Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs
Moderation / Chair: Renée Gadsden

A Semiotic Approach to Beer Labels

Merja Bauters (Helsinki)


Summary: Despite the fact that beer labels are cultural artefacts, they have received little if any attention from researchers except from a marketing perspective. A broad semiotic analysis is required to investigate them in their diachronic and synchronic dimensions. In presenting a theoretical basis for such an analysis and a brief sample analysis, this paper prepares the ground for further semiotic studies of labels and artefacts in general.


1. Introduction

Analyses of functional cultural signs place a notable focus on the synchronic appearance of the artefacts in question. The "here and now" of these signs is so predominant that it almost seems as if they were being generated out of a vacuum(1). However, taking a developmental perspective on functional cultural signs in general plays an important role in any analysis of their specific components.

This paper will present a sample application of such a historical point of view to a semiotic analysis of a particular kind of visual sign, namely of beer labels. The theoretical basis for such an analysis is yet to be fully worked out, for it is part of a wider semiotic framework for the analysis of visual signs. The sample analysis will be carried out within the framework of a larger project, which will also implement a broader range of examples. Therefore, the examples used in this paper have been expressively chosen only to illustrate the basic historical aspects mentioned above.

I have chosen a series of labels from the Finnish beer brand Koff for this analysis. These labels illustrate design changes that were made for various reasons, for example owing to changes in the cultural environment or in marketing policy. The theory of visual perception relevant for this paper evolved on the theoretical fundament devised by Rudolf Arnheim and Ernst H. Gombrich. I will explain this discourse in more detail before going into an analysis of the labels. This theoretical basis will form the first part of the model I will introduce in this paper. The second part is based on the works of various semioticians from pragmatist and structuralist traditions. These include Charles S. Peirce for illustration of diachronic processes and Julien A. Greimas, Roland Barthes, and Roman Jakobson for illustration of synchronic structures.(2)


2. A theoretical approach towards the historical analysis of labels

The focus of my research lies on an investigation of change in functional cultural signs. A practical model should be applied to a narrow range of examples first. The restricted set of codes in these examples meet the requirements of a basic analysis. It is imperative at the outset to gather as much empirical data on the history of labels as possible. Individual elements of the labels may change over time, while others may persist. Furthermore, those elements that persist unchanged in appearance may nevertheless take on new meaning content. The introduction of new elements of another category may have a variety of effects: either they obtain meaning in the label context by becoming conventionalized, or they cease to be contextualized and hence lose their intended meaning content. If the elements succeed in being conventionalized, they have the potential to form a new code. There are two ways of investigating these processes. The first is directed towards marketing research. The second is based on an adaptive semiotic method. While analyses of similar signs are usually based on structuralism, I suggest a dynamic, processual model.

In the theory of visual perception, the fundamental dyad that condenses in the opposing viewpoints of Gombrich and Arnheim forms a field of discourse from which we may draw the basis for our theory. In short, this discourse may be paraphrased by the question of whether perception is guided by gestalt-psychological rules, as Arnheim (cf. 1974: 50-51) states, or by learning processes that result in conventions, according to Gombrich (cf. 1981: 16-21). Gombrich states that, due to their natural equivalence, some of these conventions are so easy to acquire that they are hardly seen as such, while others may pose a more difficult problem to the individual. Gombrich finds it difficult to accept the notion of absolute difference between meanings that exist "by nature" and others that are learned. "Rather", he says, "we should speak of a hierarchy of responses, some of which are more easily triggered while we must be conditioned to discover others" (1981: 24). Moreover, Gombrich states that "to perceive is to categorize, or classify" (1981: 21). While Arnheim's theory serves to explain the very basic concepts of perception - though not as fundamentally as gestalt theory would require - Gombrich's approach allows for explanations of the changes at certain levels of hierarchies of perceptions. Thus, the closer the perceiver comes to learning and convention, the more vulnerable the category is to changes.

Beyond perception, understood here as including the concept of categorization, lies signification. Signification is a process that plays out continuously and allows for changes to take place in the realm of concepts. This process is ideally illustrated by Peirce, who calls it semiosis. In this context, interpretation is a dynamic process. Semiosis is hence an "action" of the sign, a process by which the sign has a cognitive effect on its interpreter (CP 5.472, 5.484). This process is triadic in nature. Every sign has three aspects: firstness, secondness, and thirdness.(3) Two of Peirce's trichotomies are especially relevant in my investigation. The first trichotomy refers to the "sign as such" (CP 8.334). The three apices are qualisign (firstness), sinsign (secondness), and legisign (thirdness). A qualisign bears firstness because it is a mere quality, which is a sign (CP 2.244). In beer labels, for example, such a quality might be a newly introduced design feature (see chapter 3). This design feature, however, still requires realization, i.e., it has to be manifested in space and time. Only the perceivable feature may become a sinsign (CP 2.244). Once it has acquired the status of a sinsign, the sign is an event or thing existing in reality (CP 2.245). In the example of labels, this means that the abstract design feature has become realized in a specific design element. It has now reached the level of secondness. The appearance of a sign does not automatically cause recognition in the perceivers, or, in Peircean terms, the interpreters. In order to be recognized "automatically", the sign must attain the status of thirdness: conventionality or law. Law here means that the sign is being interpreted by a community of interpreters on the basis of consensus, frequency of usage has by habit enforced this quality of the sign. It has become a legisign, such as, in a beer label, brand marks or other distinctive elements.

The understanding of the process of development of sign systems requires knowledge of the inherent relations between the signs and their objects. Peirce's trichotomy of icon, index, and symbol defines the various relations. An icon is a sign that relates to its object by means of its own features (CP 2.247). In other words, icons do not require associationin order to be recognized. An example for such iconicity is the photorealistic picture. However, it has to be kept in mind that Peirce distinguishes between the "pure icon" and the iconic sign. The difference is explained easily. The only relation that can be based on pure identity between sign and object exists if they are the same. This is what Peirce calls pure iconicity (CP 2.85). Hence, pure iconicity remains hypothetical for the most part, especially when considering the definition of a sign as something standing for something else (aliquid stat pro aliquo). In Peircean terminology, those iconic signs that refer to objects which they are not are called hypoicons. The latter are the iconic signs realized in time and space. For the sake of practicality, the term icon will be used exclusively in this essay. In beer labels, the design elements that are equivalents of objects, are iconic.

Indexicality is a phenomenon of secondness. A sign and its object are immediately connected by a dyadic relation in indices. Peirce states that the index is connected to its object physically. The interpreting mind, however, has nothing to do with this connection; it will recognize it after it has been established (CP 2.299). The interpreter therefore reacts instead to the genuine index passively (CP 2.306). The design elements on a beer label that establish reference to the context of the beer brand are indices.

The symbolic sign contrasts the icon and the index due to its quality of thirdness, i.e., habit or law (see above: legisign; CP 4.447). A symbol can be chosen for various motives; the habit of its usage may be of either natural or conventional origin, although this difference actually plays no role whatsoever (CP 2.307). Any iconic or indexical sign will inevitably contribute to symbolism in the process of semiosis, because by mere usage of signs of any kind, symbols evolve, or, as Peirce puts it, "symbols grow" (CP 2.302).

It is obvious that icons, indices and symbols form the signs of the code of beer labels. In order to examine this code further in its synchronic dimension, I should like to introduce Barthesian theory. Barthes uses a dyadic model of paradigmatic and syntagmatic structures. These naturally also appear in beer labels. Those signs that form the paradigmatic level by their potential of being exchangeable and those that form the syntagmatic level by their relation to each other comprise the code-building, beer label design category. Within the paradigmatic level, the fact of absence or presence makes it possible to investigate which elements are meaningful to what extent. This method of eliminating or exchanging elements is called the commutative test method.

Barthes goes further by using the commutative test method in order to find the significant smallest components in a text(4) to be analyzed. Barthes used the commutative test in practice when he was researching the possibility to find a system behind fashion. This model is partly based on Hjelmslev's theory for describing the expression and content levels of the sign. Here, the sign is an entity generated by the indissoluble connection between an expression and content: "An expression is expression only by virtue of being an expression of a content, and a content is content only by virtue of being a content of an expression" (Hjelmslev 1943: 48-49). From this, Barthes created the model he uses in Elements of Semiology and in Fashion System; while a somewhat modified version of this model can be found in the Mythologies. While Barthes was the first to transfer the idea of the signified and the signifier to images and to artefacts outside of language (cf. Barthes 1983: 30), one has to keep in mind that the analysis in Fashion System was based on language, i.e., discussions of images of fashion in magazines. Others, such as Kress & van Leeuwen (1996) have tried to formulate a grammar of visual design. Their approach is very useful for practical design, but it clearly shows only how Western culture tends to see or interpret visual elements now. Kress & van Leeuwen do not introduce the concept of chance. Changes in the process of perceiving learned visual codes, however, occur by chance. Therefore, their model might no longer work in 20 years. In other words, the notion of change I introduced via Peircean theory is absent in their work.

The synthesis of the theories mentioned so far into a joint model has been attempted by Altti Kuusamo (1990). He describes how abstract art has created its own language. This language can be perceived only after cognition of a sufficient amount of works of art. Here, the diachronic point of view comes into focus again. The important point that Kuusamo makes is that a new category of art is formed by the interpretation of the works over the course of time, i.e., it is impossible to notice the category or the meaningful fragments in the works when they are just being introduced. Clearly, labels do not have this problem, since they have represented their own category already for nearly 100 years (in Finland). The language (or schemas) that abstract art works create comes into being also through the works themselves; they form a network. Thus, the shape constructions formed the paradigmatic structures. The paradigmatic structures work through the absentees of the other elements known from the history of art and later from the tradition of the abstract art itself. Thus, the style norms start to form a "story", which is actualized by the syntagms. The representative rules appear in the level of the system. When the new style is just becoming and when the old paradigmatic linkage is breaking down, the outside relations of the sign start to operate through oppositions (cf. Kuusamo 1990: 50).

Kuusamo also notes the problem, stated earlier, of the difficulty of grasping the meaningful fragments from which the language (system) is formed, i.e., it is cearly a feature of the semiosis of images that the smallest recognizable elements cannot be defined (cf. Kuusamo 1990: 53). Only in the process of semiosis do the elements become apparent: "When some action becomes generalized, it simultaneously begins to attain conventional traits. Asthe way of doing becomes more conventional, its main elements begin to appear"(5) (1990: 51, transl. by the author).

So far, the focus in this section has been on the structure and development of signs. An important aspect of the synchrony of signs is then also the relation between the values attached to signs and their environment. The values themselves emerge from the connotative level. A.J. Greimas' semiotic square (Greimas/Courtés 1979), which can be put to excellent use for the analysis of values, has been exemplified by Jean-Marie Floch (2001: 145). Floch applies the Greimasian semiotic square in a reduced form. Floch's version of the theory of the structures of discourse is more suitable for the present study, since my purpose is to identify the values that may be enclosed within the concepts and that are tied to the entities or qualities found on the connotative level.

Floch has discussed his practical adaptations of the semiotic square and of the modalities in two books that have recently been translated into English: Semiotics, Marketing and Communication (2001) and Visual Identities (2000). Floch uses marketing research data to formulate the possible significations and abstract concept planes of the elements of artefacts, in other words, the worldview, life style and values people associate with the concepts found in the elements. These are then analyzed by means of the semiotic square (2001: 130-135)(6). Nevertheless, it is not always necessary to go all the way down to the basic values, such as the nature/culture, life/death or euphoric/dysphoric, although Floch does so in some of his case studies.

In the case of beer labels and other similar cultural artefacts, this model helps to explain how values appear on the connotative level in the minds of the interpreters, as a process that is originally put into motion by the design elements that appear on the label.

The present study will make use of these theories in order to lay the theoretical foundation for a combined synchronic/diachronic approach to the analysis of cultural artefacts. The following illustration exemplifies this combination of theories further.

As mentioned at the outset, the resulting modelis still under development, and it is not possible to explicate some of its components here. For this reason, some aspects of the model are not developed here but only alluded to.

Fig. 1: The synchronic/diachronic semiotic model


3. The example of the Koff beer label

3.1 Preliminary remarks

The following example is presented in two parts. I begin with a survey of the historical context of Koff beer labels throughout their design history. These elements are especially prominent on an empirical basis and they are connected to the history of the brewery, alcohol policy, target groups, technical development, etc. In addition, the relations between nationally and internationally coded elements on the labels become apparent. Against this background, the second part outlines a semiotic approach towards meaning and values. This double approach gives the following results: it is possible to distinguish between elements in the labels under study that are from the same culture that the analyzer comes from, and those that are not, thus making it possible to define the various elements that change. Accordingly, the diachronic attitude will make it possible to take into consideration all the versions of the labels that have appeared in the history of the brand. When the events that have had an effect on the labels are known, the possibilities for error in interpreting the labels are reduced and perhaps even eliminated.

Knowledge of the history of the labels and the context in which they appeared makes it possible to track down the meaningful elements and to compare the instances of their absence, presence, respectively. The codes manifested in the elements offer an additional perspective to the conventional traits that the artefacts contain.

I begin with some remarks on the study material. Koff beer and the labels associated with it have one of the longest histories in the Finnish brewing industry. This criterion made Koff labels an attractive choice for this study. In addition, nearly all the historical versions of the label are available. Beer labels were chosen for the study in the first place because they have not been investigated thoroughly despite the fact that this topic clearly belongs to the cultural history of the nation(7). The label shown here (Fig. 2) represents the state of the art of Koff beer label design in the 1990s.

Fig. 2: Koff export IV from 1993 until 2002


3.2 Beer label analysis

In the sample analysis I will give here, I follow the procedures sketched in the theory section, beginning with perception. First, the very nature of beer labels as highly artificial constructs dictates that few if any elements are accessible via their mere gestalt. Rather, through allusion to other already refined cultural aspects, I should locate the elements that can be found on the upper scale of Gombrich's perceptional hierarchy. This is valid for the typographical elements, which are entirely bound by convention. Such elements as the banderol, heraldic device, award stamps, and excise marks are also subject to this. They all refer to other concepts, each of which has its own history. However, the appeal of these elements to the consumer depends on the validity of the concepts in the latter's mind and is thus subject to change. Such changes in the context will also trigger design changes, as we will see.

The Koff Export IV label (Fig. 2) evolved as the result of a long design history. Its most prominent features include the following. The red color was newly introduced for several reasons; the Koff beer can had been red and had sold well, and the outdoor advertisements had red as the predominant color. Finally, an important change in the legal context had a profound impact. Before 1995, Finnish legislation required beer containing more than 2.5% alcohol to be set apart by appearance>(8). Thereafter, the implementation of EU law finally enabled the Koff family of beers to have the same background color in their labels. The typography of the Koff nametag essentially remained the same. The form of the excise mark changed insofar as the former Arabic numeration was altered to Roman numerals. The award stamps on this label had already been in use on Koff labels around 1960 but were eliminated from the label in the meanwhile, only to be reintroduced in 1980. The shape of the label changed in the mid-nineties, when the top arch, which had appeared before as a visual element, was adapted to the shape of the label, due to the capabilities of new die cutting machinery. The gold color had persisted since the 1950s. The heraldic device was newly introduced in the late 1980s but resembled a modified version of an image of horses and a carriage that had appeared before.

In terms of Peircean theory, the qualities of all of these newly introduced or changed design features are qualisigns, with their later realization in print or die cutting turning them into sinsigns. As to the Koff Export IV label, I should like to point out the examples of the use of the award stamps and the heraldic device. The former started to appear when the Finnish beers began to take part in beer contests around 1962. Since some of the beer brands won prizes, the stamps became important because they stressed the high quality that Finnish beer had acquired. This need to stress quality is dependent on many events that have occurred in Finnish history(9). However, nowadays, the award stamps no longer mean anything to younger consumers. As it has become obvious that the beer has high quality, the award stamps are not required in the same way as before. Thus, when the Koff label was changed in 2002, the award stamps were removed, except for one that can be seen on the neck label of the bottle. As the stamps obviously had carried weight in a society that was aware of beer contests and quality differences, they had acquired the status of legisigns. With the erosion of public consensus about these signs and their usage, the habit of exhibiting them on the label lost its point. The mere sinsigns could now be reduced to smaller design elements on the neck without risking a change in perception of the beer. An example of a persisting legisign is the horse-drawn carriage (Fig. 3). They were identified with Koff to such an extent that they were deemed indispensable.

Fig. 3: The Koff label from 1980-84

Therefore, the rather iconic illustration of the older label could not be eliminated completely, but was changed into the rather symbolic heraldic device. As to the iconicity, indexicality, and symbolicity of signs on labels, these typologies are obviously subject to frequent change. While the symbolic character of written elements is transparent, as is the iconicity in pictorial elements, additional sign relations depend on the linkages between label content and the environment.

The syntagmatic relations between the elements are governed by the rules of composition of the labels, e.g., the size and placement of the brand name, obligatory information, or structuring elements. Within these constraints, the paradigmatic relations play out, e.g., the choice between Arabic or Roman numerals, or the banderols in Fig. 2 versus the horizontal double lines in Fig. 3.

Value change can be illustrated by the history of the heraldic device. Originally, the horses and carriage represented the tradition of brewing. In the course of cultural development, the connection between carriages and beer became obscure. In the end, the carriage sign was considered a "blotch of ink" and was hence doomed. Actually, the change towards the heraldic device proved to be a stable solution for about 15 years only, to be replaced by an ever-sleeker symbol thereafter (see Fig. 4). Obviously, the values attached to specific designs place high pressure to innovate on the marketing department.

Fig. 4: The Koff I label from 2002-present


4. Conclusion

From the sample analysis in this paper, I assume that changes in sign categories and in values attached to the elements on beer labels were especially brought about by changes in the cultural environment. The facts and theories presented here are by no means valid for special cases of artefacts only. The fact that they are applicable to each and every artefact in cultural history emphasizes the transcultural conviviality of values and the transcendence of their changes and evolution. Changes and innovations are motivated by semiosic processes in the environment, and labels (or whatever artefacts) reflect these changes. Peircean theory helps to uncover them, for it is able to take the signs in question and their interpreters into account: in other words, the beer labels and the target groups.

This presentation also has implications for additional theoretical considerations, some of which I sketched above. Especially, a study of values on the basis of Greimas' semiotic square seems worthwhile. Further exploration of the depths of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations is of the essence. In addition to the theories represented here, I should like to mention the stable communicative functions devised by Jakobson. They contrast, to some extent, with the principles of change presented by Peirce. An analysis of the persistent features of labels can thus be done with the help of the Jakobsonian functions. I should also like to point out that the amount of material (in theory as well as in the corpus of labels) requires research that goes far beyond the confines of this essay, pointing to nothing less than a systematic semiotic analysis of the cultural artefacts of everyday use.

© Merja Bauters (Helsinki)


(1) A diachronic approach is, however, used in analyzing works of art. For further examples of such analyses, see e.g. Altti Kuusamo (1990, 1993, 1996) and Erwin Panofsky (1970). For a diachronic approach to design products see Susann Vihma (1995).

(2) Here, I follow Tarasti (2000: 193), who states that "the semiotician simply uses sound reason and chooses those tools appropriate for analyzing the particular situation."

(3) I will not go into the full system of classification of signs given by Peirce here, but focus instead on the trichotomies relevant for this paper. For further information on Peirce's model of the sign in semiosis, see Nöth (2000).

(4) For Barthes the text is essentially text itself in quite Saussurean sense, i.e., "written clothing has a structural purity, which is more or less that of language in the relation to speech" (1983: 18). Therefore, for Barthes, a beer label would also be a text. I would prefer not to use the term "text" here, as it implies also the strict system of rules of a language; beer labels as well as other artefacts, however, go beyond such notions of human language.

(5) "Kun tietty tekotapa yleistyy, se samalla alkaa saada sopimuksenvaraisia piirteitä. Kun tekotapa tulee yhä sopimuksenvaraisemmaksi, sen peruskirjaimisto alkaa hahmottua" (Kuusamo 1990: 51).

(6) "The interest of the semiotic square clearly lies in its ability to organize a conceptual universe coherently, even one that is not recognized as 'rational'" (Floch 2001:145).

(7) Without going into the topic of culture at any depth here, it is obvious that I embrace the holistic notion of culture and that I do not see label design as occupying some obscure sub-cultural pocket.

(8)  In this context I can only touch on the impact of Finnish alcohol politics and legislation.

(9) A number of events could be listed, but the complexity of the topic makes further discussion here impossible. Suffice it to say, Finnish independence, the creation of national symbols, and major changes in alcohol policy are among them.


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Floch, Jean-Marie (2001[1990]). Semiotics, Marketing and Communication. Beneath the Signs, the Strategies. Transl. Robin Orr Bodkin. Chippenham: Rowe

- (2000[1995]). Visual Identities. Transl. Pierre van Osselaer & Alec McHoul. London-New York: Continuum

Gombrich, Ernst H. (1981). "Image and code: Scope and limits of conventionalism in pictorial representation". In: Steiner, Wendy (ed.). Image and Code [=Michigan Studies in the Humanities 2]. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 11-42

Greimas, Julien A. (1987). On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Hjelmslev, Louis (1943[1961]). Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press

Kress, Gunter & Theo van Leeuwen (2001[1996]). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. Bury St. Edmunds: St. Edmundsbury Press

Kuusamo, Altti (1990). Kuvien edessä, esseitä kuvan semiotiikasta. Helsinki: Gaudeamus

- (1993). "Tyyli vai aihe". Synteesi 2: 28-38

- (1996). Tyylistä tapaan, semiotiikka, tyyli, ikonografia. Helsinki: Gaudeamus

Nöth, Winfried (2000). Handbuch der Semiotik. Stuttgart: Metzler

Panofsky, Erwin (1970). Meaning in the Visual Arts. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Peirce, Charles Sanders (1931-1958). Collected Papers of... Vols. 1-6, ed. Hartshorne, C. & P. Weiss; vols. 7-8, ed. Burks, A.W. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (references are to CP, vols. and paragraphs)

Tarasti, Eero (2000). Existential Semiotics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press

Vihma, Susann (1995). Products as Representations: A Semiotic and Aesthetic Study of Design Products. Helsinki: Helsinki University of Art and Design

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs
Moderation / Chair: Renée Gadsden

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

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