Can you see the signs? Semiotics and market research

Alicia Welbourne, research manager at Mustard, explains how semiotics can work effectively in consumer market research around brand, product, packaging and advertising.

You may have heard before that semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, but it can be difficult to put that into context as a ‘sign’ is a very broad concept. Think about the last time you drove your car, I bet when you approached a set of traffic lights turning to red, you knew automatically how to react and probably did so without even consciously thinking about it. This is because it has long been engrained into our culture that red means danger, and to stop, and be cautious. We learn this as children, long before we are even capable of driving and so our reaction is driven by our unconscious cultural knowledge, so much so that we now even use traffic light systems on food packaging. This is how semiotics works, it’s a way of seeing and understanding the world and the culture in which we live and how these things have an impact on us subconsciously.

Semiotics plays a vital role in our understanding of human behaviour and can be used in consumer research to give a brand an additional depth of reasoning as to why packaging, marketing and advertising campaigns can be huge successes or, conversely, absolute flops! We’ve long known that culture plays a huge part in consumer thinking – take colours for example, red in the West means danger but in the East can mean prosperity, so how the colour red is used in each of these markets can have a major impact on the success of a product or advertising campaign. Semiotics takes apart every element of a subject and studies it from each of its components – colours, imagery, text, font, language etc. Each of these components will influence a consumer’s reaction to a product or campaign before they’ve even knowingly acknowledged it.

Let’s look at this in action with the brand Innocent Drinks…

Some people are probably unaware the Innocent brand is owned by the Coca-Cola company, who bought Fresh Trading Ltd in 2013. Innocent Smoothies is nutritionally one of Coca-Cola’s most calorific products. Let’s compare Innocent Smoothies to Classic Full Fat Coca-Cola and as an additional reference to Oasis Zero, another Coca-Cola owned drink …

At this point, I can assume you’re thinking “that’s great but what’s the calorie content of a smoothie got to do with semiotics?” …. Well read on…

I think it’s fair to say that Innocent smoothies are not strictly speaking a ‘healthy’ drink, yet we know that in 2018, an estimated 6.1 million people in the UK purchased Innocent, making it the most popular ready-to-drink fruit & vegetable juice brand. We also know that Innocent Smoothies are widely considered by consumers to be a “healthy choice” and are often included in meal deals as a healthy alternative to fizzy drinks.

So, the question is HOW? How has the brand managed to convince consumers that they sell a healthy product despite evidence showing its high calorie and sugar levels? The answer to this can be found through semiotics. Innocent’s intelligent use of colours, imagery and language in marketing campaigns has allowed the brand to orchestrate how consumers view and think about their products.


Firstly, we’ll look at the language the brand uses, starting with the actual brand name “Innocent”. The name itself has connotations of guilt-free, purity, wholesome and righteousness. Without even consciously considering it, these are the things consumers subconsciously attach to the brand when they read the name. Add to this some of the advertising campaigns which the brand has used over the years:

“nothing but nothing but fruit”

“the fruit, the whole fruit and nothing but the fruit”

“juicy by nature”

Again, the language in these straplines ties in with the concept of wholesomeness, purity and a natural product. Consumers who are looking for healthy options are therefore drawn to this language and perceive the product positively. Add to this, a push in advertising towards listing the vitamins and natural ingredients and reducing mentions of calorie content or sugars. Graeme Farrington, UK Commercial Director at Innocent Drinks even stated “We know shoppers are looking for natural products that add benefits like vitamins, so we’ve added extra vitamins into our smoothies as well as great colour on shelf, new packaging and a new brand campaign.”


Innocent packages its smoothies using clear containers so that consumers can see the bright bold colours of the juice highlighting the main ingredient of each flavour. Consumers recognise strawberries as red and so it suits the healthy narrative that a smoothie made primarily of this ingredient would also be a bold red colour. Further to this, Innocent labels are clear or white (depending on the SKU) again implying purity and having “nothing to hide”.


The brand logo, the “face with the halo”, is the most obvious correlation to the brand’s message as it symbolises purity and goodness. The childlike doodle also aligns with this as children are themselves symbols of innocence and purity. All of these messages help to build an impression of a wholesome, healthy product and a brand which parents can trust to give to their children.

Innocent’s  advertising campaigns often feature products placed outdoors in “unnaturally natural” surroundings, with green grass, trees and crops. Consumer tests have shown that green labels and packaging increase perceived healthfulness, especially among consumers who place high importance on healthy eating. All of these elements resonate with consumers and further their perceptions that these products are natural, wholesome and, therefore, healthy.

Now this is a rather crude semiotic review of the Innocent Drinks brand, and there is a lot more to the brand’s products and marketing campaigns than what has been suggested within this blog post, but it hopefully demonstrates how semiotics works and its role within consumer research.

A final note, over the last 12-18 months fruit juice drinks have come under a lot of scrutiny by the press and health professionals alike for their high sugar levels, and growth in the category as a whole has slowed somewhat. Yet, whilst Tropicana and Naked have both seen dips in growth, Innocent has conversely seen an increase of 6.6% [Nielsen 52 w/e 25 January 2020]. That really does leave us with the question – just how important is the sub-conscious messaging of the packaging and advertising in these figures?

If you’re interested in adding semiotic analysis to your consumer insights or to test packaging or marketing campaigns then please get in tough for further information or advice on how we can help.