In the latest of our semiotic series, Laura Oswald uncovers how we decode the meaning of pain.
By Steve Verba
Big Data is big news. Bigger than anything else in IT, except The Cloud. Bigger than anything else in its impact on Marketing and Market Research. So big that it seems Semiotics would hardly be expected to lay claim to relevance to Big Data immense hype and impact. And yet, on closer examination there are several powerful contributions semiotics can make to bridge the gap between Marketing, Marketing Science, Big Data and Data Science.
Importance of Big Data to Organisations
Tweets about a new product launch, posted blog comments criticizing a brand, news article posts critical of a manufacturer, job board ratings of an employer all constitute new varieties of marketing data, appearing at real time velocities and accruing into huge volumes. On these 3 dimensions alone, marketing and marketing science struggle to keep up with potential impact Big Data can have on Pricing, Promotion, Placement and Product.
With this tsunami of new data, comes a new philosophy from the Big Data community that is at the heart of its perceived benefits: “Big data represents a cultural shift in which more and more decisions are made by algorithms with transparent logic, operating on documented immutable evidence. I think “big” refers more to the pervasive nature of this change than to any particular amount of data.” (Daniel Gillick, Senior Research Scientist, Google)
The biggest appeal of Big Data application in business is that the sheer amount of data provides a sort of intrinsic credibility. Secondly, the appeal also comes from the notion that the tools used to analyze Big Data are positioned as applying pure logic to that data to make precise predictions.
This is both a great Brand Promise and a Unique Selling Proposition for Big Data. But that simplicity sells itself short. It is not so much that current use of Big Data by Data Scientists is not right, so much as it is self-limiting in terms of providing truly useful and breakthrough insights.
However, if we stand back and look at what is happening from a semiotician’s point of view this can be seen more clearly.
What’s the Meaning of Big Data? Ask Semiotics.
Big Data includes a vast array of analytical techniques borrowed mostly from statistics, math and operations research modified to operate on vast data sets. Semiotics, on the other hand, draws our attention to the existence of an underlying code system informing the choices made within the discipline (e.g. what is ignored, devalued or glossed, or what is valorized, optimized or rewarded).
Merging of Big Data with Semiotics can also successfully solve many brand conundrums. In an ad agency competition for a major American ladies undergarment account, all competing agencies already knew a prior campaign had failed and generated negative sentiments.
The winning agency took that data and reverse-engineered the meaning behind the failed campaign using a semiotic framework. They uncovered that the realistic settings and photography did not match the desired whimsical fantasy intent, and instead triggered common uncomfortable dreams of being in public partly clothed.
All agencies had the same social media data – but the interpretation of meaning using a semiotically informed marketing framework is what made a difference in understanding (and won the account).
Big Data is providing marketers with the richest sources of data ever available. The analytical tools today are likewise at their zenith. However, for marketing neither the IT folks working to manage Big Data, nor the Data Science folks seeking to analyze it, can fully leverage their data working only from within the code systems of their own disciplines. Doing so serves to “bake in” limitations of insight and impact relevant to the marketers and business stakeholders.
Unlocking Meaning of Big Data via Semiotics
So how does Semiotics help with these limitations? Simply put, by elevating Meaning back into the pure equations, logic and data troves in play today. We can see this in two dimensions:
Dimension 1: Semiotics of Big Data
We have already illustrated one aspect of how semiotics can help Big Data get it right for marketers – by shining a light on the fact that how you pick which data you analyze and how you pick what tools you use are dependent on implicit code systems you may not even be aware you are using.
A semiotician can therefore shed light on how Big Data itself creates its own meanings and cultural codes as a community. Providing this self-reflection can “open up” Big Data and Data Science to its own blind spots and help forge closer relationships with mainstream marketing practitioners.
Likewise, Big Data needs to reflect on whom it thinks it is analyzing when it deals with marketing data from consumers about brands and products. What is the implicit model of consumers? Are consumers also seen as making consistent “decisions …made by algorithms with transparent logic, operating on documented immutable evidence”? Are Brands obviated because consumers are just exercising micro-economic utility theory decisions based on features?
Marketing has long ago gone past these earlier notions of how consumption takes place. In fact, semiotics has itself helped marketing move past these earlier theories. If we have hope to have real dialog between data scientist and marketers, market scientists and market researchers, we must bridge this gap.
Dimension 2: Semiotics and Big Data
At a more tactical, granular level there are several practical ways semiotics can contribute to the analytics used in Big Data.
Social Analytics – sentiment and text analytics are an obvious place where semiotics can make a greater contribution. After all modern semiotics has considerable roots in linguistics. The use of semiotics square and the concepts of markedness, structural semantics and psycholinguistic engagement measurement are untapped tools that have been applied previously on social analytics data by semioticians to uncover far more meaning and insight than simple broad emotional reaction counts.
Data Visualization – Big Data analytics includes significant emphasis on data visualization. Recent work has treated data visualization and informatics as a form of semiotics engineering to ensure understanding of complex data by treating the code systems of the reader/recipient as key. Semiotics provides the framework on which to judge poor vs excellent data visualizations for a given audience.
Cognitive Computing – one of the most powerful developments in Big Data analytics can be seen in IBM “Watson” which uses hundreds of linked algorithms (neural nets) and an immense knowledge base to process and answer questions like a human. This constitutes what IBM refers to as Cognitive Computing. Watson explicitly exceeds limitations of hard-coded linguistic models using semiotics: “Semiotics allows for representation and synthesis of topological systematic models of different kind, including diagrams. Wherever needed, linguistic models can be converted into semiotic representation with transformational mechanisms using IBM Watson parsing.” Dr.Gary Kuvich – IBM Certified IT Architect
Moving Marketing Forward through Big Data & Semiotics
To consider the larger perspective of semiotics helping to bridge the gap between Big Data and Marketing, it is useful to get a sense of where marketing seems to be going. Paraphrasing Philip Kotler, here we can look at four changes that are going to occur in marketing over the next couple decades: need to co-create products, crowdsourcing ideas, marketing automation based on artificial intelligence rather than done by skilled marketers, and lastly learning how to produce “lovemarks” with customers and employees.
Firstly, Big Data provides the opportunity to co-create products through web interaction – semiotics provides the framework to understand the marketing meaning behind those interactions needed for proper positioning, packaging and branding. Likewise, artificial intelligence systems like Watson can begin to include semiotic frameworks relevant to marketing and marketers to begin to answer questions about campaigns and promotions.
Finally, as we start to look past traditional definitions of brands we see concepts like ‘lovemarks’ that explicitly valorize great stories, dreams, myths and icons. These are the very “stuff” of semiotics. Harvesting these dreams, myths and icons from social media big data and refashioning them to enhance deeper brand loyalty is an ongoing job for the semiotician sitting right between marketers on one side and data scientist on the other.
- Big Data carries its own brand promise and USP, which while appealing, limits its impact.
- Semiotics can provide a very useful perspective on the underlying code systems in the Big Data community. When seen from a semiotic perspective, Big Data can provide more value for marketers and market researchers, but also traditional IT departments.
- Semiotics also contributes to the evolution and use of Big Data analytics tools. Big Data and technology are changing marketing. Semiotics is already part of that path forward.
Steve Verba is a multi-disciplinary consultant with a track record in applied semiotics, technology systems, Big Data and IT. He is based in Ohio a can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Mariane Cara and Ashley Mauritzen
The Rio Summer Olympic Games will take place in August 2016. The Games are a spectacle surrounded by strong symbolism, from their powerful governing ethos to strict built-in structures. The Olympic flame and five rings are iconic nonverbal cues that carry a strong relationship with the Games and their meaning-making process. When we see them, we know the Games are at hand. Yet the power of Olympic visual communications goes much further.
Every Edition Logo brings something new, subtly altering the essence of the Olympics through its chronological and spatial context.
Understanding these contexts constitutes two major strands of commercial semiotic thought. The chronological focuses on the aesthetics of zeitgeist (signaling a diachronic perspective) whilst the spatial centers on the differences between cultures and their representations (endorsing the power of synchrony). In order to demonstrate these two related contexts to RWConnect readers, two semioticians have analysed two different Summer Edition Logos for this article: London 2012 and Rio 2016.
From a semiotic perspective, these logos present a very distinct set of meanings, each with their own particular signifiers (colors, shapes, dimensions…), specific narratives and dissimilar cultural meanings. For the purposes of comparing and contrasting contexts, British semiotician Ashley Mauritzen has focused on London 2012 and Brazilian practitioner Mariane Cara has analysed Rio 2016.
Created by design firm Wolf Olins, the logo for the London Olympics 2012 prove extremely divisive. Both widely maligned and passionately defended, it makes a strong case for the challenges and rewards inherent in dramatic national rebranding. Because whilst its detractors may have chosen to focus on the logo’s passing resemblance to a carnal exchange between Bart and Lisa Simpson, the real controversy stems from its bold semiotic statement of a new progressive British national identity for a global age.
The logo palette couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the traditional authoritarian navy, red and white of the Union Jack. Electric pink was the most widely used inflection – a bold post-gendered statement. Other versions signify an upbeat (orange) and contemporary (cyan) outlook. The existence of several options constitutes a celebration of variety and choice.
An abundance of rectilinear shapes pointedly confounds the rural idyll more commonly associated with England’s ‘green and pleasant lands’. Their dynamic relationship with each other cues the haphazard layout of the urban landscape, and their sharp edges resemble leading edge British architectural design. There is a sense of aerial perspective, cueing both the skyscrapers that dominate the contemporary city and its breadth of outlook.
The urban connotations of the logo are further compounded by the vertical arrangement of the numbers 20 and 12, which bears a close resemblance to the tags that abound in street art.
The energy of this subversive art form is also channeled into the logo through the use of yellow borders. The implied techiness of this ‘electric’ radiance is further compounded by the presence of a dot. When placed at the center of a phrase, it clearly signifies the language of the Internet, positioning the logo as a vital destination (or ‘address’) in the digital age.
The London 2012 logo constitutes a bold statement of intent by a country keen to forge a new post-empire identity for itself. It is a deliberate repudiation of the values more commonly associated with Britishness – calm, order and maintenance of the status quo. Britain may be nationalistic but it is fresh-faced nationalism with a twist, as the images below show:
Contemporary Britain – and London in particular – is keen to promote itself as a hotbed of creativity. The colour, asymmetry and fierce originality of the logo bear striking resemblance to some of the outfits that have featured recently at the notoriously edgy London Fashion Week:
The urban connotations of the logo neatly coincide with the foregrounding of the city of London as a globally relevant 21st century city and vibrant identity marker. Technological innovation, creativity, youth, spectacle and multiculturalism are the core values of this urban metropolis – values that this logo expresses in abundance.
The result of this heaving hotbed of signifiers, of course, is a certain indexical unreadability to which we can attribute the logo’s controversy. In short, it’s not immediately clear what it means. It is, however, in this very haziness that we find its most important message. Because this logo (in keeping with the central proclamation of the grand opening ceremony) ‘is for everybody’ – in precisely the same way contemporary Britain is. And, in order to be so, it needs to be open to endless creative interpretation and reinterpretation, whatever the risks.
The Rio’2016 logo created by Tactil Design de Ideias was well received by public opinion but also carries a feeling of déjà vu because of the similarities with the three graces in Botticelli’s painting Primavera (1482), The Three Graces from Raphael (1504-1505), La Danse from Henri Matisse (1910) and also Telluride Foundation logo and Salvador Carnival 2004 logo.
In fact, a figure of three (or five) people together in an embrace is exhaustedly seen in a large variety of visual representations. One of the reasons is the political correctness, which personifies the celebration of collectiveness, harmony and participation, without gender, social status or hierarchy. These points are very desirable in an Olympic logo, but by the other hand, they are very common, with a lack of originality.
The set of codes in this logo starts with the main colors: yellow, blue and green, which reproduce the colors of Brazilian flag and repeat three of the five colors from the Olympic Rings. The symbolic meanings of those colors could be many, but to Brazilians the most common are: yellow means energy, blue is the easygoing way of life, and green goes to the natural environment.
Sequentially, the Design team decides to construct the logo based on curves, creating an organic figure. In this respect, it is important to note that Brazilian shapes are frequently curvilinear per se, being a land of voluptuous outlines and complex contours. To cite few of them, we see plenty of curves in the architectural work from Oscar Niemeyer, and in the sculptures from Tomie Ohtake. And if we follow the direction of the prosaic world, we will face the arched movements in the pavement of Copacabana’s sidewalk.
In Brazil, we are so accustomed with curves, even our most famous rhythm (samba) demands a lot of curvy movements, and to do it right, every single dancer must to perform in a flexible way, constantly.
Crosswise this bending path, the logo exhibits some shades and lights coming from the glossy treatment of the 3D representation. This tridimensional appearance tells something about the concept of movement. In every corner of this logo we can see a new shape, which also reveals the Brazilian multifaceted way of life. To be concise in this regard, our culture is all about curves and flexibility. For us, nothing is static and unchangeable.
Finishing this section, the last signifier of this logo is the typography, which was designed as a handwriting style, in a more humanised shape, which represents the concept of craftsmanship.
In Rio’2016 logo the narratives are presented in many layers. The first is the stylisation of the human figure in a neutered sprite of three people altogether. This unit brings a social layer, showing everyone participating in this celebration, and is really closed to the Olympics Creed.
The concept of unity also speaks a lot about Brazilian culture. Usually, Brazilians work better in teams. In Sports, our most recognisable modalities are collective, as Football and Volleyball and, in daily life, some of our popular aphorisms have the collectiveness as pillar. For example: “A união faz a força” (the unity makes the power) or “juntos chegaremos lá” (together we will get there).
The embrace also represents a joyful circle dancing (Ciranda in our language), and is commonly related to the wellbeing feelings. The Cirandas are excessively represented in Brazilian´s Naif Art and are widely seen all across the country.
Following the narratives, the organic shapes of this logo make some relevant references, as the representation of the Sugarloaf Mountain, showing the unique topography of Rio; the mimics of a heart shape, maintaining the allusion to the emotional side of our culture; the mention to the Olympic Rings; and the last, but not the least, the word Rio between the human figures.
With respect to the chronological/spatial contexts, Rio’2016 is much more a spatial logo than a chronological one, being created to display the cultural signifiers and the synchronic narratives, without specifying any historical period.
This is an intense logo, which brings a diverse system of meanings, with a strong relationship to what we call Indexicality. Semiotically speaking, indexicality means the set of representations which points to something, in this case it indicates the closer relationship between the image and the Brazilian culture.
With so many indexical references, this logo will never be accused of meaningless. It is meaningful and brings familiarity with the Carioca’s Spirit.
This article provides a very quick example of how a semiotic approach can be applied to research related to visual communications and cultural analysis. We could have gone deeper and written a lot more.
Semiotics proves a powerful means of unveiling the web of meanings inherent in visual communication, by finding relevant signifiers and strong narratives. When it comes to cultural analysis, the application of semiotic methods provides an important means of understanding context, thereby avoiding misperception and misuse in different markets.
In keeping with this, it is important for market researchers to establish a network of semioticians across different countries, in order that they can use their particular cultural understanding to develop a more refined understanding of different contexts.
Mariane Cara is Commercial Semiotician at Comunicara based in Brazil. She can be reached on Twitter via @MarianeCara.
Ashley Mauritzen is a freelance semiotician and cultural analyst based in the East End of London. She can be reached on Twitter via @mauritzmash.