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Eye exam

What is semiotics and how can it help us decode customer emotion?

26th Jun 2019
Editor MyCustomer
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Are CX professionals missing vital signals when trying to understand more about their customers' emotions?

Semiotics has been brought to life in recent years through its use in brand marketing – most commonly in areas such as cultural interpretation in logo design, and colour choice in product packaging.

The central thesis is that all design decisions have semiotic consequences, and that consumers use design cues to decide what brands represent. Semiotics helped ascertain that your Weetabix packaging should be yellow, to provide a feeling of 'morning'. 

On the flip side, the much-maligned 2012 Olympic logo highlighted when semiotics was ignored; with its jagged, vibrantly-coloured shapes that were meant to represent Britain forging a new path, but left many members of the public asking what the cultural relevancy was.   

London 2012

The roots of semiotics can be tracked back to the 1600s, yet it is the 20th century Swiss psychologist Ferdinand de Saussure who is often regarded as its pioneer.

Whilst many had argued that semiotics was the observation and interpretation of physical signs, Saussure regarded syntax to be at the heart of its evolution as a science.

“The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge.”

Emotion and customer experience 

Psychologist Dr. Rachel Lawes has been at the heart of applying some of the theory associated with semiotics and linguistics to her research into consumers and their emotional signals online.

Whilst the study of customer emotion is becoming increasingly scientific, Lawes believes semiotics helps brands ask fundamental questions about emotion that aren’t being asked in other forms of their analysis.

“You can rely on semiotics to offer an original point of view on most subjects, and when I look at customer experience research and theory, it’s often built on a foundation of conventional psychological assumptions.

“For instance, you’ll rarely hear people question the traditional view that emotions are something that’s embedded within you as an individual person, or that they’re part of some kind of neurological response mechanism that people just have interwoven into their DNA.

“But actually, what we find with semiotics is that emotions are a signal, or rather, a performance. Too often we look at the emotion and not ask questions about the performance itself.”

Lawes highlights market research as an example of businesses trying to read into what emotions mean, rather than what the signal represents. She argues that all market research leads to respondents ‘performing’ through virtue of certain questions they’ll ask about the study they’re involved in – whether its by asking who you are, what it is you want or why you’re asking the questions you are.

“You’re immediately presenting market researchers with a problem, and in most instances the researcher understands this and tries to get past it and say we know the respondent are performing etc., and that if we can look past it we can get to something meaningful in their answer on the other side, which is usually all this internal, emotional, somewhat messy stuff.

You’ll rarely hear people question the traditional view that emotions are something that’s embedded within you as an individual person

“But in semiotics it offers something different, because it says, firstly, that stuff on the other side may not exist, and secondly, rather than trying to get past the ‘performance’ and this display in behaviour that we deem irrelevant, let’s look at it; let’s pay attention to that as it’s behaviour in its own right.”

Social media emotion

Social media is a good place to start. Many of us can identify clichés that run through certain social networks – confirmation of happiness or love in a relationship written via a status update on Facebook; tales of sadness woven into a post about parenting on Mumsnet; disgust displayed on Twitter in reaction to an event or Tweet someone might not agree with.

Yet in each of these cases, the emotional words are behavioural displays that often have specific requirements coded into them.    

“When I started to look at emotion, specifically, I found that people were often using words such as disgust, happy, sad, devastated, in love, etc., and what I learned was that behaviour was systematic and orderly; it wasn’t random,” adds Dr. Lawes.  

“When someone expresses sadness, for instance, that’s entirely available for being managed up and down in intensity, and for negotiation. If someone says they’re disgusted, it’s almost the exact opposite –they’re almost always saying that they’re not open to compromise, they don’t want to be talked down.

When I started to look at emotion, specifically, behaviour was systematic and orderly; it wasn’t random

"When people announce they’re happy, what they’re often trying to project is a display of normality – there’s a very close connection between happiness and normality. Happiness is often performed as part of a publically approved display of normality."

Decoding emotion for CX

How does this translate to customer experience? Lawes states that it highlights that people are often looking for the opportunity to perform. Encouraging this has been Facebook’s modus operandi. Often each online platform simply provides a different kind of stage for performance.    

“For brands, what my research into semiotics tells me is that you should perhaps stop worrying about making people happy all the time and stop trying to ‘diagnose’ customers – something brands have historically been terrible at in any case – and start giving people opportunities the chance to do these kinds of performance display, because clearly they want to do it.”

What does that look like in terms of an action? Lawes highlights her work with a hotel chain, and their understanding of Instagram and for modern holidays to have ‘Instagram-able’ moments embedded within them. The hotel identified locations around each of its resorts that were distinct photo opportunities and then dressed the locations to make them more photogenic, or theatrical, in order to increase their customers chances of Instagramming themselves in the predetermined destinations.

Lawes adds: “What we’re talking about here is something similar from a language point of view – if you give consumers the opportunity to react, to take sides, to pledge allegiance to something, invite their friends to celebrate with them – any opportunity to perform emotions, both positive and negative, then you’ve got a route to customer engagement and an opportunity to encourage consumers to promote your brand for you.

“What are people trying to achieve when they’re displaying emotion? It’s not an imaginary, internal state, it’s to accomplish something. It’s to manage relationships, make displays, present themselves in a certain way. It’s an immediate interactive goal.” 

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