One of the reasons Warc set up its Advertising Research conference – which takes place in London on September 25th – was to offer marketers the latest thinking on the research techniques they might have overlooked when developing previous campaigns. One such discipline is semiotics: the study of the cultural resonance of signs and symbols. That's the subject of a joint Ad Research presentation by Dr Alex Gordon, CEO of research agency Sign Salad and Debi Bester, co-founder of The Reinvention Works. And I met with both of them last week to find out what they're planning to tell delegates on the day.

Semiotics has a reputation for being a somewhat esoteric branch of research. After all, it has its roots in the kind of landmark academic texts likely to cause all but the most battle-hardened grad student to break out in a cold sweat – think Roland Barthes' Mythologies and Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. (Warc subscribers can read a somewhat simpler semiotics primer in this recent Admap piece.) But to Gordon, brand owners should disregard the perceived difficulty of semiotics; in fact, he argues, the benefits the discipline offers marketers could hardly be more obvious.

Dr Alex Gordon on the USP of semiotics (2:05)

Put simply, it's all about the cultural context. To Gordon, examining culture uncovers consumers' unconscious motivations in a way that other research disciplines simply cannot. And the benefits? "If you can understand a consumer's cultural conditions, then you can set strategies to ensure that your brand is communicating a distinctive, culturally relevant message," Gordon added.

That's the theory, anyway – but what about using semiotics in practice? In their presentation, Gordon and Bester will discuss how semiotics-based insights were used in work for the UK TV Licensing – a state-funded organisation which levies a compulsory annual charge on all British households that watch TV broadcasts. The client conducted a research project looking for ways to transform the license from a "grudge" payment into something that people would see as necessary, or even desirable, to pay. After all, the licence helps to fund TV innovations and broadcast content: things even the most sceptical fee-payer enjoys.

Bester synthesised the results from a wide variety of market research projects from behavioural specialists ranging from cognitive psychologists to neuroscientists – Dr Gordon represented the semioticians – in order to make revisions to the TV Licence renewal letters sent out to UK households each year. They were tasked not only with looking at things about the old-style letters that tapped into unconscious negative responses, but with suggesting ways of "reconstructing" the letters according to the TV Licence company's brand guidelines. In other words, "we told them to be creative," Bester said.

Recommendations included the introduction of a more reassuring, less confrontational colour scheme – as you can tell from the client's website, lime green was a winner – word clouds, large, Apple-style icons and tweaked text. Bester said the semiotics-based insights were crucial in this process, and, going further, suggested that she saw the discipline as having applications across the marketing industry. It can, she said, be used not just by market researchers, but by anyone from brand managers on the client side to agency planners and creatives.

Debi Bester on how the industry should use semiotics (1:02)

Post-campaign, the client saw an uplift in brand metrics, suggesting that people were feeling more positively towards the licensing letters. But without being prompted, many Britons – myself included – didn't consciously notice any difference when their letters arrived. That's the thing about achieving cultural relevance: if done right, it's undetectable.

"At the end of the day, when you look at the solution, it seems like just common sense – intuitive and appropriate to your behaviour," Bester said. "But the difficulty is that we're not aware of our behaviours."

On the day, Gordon and Bester will be joined by a variety of presenters from both the client and agency sides, ranging from GFK to Vodafone, talking everything from facial recognition to attribution modelling. You can read the full Advertising Research 2012 agenda here, or check out the booking information.