By Mike D’Abramo

It’s hard to choose a more simple and commonly understood ‘product’ than an apple. Everyone knows what an apple is, what to do with it, how to get one, and what makes a good one. When we see a picture of an apple on a product, whether that’s apple juice, apple chips, apple vinegar, apple face masks, or apple potpourri, we all draw the same types of images in our minds. Or do we?

Cultural semiotics is a growing field within marketing and research that works to understand culture based on the symbols and signs we use. Keeping in mind that there is no single way that everyone understands a symbol, it’s a great way for companies and brands to better understand how consumers might reflect on their products and services, and grow their brand in a knowledgeable way. Our culture and the context in which we experience the symbol affect how we internalize symbols.

Semiotics allows you to understand perceptions that consumers might not even be aware of; those unintentional, unconscious or preconscious perceptions that people might not even be able to articulate. Using this methodology, we decided to analyze the core symbolic meanings of apples and how they are culturally interpreted. Simple right?

Well, we limited this exploratory project to just five of many more possible interpretations, but it’s clear that the lowly, simple apple has an abundance of meaningful interpretations worthy of exploration.

1. Natural: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away!”

The apple is a symbol for health and wellness, drawing its credibility from its connection with nature and a belief that apples can be a gateway to wellness. Further, it builds on the belief that natural is superior to artificial, e.g., processed foods, high fructose corn syrup, and cosmetic surgery can all challenge health.

2. Sin: The forbidden fruit

Apples have a historical relationship with sin – it is the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. Sin is often viewed as a binary state: either you committed a sin or you did not. Culturally, this ‘original sin’ has been interpreted sexually, wherein the fruit of the apple tree refers to Eve, a figure in the Book of Genesis. We can combat sexual temptation through chastity, a wholesome state (resisting the apple), by abstaining from sex, which by definition means that having sex is a transgressive act (biting the apple) of breaking social norms. However, with modern science, sex is no longer the threat it once was—the risks of pregnancy and diseases can now be managed—and therefore it is okay to talk about and experience sex.

3. Temptation: Snow White’s poisoned apple

The mythology lies in hiding transgression and risk in something otherwise considered safe and normal. This interpretation of the apple is the fruit (pardon the pun) of the first two interpretations: Sin (which is bad) and Nature (which is good) combine to trick Snow White of the fable bearing her name. This is why the apple tempted her: What could go wrong? The witch in the fable even cuts the apple in half, “SEE…what could go wrong?” The mysticism is hidden within the temptation.

4. Challenge: William Tell’s risky shot

In the William Tell story of 1307, there is a willingness to take a risk (shooting the apple off a child’s head) with the hope of greater good (the ability to use the second arrow to kill an invading ruler). The essential component that separates this interpretation from others is that the risk and reward are both close to death: risking a boy’s life and ultimately killing the ruler.

5. Knowledge: Isaac Newton’s famous apple

Nearly 300 years ago, Isaac Newton watched an apple fall to the ground and now we all know the story of gravity. But we also all know that this innocent and simple apple represents a gateway to higher scientific discovery. In 1752, it was written, “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” This is not high-tech, sound barrier breaking behaviour. This is truth hiding in plain sight. This is science. This is knowledge.

So there you have it. If you’re in the midst of creating or changing a product that incorporates apples as a main feature, perhaps it’s time to consider these potential interpretations and inferences, and make sure you’re prepared for how people might reflect on your brand. On the other hand, if you’re about to launch into the development of a new product, you might be wise to conduct some cultural semiotics research of your own. It’s better to be aware of the potential inferences than to find out too late! 


Ready to learn more? Download our Sklar Wilton Research Decision Wheel for a template to help you categorize decisions to ensure your research plans are focused on the right big areas. Or, learn how we used qualitative research and cultural analysis to help our client choose a product name that would be clear and relevant for consumers, and set them up for success.