communication.

Semiotics in action for global marketing 

Semiotics can help in glocalising a brand by understanding local cultural sensitivities and opportunities so that a brand can successfully localise its products and communication. However, there may be some instances where the core brand values are important and the brand may have to challenge local culture. Here are two case studies of both. The first examines how McDonald’s successfully localised its product and communication in India and the second examines Nike’s campaign in the Middle East that appeared to challenge not only local cultural norms about women in sport but its global campaign challenged stereotypes of Muslim women by representing them as active agents. 

The McAloo Tikki Burger

mcdonalds mcaloo tikki burger

Background and challenge: India not only has a rich and diverse food culture, it also has a long tradition of “fast food”. McDonald’s brand is built on the western dietary norms, that sanctions eating of beef and pork. In a country with a large and observant Hindu and Muslim population, this would require abandoning your flagship products. Lastly, India has a tradition of eating vegetarian food. Compare this with fast food consumer behaviours in the west. A consumer who eats beef or pork burgers will typically not switch to fish or even chicken. India’s rich vegetarian food culture and cultural rituals that demand eating vegetarian food on particular days of the week means adding vegetarian products to the portfolio. 

Response: McDonald’s glocalised its brand with the McAloo Tikki burger, a potato based patty (in the same category of hashbrown), which makes use of localised sauces (Tandoori Sauce) and use of heat (Jalapenos).  

Communication Response: McDonalds brand communication taps into the cultural codes of not only how food is interacted with but also how food is part of family bonding. For example, while in the west food is tasted with a spoon, in India, it is common practice to pour a drop of it on the palm of your hand and licking it. Similarly food is central to all dynamics of the family and its various forms such as intergenerational, or extended families (cousins).




Nike: Leveraging “Shame” in the ME

Background and challenge: Nike’s mission is to Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. For Nike, “if you have a body you are an athlete”. This positioning flattens the market and allows the brand to target all consumers. However, this poses both a challenge and an opportunity in a particular segment – Muslim women. In the west, the stereotype of the Muslim woman is one who lacks any agency. On the other hand, in some parts of the world, for example in the Middle East, women and their bodies have historically been subject to conservative norms and social policing. As a consequence, women in the region may not see themselves as athletes.  

Communication Response: Nike responded to this opportunity with a campaign in the Middle East “إيش حيقولوا عنك؟”, which translates to “What will they say about you?”. This expression of social policing is not unique to the Middle East.

audrey hepburn movie posterIn the Victorian era, expressions such as “proper” or “ladylike” behaviour were used to police women. Women of that era were controlled by others. If you were a woman, you could even get manuals to help you learn to self-police. 

muslim female running nike commercial

Localised vs globalised culture 

Cultures are not fixed and bounded. Ever since the dawn of the mass age, which began with industrialisation, ideas have been spreading from one nation to the rest. This has been facilitated by mas transportation, mass media and mass production of goods and services. This process began accelerating with global television. 


Our World, was the first globally broadcast TV show that broadcast the live performance of The Beatles’ ‘All you need is love’. The two-hour programme was watched by over 400 million viewers in 25 countries. The impact of globalisation includes:

Cultural homogenisation vs hybridisation

friends poster tv series sitcomWhile the advent of global television created a moral panic about cultural homogenisation and hegemony, the final outcome has been more hybrid as this article noted in the McDonald’s and KFC globalisation examples. 

Appropriation and reexport

bts band imageThe global success of BTS is a good example of the appropriation and fusion different musical, dance and fashion styles that were exported to South Korea. They in turn are exporting it back to a wide international audience. 

Bringing it all together

Cultures are not rigid and unchanging. They are constantly evolving. However, there are some resilient codes that are unique to each country or region. Examples of this include the American Dream, Japanese perfection and insistence on harmony, British obsession with representation, Chinese Confucian values. These codes operate under the surface, like the proverbial iceberg. Consumers use and interact with brand signs in these contexts. In an age of instantaneous and global peer-to-peer communication, brands are not only able to talk to consumers one-to-one, but consumers can talk back.

Social media listening and AI

The breakneck advancements in AI and large language models will make it easier for brands to understand consumers. It is imperative that the understanding is not only at functional and emotional level but also at the deeper meanings, the stuff under the iceberg.

A note of caution on big social media data

One of the truths about human behaviour is the power of mimesis. According to the mimetic theory of desire, proposed by Rene Girard, we want what others want. Thus, there is a tendency for people to say and behave in a similar manner. Social media has accelerated this homogenisation. We know that social media actively manipulates human behaviour with notifications, scrolling incentives, suggested friends. We also know that many of the social media behaviours of celebrities, influencers, and even brands herd people into cultural ghettos. There is a risk that brands overly rely on a self-fulfilling technological machine and assume this is authentic culture. Some of the behaviours might indeed be authentic, but a big portion of behaviours exhibited on social media are copied behaviours and narcissistic self-expressions.

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. 



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