Semiotic analysis can be used to develop effective packaging, to segment the market, or to identify potential areas for new product development. This article describes how semiotic analysis was used to conduct market research on bottled water brands in China.
China is now the third largest consumer market for bottled water in the world1. With thousands of companies, big and small, producing bottled water and numerous brands displayed on the shelves, which bottle to choose is a bewildering task for many consumers.
You may have found yourself in this situation in China- in your quest for a simple bottle of water you are bombarded with numerous options. Yet, you still choose one brand eventually and may even keep buying it without knowing what makes you purchase this bottle of water over the others. In this case, you are living proof that semiotic analysis can be used to develop effective packaging, to segment the market, or to identify potential areas for new product development.
Michael Levine, author of A Branded World, stated: “In branding, as in magic, the effect is lost if the effort is visible” (Levine, 2003, p. 5). Therefore, branding is, in some ways, entirely semiotic, and conveying the intended message using signs and symbols is crucial for effective branding.
Introduction to Semiotics
So what is semiotics? Simply put, semiotics is a science that analyzes signs and symbols, including their appearance, their meaning, and the impact their message has on people. Signs and symbols are the things which you can see. They can be thought of as codes with a meaning or message behind them. Therefore, semiotics can be used to analyze anything from the font and images on a brand’s logo to the style of car driven by an actor in a mobile phone advertisement.
Interestingly, there are signs or symbols whose meaning we know without knowing that we know. This is why focus group participants can often tell you that they love or hate a certain ad, but they cannot tell you why (See our previous article on Advertising Decoded). It is also the reason why you will not confuse the men’s room and ladies’ washroom—you know the color blue or the trouser- wearing figurine on the door plate stands for men’s room, just as the high-healed shoe, the color pink, or the skirt-wearing silhouette represents the ladies’ room.
Like many other things, signs and symbols convey different messages in different cultures. For example, White Elephant is a successful Chinese battery brand because the white elephant gives the impression of steady and solid in China. On the other hand, a white elephant means a burdensome possession in English, and naming a battery brand White Elephant might be seen as blasphemy in some elephant-worshiping cultures. As you can see, signs and symbols are culturally relative, and this must be taken into account when considering packaging design and branding in various cultural contexts.
Semiotic Analysis of Bottled Water in China
In order to conduct research on bottled water brands in China, Labbrand analyzed bottles and labels of 18 brands currently on the bottled water market using semiotic methods.
Since there is not much manufacturers can do to influence the taste, an effective package design is essential for bottled water. Mountains, lakes, human-like figures, splashes of colour, as well as shapes and lines, can all be considered signs and symbols on water bottle packaging. When initially looking at this variety of signs, colours, and shapes, the impression given is that beyond the common bottle transparency there is no underlying organization or logic in this market.
Using semiotics, however, the packages can be organized according to their signs into two main poles. On one side is the pole of nature which claims that the water is from a natural source, and on the other side is the pole of industry which stresses that water has to be controlled and transformed to be untainted and healthy.
The pole of nature contains two visions of water: wild water and preserved water. The category of “wild water” includes products like Pepsi-owned Enchant’s purified water, whose blue package has coloured splashes on its package to showcase wild water in movement as a manifestation of life and freedom. The message it conveys through its sign is strength, vitality, and human’s fusion with nature.
The category of preserved water is well represented by Aquarius’ natural mineral water with its mountain and static lines. It represents a nature to contemplate, a source of peace and quietness, a preserved nature, untouched. In the pole of industry, the two visions of water are controlled water and tamed water.
In the” controlled water” category, shapes and lines are geometric and clean. Wahaha and Masterkong’s mineral waters, the first and second best-selling bottled water brands in China2, have simple blue or red colored geometric figures and lines on their packages. Their industrial-feeling design suggests that their controlled waters are totally safe and clean.
The tamed water category suggests water is adapted for consumer benefit. Nestlé’s Pure Life, for instance, uses more dynamic shapes and human figures to demonstrate its tamed water’s message of happiness, liveliness, and cooperation. It is worth mentioning that together Wahaha and Masterkong’s bottled water products account for almost 40 per cent of the bottled water market share in China3. This demonstrates that Chinese consumers are more concerned with the water’s safety than other attributes. This differs from western consumers, who are looking for a product that will enhance their experience. This could be why France-based Evian is the most popular bottled water brand in the world4, and Pepsi-owned Aquafina is the best-selling bottled water brand in United States5 —both have mountains on their packages, signifying the pursuit of something greater.
Identifying Opportunities for Product Innovation
At first glance, it looks like actors exist in all possible dimensions in the bottled water market. You might think that there is no space remaining for product innovation. Yet, we can find an empty territory surrounding the concepts of what we call “absolute water” and “harmony water”.
Absolute water is in a league of its own, and uses neither nature-themed nor industry-themed signs. Currently, there are only two players that convey the concept of absolute water in China – Uni-President’s Alkaqua mineral water and the distilled water made by Watson’s. The designs of the bottles are revolutionary and futuristic. Their beyond-nature and beyond-human appearance suggest that their water is extremely pure and transcendent.
Moreover, the big players in the bottled water market have yet to invent a way to combine the nature-theme and the industry-theme together to introduce the harmony between humans, nature and industry to the market.
Based on this, the next steps could include product development around the two concepts: “harmony water” and “absolute water”.
As you can see, bottled water companies still have room to innovate and attract more consumers to purchase this essential element of life. Semiotics, the study of signs and their meanings, can be used to gather insights for product development, market segmentation, packaging design, and more. It is an effective methodology for conducting market research which provides valuable information to formulate brand strategy and guide the creative dimensions of your brand.
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1. IBISWorld Press Release, May 2008. “H2O = Big Business in a Bottle”