Reading the B2B signs with semiotics

Red traffic sign in front of a green corrugated metal wall • ‘Reading the B2B signs with semiotics’ Earnest Agency Blog

Reading the B2B signs with semiotics

Did you know that gifting a clock or a watch in China is considered bad luck? Or that the ‘devil horns’ hand gesture you see at US rock concerts is used in Argentina & Italy to mock a man whose partner has cheated on him?

“In this era of increased cultural sensitivity, when a brand faux-pas can cost dearly, semiotics remains an underused research technique in B2B.”

That’s where semiotics comes in. Semiotics, as you are probably aware, is the study of signs and how they’re interpreted. Signs can be anything: words, pictures, the train you take to commute, the tattoo you have or the food you eat. 

All these things have a literal meaning (a burger is a burger) as well as a connotational meaning (a burger represents fast food, which might connote laziness, obesity and, sometimes, capitalism itself) and a semiotician is interested in how signs come to mean lots of different things, whether or not they’re intended. 

So if you’re marketing your UK fast-food chain in China, and your ad shows an employee giving the customer a clock to show how quickly the burger is made, a semiotician can save your campaign by letting you know that clocks in China can connote funerals and death.

Semiotics in marketing is not a new concept. In B2C marketing, semiotic agencies often help FMCG brands design their packaging, making sure it expresses exactly what their brand stands for.

B2B products are not always physical, but that doesn’t mean those products aren’t packaged – the website, the office façade, the salesperson’s tie – B2B brands are made up of signs which can either help build the brand, or chip away at it.

This extends to their comms, too. Take American B2B manufacturer WeatherTech, for example. They used a 30-second spot at the 201 Super Bowl to reveal their new ad ‘American Factory’. 

WeatherTech Super Bowl® Commercial: American Factory

The commercial starts with construction work on a wall, followed by a shot of the American flag. Ten years ago, this may well have done the job it was supposed to do – communicate American grit and ingenuity. But in light of the past few years, the equation in people’s minds has changed: American flag + wall = Trump’s wall – and many viewers interpreted it that way. 

Semiotic research would have told WeatherTech that walls are now practically synonymous with border defences in the US, and that an ad featuring a wall now runs the risk of appearing to be a comment on immigration policy.

In this era of increased cultural sensitivity, when a brand faux-pas can cost dearly, semiotics remains an underused research technique in B2B. Here, then, are three simple benefits of thinking semiotically:

1. Avoid slip-ups

Campaigns are often created under a lot of time-pressure, but by taking a closer look at the symbols a piece of marketing contains, you can make sure you’re not sending the wrong signals.

2. Brand consistency

Make sure there are no weak links in the branding chain and everything from your product microsite to your salesperson’s uniform is communicating the same feeling to your customers.

3. Global campaigns

However well your brand’s visual and verbal identity works in your home country, it may have a totally different reception abroad. Semiotics can help you to figure out how to adapt your brand for different cultures.


Semiotics may seem complicated, but it’s really just about making sure you understand where your customers are coming from, and that you’re always saying exactly what you mean – two things which sound simple but can be easy to overlook in the creation of effective B2B comms.

If you ever want to talk to us about sharpening up the meaning in your B2B comms, please do get in touch.


[Header photo: Adri Tor on Unsplash]


B2B Insights