Joshua Glenn

For a successful brand, it is crucially important to evince a unique, coherent, and winning “personality”—a metaphor borrowed by brand strategists from the field of psychology. Let’s play psychologist for a moment, then, and ask: What if your brand’s key assets or equities aren’t deeply and tightly integrated? Then your brand has a personality crisis… which is confusing and alienating to consumers. Luckily, semiotics offers a remedy.

Since I got started in this business, in the late 1990s, it’s been my experience that the semiotician’s role is primarily that of a troubleshooter—an expert summoned into a crisis situation in order to play the role of healer and transformer. Like a doctor called to a patient’s bedside, we semioticians use our acute powers of observation to observe symptoms of the brand’s distress, symptoms that may well be invisible to others… including the brand’s stakeholders. These symptoms manifest themselves via advertising, pack design, social media, and other brand communications; additionally, we might scrutinize the output from qualitative and quantitative consumer research.

Next, relying upon our heterogeneous knowledge of both the messaging produced by a brand’s particular product or service category (e.g., automotive, household cleaner, snack food) and that particular market’s cultural codes (e.g., “game face,” “tough mom,” “British-ness”), a semiotician situates the brand precisely within a network of category and cultural themes… and having done so, we diagnose the true nature of the brand’s personality crisis. Although not every semiotician is a marketing strategist, our diagnosis of the deep-rooted source of the brand’s personality crisis makes it possible for the brand’s stakeholders—marketing, consumer insights, design—to remedy the problem.

For example, consider the case of an American automotive marque to whose metaphorical bedside I was summoned a couple of years ago. (“Marque” is automotive-speak for a model or brand of motor vehicle.) This marque—technically, a marque within a marque—was founded, in the early 2000s, with the goal of appealing to Generation Y consumers. At the time, the marque’s parent company launched a quirky guerrilla marketing campaign positioning the marque as a reflection of Gen Y style. The positioning efforts were successful, and by the middle of the 2000s the company was selling nearly 175,000 vehicles per year; the marque’s average buyer age was the lowest in the industry. However, by the early part of this decade, sales had slipped dramatically. Analysts agreed that the marque had lost cool credentials and relevancy. The marque’s personality was no longer a winning one; instead, it was a turn-off.

Semioticians aren’t cool-hunters. But we are experts at surfacing the unspoken codes of a particular product or service category (in this case, small cars) and cultural territory (in this case, US youth culture), in a way that traditional consumer research can’t approach.

My agency spent weeks sourcing and methodically scrutinizing dozen of small car print advertisements, TV spots, websites, and social media feeds, as well as youth culture trends, memes, entertainments, youth-oriented brand communications, and other stimulus. This scrutinising phase of the semiotician’s research is a deconstructive process. Why? Because—as ideology critics have taught us—at any given point in time, a culture’s ideals, values, and promises, and the particular means by which those ideals, values, and promises are communicated, can seem permanent, natural, even inevitable. Mythology has an ability to insinuate itself into our consciousness. This is precisely why traditional consumer research can only take you so far; and it’s why the semiotician must act like an anthropologist—by constant interrogating and taking nothing for granted.

The next phase of a semiotic audit is a reconstructive one, during which the semiotician identifies and dimensionalizes a category or cultural territory’s codes. In doing so, we act not as outsiders but as insiders—drawing on years of obsessive, critical, and fascinated attention to cultural and marketing trends and developments. Over the years I’ve assembled a database of 45,000+ meta-tagged cultural and marketing images, to assist in this reconstructive process. And if the audit is international in scope, we reach out across national boundaries to one another. My agency has worked with semioticians and other culture experts from China, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Brazil, Italy, Russia, India, Canada, Australia, Spain, Mexico, and elsewhere. It’s a highly collegial discipline.

Our semiotic audit of the small car category and youth culture territory surfaced some dozens of codes activated on by the marques, brands, and cultural players in our stimulus set. Some of these codes are about inventing an individual style in reaction against the status quo: the code we called “Sampling & Remixing,” for example, includes creative appropriations of works by others within the definition of “authenticity”; and the code “Wild & Crazy” depicts the spirit of youth as unruly and rebellious (think of Diesel’s “Be Stupid” campaign). Other codes are about affirming what already exists: the code “Retro” integrates elements of past cultural forms into the present; and the code “Innocence” depicts the spirit of youth as something essentially naïve and virginal. Still other codes are about affirming the importance of community and the wider society: “Participate” posits youth’s duty as actively engaging in the world as it is; and “Tribalism” challenges assumptions about the merit of unique individuality. A fourth category of code is visionary and utopian: “Agitate” posits youth’s duty as speaking out against the status quo; and “Free Speech” celebrates the psycho-social mobility offered by speaking out.

All of the codes just mentioned were deemed “dominant.” That is to say, they’re the sort of codes that are top-of-mind for consumers, and most likely to be played back to traditional researchers. They’re also the codes most likely to be activated on by youth-oriented automotive positioning efforts. Mini, for example, was at that point in time activating on “Participate” coding via a campaign offering hip tips on living sustainably. Kia Soul was activating on “Sampling & Remixing” coding via its Kia Soul Collective platform, and on “Agitate” coding via its robot-themed advertising. Having mapped the codes, we discovered that the source of our client’s personality crisis—the marque’s personality crisis, that is—could be traced back to the marque’s effort to be all things to all youth. The client’s equities were strongest in the Individual Style quadrant, thanks to campaigns consistently associating the marque with free-runners trespassing on private property, graffiti artists doing what graffiti artists do, and so forth. However, the marque’s coding had also dabbled in self-discovery, communal belonging, and visionary idealism.

The New York Dolls’ anthemic song “Personality Crisis” offers a stringent remedy for the titular malady: “You got to contradict all those times you [were] butterflyin’ about.” A brand whose equities aren’t deeply and tightly integrated tends to flit freely—butterfly-like—from positioning to positioning, chasing evanescent social and cultural trends. Although marketers might like to believe that the consumer has a short memory, in fact all this butterflyin’ about is confusing to consumers… and alienating, too. The result of haphazard code-activation is that over time the brand’s meaning loses credibility; this is precisely what had happened to our client’s once-relevant automotive marque. The remedy? Our diagnosis complete, we collaborated with the marketing strategist Noël Theodosiou of Luminous on formulating the following strategic advice, which is the same advice that the Dolls offer to anyone suffering a personality crisis: “You got to contradict.” That is to say, we urged the client to restrict their code activation to the Individual Style quadrant of the code map we’d plotted, instead of activating everywhere at once and trying to be all things to all youth.

Furthermore, we advised the client’s marketing team to transition away from dominant codes like “Sampling & Remixing” and “Wild & Crazy,” which might have been cool in the early 2000s but which had lost a certain amount of cachet. Our semiotic audit surfaced a dozen emergent codes—by which I mean new, edgy codes that aren’t currently prevalent in a category or territory, and are therefore differentiating for whichever brand activates on them.

However, this does not mean that we advised our client to activate on whichever emergent codes caught their fancy! Instead, we pointed them in the direction of three emergent codes within the Individual Style quadrant of the category code map, and we consulted with their consumer insights team on developing mood boards and other stimulus that would allow these three opportunity platforms to be validated by consumers. In the end, the client gravitated towards a code we’d named “Creative Attitude,” which was less focused on individual style for the sake of being cool and more on what moves you as a creative person, your passion and obsession and drive.

With this new platform, the marque’s stakeholders were able to move forward with new campaigns, packaging refresh initiatives, and efforts to evolve the marque’s iconography, all the while clarifying competitive distinctions between the marque and its rivals and ensuring the marque’s consistent meaning across multiple markets. No more butterflyin’ about. Personality crisis Resolved!

Delivering a consistent brand experience, one that will connect with consumers and leave a sustained impression, requires nuanced and ongoing insight (on the part of the brands’ stakeholders) into the characteristics or qualities that form a brand’s distinctive character.

A brand whose personality is integrated can create own-able messaging that resonates with consumers at the deepest level; a brand suffering from a personality crisis, however, will get lost in the noise of the category—or worse, send out mixed messages that confuse consumers.

Need help with your brand? Call in a semiotician.

Joshua Glenn is a Semiotic Culture and Brand Analyst at Semiovox

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