by Sarah Jane Johnson
Banking is one of the more challenging categories when it comes to brand differentiation. First of all, most banks are really pretty similar: large institutions offering more or less the same products: savings accounts, mortgages, credit cards and loans. Secondly, specific offerings are complex and can be difficult to compare directly.
For many years, Canadian financial services seemed stuck in a world of lookalike brands. Every bank ad relied on the same tired clichés: smiling couples in the offices of helpful-looking bank employees, or proudly clutching the keys to their new home. Clearly, the intended message was that banking with X would make you feel happy and confident. But, the proliferation of this type of advertising did little to differentiate individual banks. More importantly, it failed to tap into some of the more powerful cultural discourse around wealth and banking.
Here’s where Semiotics can truly play a role.
Semiotics shines in categories – like banking – where it can be hard to articulate brand differences through language. Language often relies on rational argument and proof. Semiotics is about the power of suggestion, creating associations for brands through the use of symbolism that has powerful cultural and emotional significance. In fact, as neuro-science has revealed, this approach might actually be more motivating.
As we now know, 95% of decision-making occurs at the subconscious level, by processing non-verbal cues like imagery, scent, colour, and music, all of which are the province of Semiotics. Deploying these semiotic cues can help brands build stronger emotional relationships with consumers at the powerful sub-conscious level.
It’s important to note that Canadian banks’ communication challenges are somewhat different than those of other markets around the world. In other countries, public trust has been severely eroded by banking’s role in the financial crisis that led to the recession of 2007. In Canada, trust was actually increased by the fact that Canadian banks avoided the financial crisis due to their more prudent approach to lending. In fact, the Canadian banks’ policies offered significant protection to the Canadian economy such that most Canadians weathered the global recession more or less unscathed.
This strong sense of public trust meant that Canadian banks were not faced with the job banks had in other countries: attempting to re-build trust with disenchanted consumers. Banks were generally seen as trusted institutions, although there were the inevitable complaints about banking fees taking advantage of the little guy. However, Canadian banks were also seen as remote and impenetrable, a perception reinforced by the monolithic bank towers in every major city, and the high bank counters, creating a symbolic barrier between customers and tellers in every branch.
But, one impact that the global financial crisis did have on Canadian banking was that it increased the importance of retail banking. As money markets and other global investments lost their profitability, Canadian banks suddenly found that loans and mortgages to the average punter became much more important to their bottom line. This made it critical to establish a deeper relationship with retail customers, and to provide stronger differentiation from their competitors.
The most successful banks did so (consciously or not) by effectively deploying Semiotic cues to create distinct positioning for their brands that truly tap into anxieties about wealth and financial security. In doing so, they began to engage in a powerful cultural conversation with their customers.
In Canada, as everywhere, achieving wealth is a significant preoccupation. However, over the past ten years, the cultural discourse about wealth has been evolving. Traditionally, wealth meant material wealth: assets and consumption. But, with global economic uncertainty, and a job market that works people incredibly hard, only to summarily dismiss them, new notions emerging are about what it means to be wealthy and the best way to go about achieving it.
Traditional Canadian discourse had two simple perspectives on wealth and banking: 1) The only wealth is Material Wealth and 2) A good bank is one with Authority. Essentially, the message all banks conveyed was “You can trust us to help you build wealth because we are established, and secure and WE UNDERSTAND these things.” Bank architecture resembled Temples or Palaces, Semiotically conveying their power and prestige. Bankers controlled the relationship and customers had to conform to their conditions, including opening hours.
The Royal Bank of Canada (now known as RBC) is Canada’s largest bank and as the market leader does an excellent job of occupying this traditional territory Semiotically, as can be seen in this recent ad:
Its blue and gold colour scheme connotes royalty, wealth, and authority, suggesting a bank that is firmly established, prestigious and expert. The use of the “British Banker” mascot reinforces and deepens these associations by evoking the cultural myth of British banking as the archetype of the Money-Making Establishment, as well as tapping into a certain Canadian nostalgia for being part of the British Empire. At the same time, the cartoonish aspect of the mascot takes the edge off the authority he conveys. All of these Semiotic cues will resonate with customers seeking a big, established and prestigious place to keep their money.
We can see how banking discourse has evolved somewhat with this ad from TD, Canada’s second largest bank, which also uses Semiotic cues to connect with its customers:Like RBC, TD seeks to associate itself with Material Wealth through its use of the colour green, which in North America signifies money. However, TD differentiates itself from RBC by positioning itself as a Nurturer, rather than as an Authority. Nurturing is suggested by the icon of the green armchair, which looks both comfortable and supportive. The implication is that TD is a bank which is accessible and which puts its customers first, unlike the high-handed approach of traditional banks.
A smaller upstart bank, President’s Choice Financial, also positions itself against Authoritarian “Big Banking” as the low fee, low bureaucracy option for building Material Wealth. It taps into the cultural discontent with Established banking fat cats who have huge profits via high fees, interest rates and other padding. President’s Choice Financial Semiotically conveys Transparency and Integrity via minimalist art direction. Its use of the colour red suggests good fortune and alertness.Scotiabank, on the other hand, has chosen to differentiate itself by re-framing the meaning of wealth. It consciously reflects the current cultural conversation about global economic uncertainty and the dark side of striving success by positioning itself as a supporter of Spiritual Wealth vs. Material Wealth. Its advertising presents “meaningful moments” as true richness, and suggests that unlike other banks, it understands “what really matters”. In place of the Trust that Material Wealth aligned banks evoke, Scotiabank evokes Optimism: with our help, the important things are attainable.
Credit Union Vancity offers another challenge to the notion of Material Wealth by taking an explicitly ethical stance. Its promise of “good money” (aka: ethically sourced) is Semiotically reinforced by the image of people participating in a natural harvest. It also Semiotically distances itself from the “Big Banks” with its “handmade” looking art-direction. Yet, at the same time, like RBC, it positions itself as an Authority (as the answer to its own rhetorical question) and source of Prestige, with its invocation of personal pride.Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the four themes most heavily leveraged in this category, Material Wealth vs. Spiritual Wealth, and Authority vs. Nurturing, are in fact natural opposites (not surprising as each theme is essentially a response or anti-thesis to the other).
These opposites can then in turn be plotted on two axes, allowing for the creation of a Semiotic Positioning map, that places each of the banks in its own distinct quadrant or territory:As we can see, RBC Royal Bank strongly occupies the quadrant of high Authority and Material Wealth, giving it a unique ownership of the cues associated with establishment banking: prestige, longevity and business acumen. This allows it to position itself towards customers who are seeking an established, trustworthy authority to help them grow their money.
In contrast to RBC’s more paternalistic position, TD Bank is more maternalistic, but still focused on traditional associations with material wealth. This allows it to appeal to customers who are put off by intimidating cues of high status and aloofness, but still seek a trustworthy venue for investment.
Scotiabank shares TD Bank’s nurturing stance but its position in the Spiritual axis signals an embrace of more progressive notions of wealth as a more meaningful way of life. This provides reassurance and a kind of transparency and trustworthiness for customers concerned with the realities of today’s economy and their ability to have the life they want.
Finally, Vancity, occupying the quadrant of Authority and Spiritual Wealth, is evoking a moral authority instead of a social one, and evangelizes a vision of wealth that is outer-directed and beneficial to others. This positioning, while niche, will appeal to those truly disillusioned with traditional Capitalism and traditional banking — and provides a venue for them to express their values while still having the safety net of a trusted place to invest their money.
But, there is one outlier we have not discussed yet. CIBC is another one of the “Big Banks”, but unlike all the other Financial Institutions (large and small) we have discussed here, it is not making an effective use of Semiotic cues, nor is it really taking part in the overall Cultural Conversation of the banking category.This CIBC ad epitomizes the clichéd “smiling happy customer” school of traditional advertising, and does not appear to convey any meaning beyond just that. The woman’s context is unclear – she appears to exist in a vacuum, as does the brand itself. It does not take a stance on any of the main poles of the category discourse: it does not evoke Authority or Nurturing. It appears to support neither Material, nor Spiritual Wealth. Semiotically, it conveys very little for customers to connect with. The only clear Semiotic cues are its colour scheme, a dated burgundy and gold combination that primarily evokes the 1970s. Frankly, it appears a bit lost, a fact which maybe reflected in its market share: it has the lowest share of any of Canada’s “Big Five” banks.
Brands that lack a clear point of view would benefit from the use of Semiotic Analysis, to help them understand the true Cultural Conversation at play in the category and to help them identify the most resonant Semiotic Cues they could use to position themselves within that conversation.
In a time when it’s more important than ever for brands to stand out from an increasingly crowded field of brands and ads, Semiotics offers the opportunity to increase cultural and emotional resonance with customers and prospects. And that’s something any brand can take to the bank.
Sarah Jane Johnson is a Principal at Toronto-based Athena Brand Wisdom. She can be reached on Twitter via @AthenaBrand
by Marzena Żurawicka
In the past, consumers could identify the gender of a brand without major difficulties. It was enough to ensure that the brand’s communications use the sign of a man or a woman, or objects that explicitly represent the world of males or females. For example, in Polish culture the object-sign of masculinity was a disposable razor and the object-sign of femininity – perfumes. The term “perfumes” was not used to describe a man’s fragrance at all, the term “eau de toilette” was used instead. These two signs were clear for consumers and their use in communications sufficed to identify either of the two worlds.
Nowadays, given the development of unisex products and services, which target both men and women, ensuring unambiguity in the identification of brand gender is becoming more and more difficult. The earlier-quoted objects – a disposable razor and perfumes – have lost their previous status. Today, their gender is decided by designers, people creating individual products, packaging, and communications.
Significant changes have also occurred in the area of consumer behaviours. Consumers feel more and more confident juggling signs and symbols emphasising their cultural, and not necessarily, biological gender. Looking at Warsaw’s streets from the sidewalk level, deciding explicitly whether the person is a woman or a man is becoming increasingly difficult. The footwear of most pedestrians is not a simple exemplification of their owners’ gender, nor does it send a clear message. The footwear of Warsaw’s pedestrians often has mixed characteristics – feminine and masculine or neither feminine nor masculine. Yet, there are also pedestrians, whose gender can be identified without too much doubt – they are those, who wear stilettos or moccasins.
These small examples from our everyday life illustrate the scale of the problem and show the need for more conscious management of masculine and feminine attributes. Therefore, answering the question – what gender should be given to the brand so that it achieves our business goals? – is one of the requirements of contemporary marketing.
Footwear, a sidewalk, and the Greimas semiotic square
Before we immerse ourselves in the world of marketing cases, let’s focus for a moment on the earlier raised topic of Warsaw’s sidewalk, footwear, and the Greimas semiotic square.
In Polish culture, stilettos are a sign of femininity, while moccasins symbolise masculinity. But in line with the logic of the semiotic square, the term “gender” means more than just masculinity and femininity. These two categories do not fully reflect the full scope of the term. According to Greimas, masculinity and femininity are completed by non-masculinity and non-femininity. In Polish culture these ideas correspond to an effeminate male and “a butch female”. Whereas we can quite easily quote attributes of masculinity – moccasins or femininity – stilettos, we cannot say much about attributes of the footwear, which would best identify an effeminate male or a butch female. The answer is in the semi-symbolic system of non-masculinity and non-femininity, which is composed of cultural situations, colours, language, music, and other sounds.
Nonetheless, even a superficial analysis of the vast cultural material suggests caution in addressing the topic. While each of the four categories has rich symbolic representation, each is in the state of permanent change. Hence, attributing either gender with its own system of signs, requires stopping the passage of time, even if for just a short moment, and selecting examples that are their best most evident exemplification.
“Feminine” gender is co-composed of signs, motifs, and symbols of a woman’s erotica, sexuality, allurement, but also signs of a girl’s innocence or a woman’s duality, as well as lucent colours.
Non-masculinity is the gender category, which reflects the idea of effeminacy, ie. masculinity with additional feminine elements. This gender is represented by signs and symbols of metrosexuality and masculine romanticism. Parts of non-masculinity are images of a man’s body shown in a feminine manner and situations, in which men perform women’s roles.
In the semiotic square, non-femininity means femininity with additional masculine elements. In Polish culture, it is represented by signs of women’s aggression, extreme feminism, and images of a woman endowed with masculine attributes, e.g. an athletic body, logical reasoning, calmness, and self-composure.
Problems with identifying brand gender
Male-female relations have never been the simplest topic in culture. They have often been the reason for wars, social revolutions or even economic disasters. However, until not long ago we were sure that signs like long hair, a long dress, a graceful body, a velvety voice identify femininity. Nowadays, we do not have such certainty anymore – Conchita Wurst, the winner of last year’s Eurovision, is a good example.
Similar suspicions relating to gender, yet this time the gender of a brand, were shared by one Polish telecom company. In 2012, the company turned to us for help in identifying the identity of their own brand. Based on the results of the consumer studies, the company suspected that the gender of their brand changed. The study showed that the brand was less and less popular with men, while its popularity with women was increasing. Despite the significant similarity of the product offer of the company’s brand and the brands of its competitors, the company was increasingly afraid of losing male customers. The brand’s new advertising communication and visual identity system were blamed for the situation. This hypothesis formulated by the client seemed probable.
Five major telecom brands operated on the Polish market at that time: Orange, Plus, Play, Era (T-Mobile) and Heyah. In the rebranding process, one of them gave up the use of its logo and blue/ navy-blue colours in favour of intense pink. The change in the brand’s logo colouring had a cultural significance. Everyone in Poland knew that a blue colour was the sign of a male descendant and pink – the sign of a girl. Although, new associations with pink enriched culture over time, this was yet to show in social practice in 2012. Logotypes of masculine brands were dominated by colours like blue, black, grey, and white. The first Polish masculine brand, which inaugurated the use of pink in a logotype, was the Polish branch of Tauron, a producer of electrical energy.
The use of a pink colour in the brand’s communication was not an ordinary marketing decision in those years. However, neither we nor, even more, the client considered the change in the logo colouring to be the exclusive factor responsible for the brand’s gender. We were convinced that the development of the brand’s gender was a complex process, which was down to a whole system of signs, symbols, and codes, including those used in advertising.
Cultural glossary of feminine gender
In order to identify the brand’s gender we proposed an analysis, which consisted of identifying the sign system existing in advertising messages. To do this, first we had to determine the process of gender conferring in today’s culture and the signs making up each of the four gender categories. We needed cultural measures.
The sources of analysed materials included strictly masculine and feminine magazines, film posters, movies, and advertisements for selected product categories with a clearly defined gender, eg. perfumes, cosmetics, and clothes. Collecting the most distinctive material was crucial.
During the analytical process, after a preliminary study of the material we decided that our glossary would consist of the following units:
- Cultural situations, to which reference was made in the advertisements
- The palette of colours used in messages
- The mood of photographs, frames, editing, and pace of narration
- Language and text forms
- Sounds, music, and the voice of the lector
These parameters were distinctive and enabled us to describe the communications of each of the gender categories.
Below we present selected elements of our glossary in the case of femininity.
Strictly feminine situations in culture were represented by girls’ meetings, women’s moments, and idealised romantic relationships.The palette of colours creating feminine gender was led by sensual violet, underlining textures, round shapes, but also pastel colours, symbolising a woman’s naivety and childishness. Feminine colours included brown-golden glamour, emphasising elegance and style as well as ultra-feminine pink, most often combined with traditional symbols of femininity, ie. flowers and ribbons.Mood of photographs, building femininity in culture, was created by the use of radiance, sunshine brightness, softened outlines of objects and people, whitening effect, as well as lightness and airiness. The photographs were dominated by flowing fabrics and hair, floating light objects. A feminine mood was added to the photographs by showing close-ups of fine features, which underlined sensuality, the feeling of the moment, as well as intimacy.
Apart from visual elements, feminine gender was also decided by language. Notions dominating feminine culture included: changeability, seasonality, fashionable character or stylishness as well as elements relating to magic. The feminine nature of the language was strengthened by the use of intimate words, referring to care or exceptional moments.
The above-described elements of the cultural glossary did not exhaust the wealth of forms and conventions belonging to the feminine world. However, for the purpose of that study we identified the sign systems, which were most characteristic for feminine culture, thus helpful in further analyses of mobile telecom advertisements.
The cultural glossaries of, respectively, masculine, non-masculine, and non-feminine attributes were created following the same approach.
Gender in mobile telco advertising has many names
With the glossary-measures in hand we could finally start the main analysis, which included ca. 200 advertisements of the five mobile telecom brands operating in Poland.
All the telecom brands targeted their offers and communications at both men and women. That’s why it was important to determine, which sign systems are used by each brand and how its gender is created. Various approaches to brand gender could also be identified.
For example, in its identification and advertising communications system from 2011-2012 Plus used symbols and signs, which shaped its strongly masculine gender. Over a few years, the brand’s communication was dominated by masculine colours ie. graphite, cold black, and laser lights. None of the competitor brands used this repertoire of colours in such a consistent manner. Moreover, the brand’s masculinity was built by the language used in its advertisements – full of terms from the area of technology, technical precision or the world of thrills belonging to action movies. The brand’s masculine gender was also co-created by military metaphors, and even sexist wit. The brand used quite a wide range of masculine culture signs.
A totally different example of brand gender building was used by T-Mobile. About 80% of the brand’s advertisements from 2011-2012 were dominated by feminine culture symbols. The brand’s identification were light soap bubbles, floating in the urban space or flowing woman’s hair. While the feminine character of the photographs was achieved by using techniques such as radiance and blurred outlines of people, its femininity was completed by the widely used colours ie. pink and flesh-coloured beige. The advertising agency based the brand’s communication on the situations characteristic for feminine culture ie. women’s meetings, romantic relationships, and tender images of childhood. The brand’s slogan referred to feelings.
An example of the mix of the two approaches came from Orange. One half of the brand’s communications used signs of true masculinity – colours like black or graphite. The language was filled with quite many references to technological precision, mastery, sensational dynamics, and logic or rationalism. In its masculine advertisements, the brand used many phrases taken directly from the language of masculine entertainment. The other half of Orange communications was built on feminine symbols. The feminine mood of photographs showed in their radiance and the predominant brown-golden colour. The brand’s communication was based on romantic situations, idealised relationships or women’s moments. The language used in the brand’s communications used terms from the area of magic and emotional care.
It is evident that the way feminine, masculine, non-feminine, and non-masculine attributes are used in brand communications is quite often mixed and a well-thought out symbolic strategy is rare. As indicated in our analysis, the quantitative proportions between masculine- and feminine-type advertisements used by individual brands may also impact the perception of brand gender.
The Orange brand strategy is safest for mobile telecom brands, whose customers are both men and women. The brand has created two parallel semi-symbolic systems responsible for feminine and masculine gender. It has given consumers the possibility of picking messages suitable for them and freedom in choosing their approach to feminine and masculine gender signs.
Orange has allowed consumers to sometimes wear stilettos and sometimes moccasins. But what conclusions were drawn by the brand which turned to us for help? In its new communications, the brand clearly discontinued the use of the distinctively feminine system of symbols. New advertisements were developed using a masculine system of signs. The brand’s communication was balanced with masculine colours ie. silver and grey, and by metallic elements.
The semiotic gender analysis showed that masculinity and femininity are not exclusively built on images of men and women, but also on wide-ranging sign systems, which can be deliberately managed. Having no control over these systems has serious complications for the brand’s life, especially in the case of brands targeting both genders. The results of the study brought inspiring recommendations for strategy and creation experts in advertising agencies, as well as guidelines for brand managers as to how better to manage the brand’s gender, which masculinity and femininity signs to use in the brand’s communications and in which proportions in order to, for example, create a sub-brand with feminine attributes within the masculine brand.
Marzena Żurawicka is a Partner at Semiotic Solutions, Poland.
by Ximena Tobi
Emotional bonds and sense of belonging
Regarding football, Brazil and Argentina feature a particular mixture between business and popular culture. Beginning with the curious fact that the first World Cup took place in 1930 in Uruguay, South American football has developed a particular way of playing quite different from the European way, along with a huge popular devotion for this sport. In this context, every four years the Football World Cup is quite an extraordinary event. That’s the reason why in these countries almost every brand from global to local, even the small ones had something to say about the World Cup.
The ubiquity of the event brought a multiplication of texts talking about it and generated a topic with several codes through which it was developed. Everybody wanted to say something about the World Cup, a way of being attached to something bigger than us: a collective experience.
For the 2014 Football World Cup, regional brands worked on their campaigns for one year looking for the brilliant idea that would make the difference to get the brand to stand out among the competition. In this kind of situations, semiotics helps brands to find new communication paths and avoid falling into the trap of the commonplace; usually nationalism in contest like this one.
Every social phenomenon has many layers of meaning, some more dominant than others, some more visible than others. For example, a football match in Latin America leads us straight away to some social stereotyped images: a group of male friends in front of the TV drinking beer, the team training before the match, fans with the team signs entering the stadium, and so on. But it does not link so fast to the image of the football players’ mothers feeding and raising their little sons —as it is shown in La Serenísima milk TVC.
Brands will find in semiotics a powerful tool to create new relevant stories, appropriate at the same time to the category and to the brand identity. Semiotics works as a cultural dissection tool to identify micro-meaningful everyday social images/situations/ practices that could be the triggers for the desired brand-consumer identification.
For example, football fans cheering in their various forms is a key to building bridges among people and between brands and people. Just a colloquial expression —as Quilmes beer— or real fans’ heartbeat recordings —as Itaú bank— are different ways to show what Latin Americans feel about football. Something that has been always out there, but semiotic analysis displays as brand communication opportunities.
Let’s see two case studies of Latin American brands’ 2014 World Cup campaigns and how they include semiotic insight from regional football cultural codes.
Brand communication decoding
Building the collective experience
Quilmes (beer – ARG) & Itaú (bank – BR)
Based on football popular cultural codes, these regional brands campaigns tell stories about a sense of belonging. It is the gregarious quality of human beings that is the primary theme; and football works as the live example of what we can do and how we can feel when sharing experiences with others.
Every brand talks about the local way of living football. Argentinean team sponsor Quilmes beer shows several collective TV reception scenes (TVC: Vamos Carajo), following the popular ritual of gathering together to watch the match. Two words are the common thread that joins all the scenes —“¡Vamos Carajo!”— as a cheering mantra; there is no joy, but unease and nervousness. Fans encouragement appears as the necessary complement of a successful team. Team and fans are defined reciprocally. The one cannot exist without the other. In the same way, Brazilian bank Itaú collected fans’ heartbeats throughout the country ‘inside’ a ball (teaser: Batucada de Coração), which is delivered to the national team as a sign of the power of unity. Itau says: “200 millions hearts beating can change everything.”
‘Building a collective experience’ is a common code —quite dominant— in both brands, but it can be presented in different ways.
In the case of Quilmes, the product is presented as the usual companion of football match watching. As the national white & blue striped t-shirt, Quilmes brand has a constant presence in this kind of situations. Repetition is the semiotic tool to show ‘the same in the different’. Different locations where people are watching the match with the same cheer (“¡Vamos Carajo!”) to the national team build a line of energy ending in the football players. This synchrony of feelings is the power behind the possibility of win. Nevertheless there is not only encouragement, but also nervousness and the different ways of dealing with it: peeling off the bottle label, tapping the feet and bending the bottle lid. Therefore Quilmes helps fans to release tension not only by drinking the beer, but also providing an object to fiddle with.
In the case of Itaú, the collective experience is presented as part of the preparations for the World Cup. There are no settings, no actors. There is no representation but presentation of actual fans.
In contrast with Quilmes, Itaú shows its reach to every part of a huge country such as Brazil, meeting real people in beaches, parks and streets, who want to offer their heartbeats as a symbol of emotion and encouragement to the national football team.
Whilst Argentineans are represented suffering, being nervous and anxious at the beginning of a match, Brazilians are always happy, smiling and relaxed. It is associated with a deep cultural difference —an atmosphere, an attitude— that could also be detected in several cultural expressions like national music: the difference between samba and tango. While samba is a festive, expressive and colourful rhythm, tango conveys an intimate dramatic passion.
Football, not only a men’s matter
La Serenísima (milk – AR)
Building a more intimate atmosphere, La Serenísima —Danone associated— launched a series of TVCs (Gracias por alimentar tanta pasión) with the mothers of the main Argentinean football players telling anecdotes about how they raised their children, fed them, took care of them and supported their efforts and sacrifices to become the master players they are today. Based on the cultural archetype of the nutritive mother, this milk brand communication goes directly into the family circle through the testimonies of the players’ mothers.
They talk about the upbringing period, when children establish their main human values that will guide them over their adult lives. In this frame, milk has a leading role: it synthesizes the mother-child bond, because it is a tangible and concrete object signifying all the love, trust, hope and happiness that mothers feel about their children. Furthermore, the glass of milk takes us to the Argentinean typical family scene in the kitchen-dining room, where children right after arriving from school, drink their milk usually with cookies.
Everyday life references (arrival from school, going to football training, daily baths) appear as a way to find the human behind the idol. Football stars were once also common kids as any of us, with similar habits and stories to tell. La Serenísima places itself in the core of quite a universal semiotic territory. From land to motherhood, the brand message conveys the idea of back to the origin, a place of simple and real authenticity. As a result, La Serenísima becomes the equivalence point between football players and their fans. The nature of mother-child bond is similar to the players-fans relationship in that they are both emotional. There is a semiotic chain: brand – mother – player – fan, synthesized in the brand slogan: “Feeding Argentine people with passion” (= “Alimentando con pasión a los argentinos”).
- Cultural codes cross brand communications, independently of brand intentions. Semiotics gives brands the opportunity to detect and choose the better cultural codes to support their brand messages.
- Any brand category can communicate relevant messages referring to any specific context, in our case the FIFA World Cup. Semiotics allows brands to analyse their context and find an original way to talk and interact with it.
- Given a semiotic territory, brands communicational challenges are to convey an appealing and unique perspective when talking about a dominant and mainstream theme.
- In this frame, semiotics helps in the design stage of brand communication to distinguish textual levels (codes, styles and tone of voice) and therefore use them as pieces of a puzzle, which can be combined in different ways, some more typical, some more innovative. For example, the two different ways in which brands talk about the code ‘Building a collective experience’.
Finally, I would like to thank my colleagues and friends Clio Meuer and Ángeles Mendoza for their help gathering and translating the Brazilian material.
Ximena Tobi is a Partner at Semiotica Studio based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She can be reached via Twitter at @ximenatobi
Semiotics, Strategy, and Value Creation
by Laura R Oswald, Ph.D.
Semiotics is a hybrid of cultural anthropology and linguistics that accounts for the cultural codes structuring meaning in a set of data. Semiotics has important implications for marketers, because managing the codes consumers associate with a brand or product category actually creates brand value. The data set can include consumer interviews, retail settings, package designs, and popular media. The following case study illustrates how semiotics created value for a brand of disposable diapers by deconstructing the dominant cultural myth associated with the category and developing a distinctive and culturally relevant creative strategy. The Baby’s Best brand name is a pseudonym and does not reference any brands on the market at this publication.
The Meaning of Diapers
In practical terms, consumers buy diapers to avoid the inevitable mess created by babies who have not yet been toilet trained. However, the marketing media associate babies, mess and tidiness with ideological and moral standards related to motherhood. In a manner reminiscent of Lévi-Strauss’s ( 1969) raw and cooked dimensions of culinary culture, the wet/dry binary in diaper messaging is linked to a cultural ideal associated with the Good Mother. The Mother/Bad Mother binary is embedded in a cultural paradigm that privileges control and even denial of the bodily functions, and leads to a set of binaries structuring value in the diaper category, including culture/nature, control/chaos, sacred/profane.
P&G’s Pampers leads the category by owning the Good Mother myth. In historical advertising, Pampers raises the functional benefits of dryness to the level of godliness. It associates the dry baby with a kind of victory of Culture over Nature. As the guardian of Culture, the “Good Mother” controls the liquids, flows, accidents, and messes associated with Nature. The “Bad Mother,” by implication, is out of control, messy, and unable to keep baby dry.
Furthermore, representations of the Good Mother in advertising for the category insulate mothers and babies from the messy reality of diapers in a timeless, luminous radiation. The repetition of these themes in the data set contributes to a kind of Mommy Myth that masks the real struggles of mothers. They satisfy, in the imaginary-symbolic realm, the unmet emotional needs of real moms to meet the standards society expects of them as the gatekeepers of culture.
Pampers‘ competitors face a difficult choice. They could compete head-on with Pampers with an even “better Mother” image or play at the edge of the opposite pole, the “Bad Mother.” As a result, even store and generic brands imitated the Pampers positioning in package design, leaving consumers with a bewildering array of identical products at the point of purchase. The case analysis shows how strategic semiotic research identified a new competitive space for Baby’s Best by deconstructing the Mommy Myth altogether and targeting real, everyday moms. The Real Moms positioning competed with Pampers without engaging with the Good Mother/Bad Mother dialectic at all.
Design and Methodology
Semioticians identified the Good Mother myth by decoding representations of babies, motherhood, and diapers in popular culture and advertising and exploring secondary sources in the press and the writings of experts. Researchers collected messaging from retail sites, advertising, packaging, and new products related to baby care in general. We examined popular self-help books, magazine articles, and blogs related to parenting, baby care, and motherhood. Researchers visited specialty shops in Chicago and Los Angeles, surfed websites, and examined new products, technologies, and fashion for this segment. Researchers also looked for these codes in popular television programs, movies, and magazines devoted to mothers and babies.
The data set was limited to these cultural artifacts. Primary research with consumers was conducted after the semiotic analysis of the category was completed, to flesh out in more detail consumer reactions to the Good Mother myth.
The Strategic Semiotic Analysis
The semiotic analysis began by deconstructing the Mommy Myth on a Semiotic Square into a more nuanced interpretations of motherhood and the role of diapers in that interpretation.
The Semiotic Square (Greimas ( 1984) is a strategic tool derived from structural semantics that breaks down the binary oppositions structuring a category into more complex relationships, such as contrariness (i.e. not-good/not bad) and implication (i.e. good/not bad, culture/not nature). The Semiotic Square organizes the constituent elements of a semantic category on a double binary grid, comprised of three relationships: contradiction [S = S1 > S2], contrariness [-S = -S1 > -S2], and implication [-S = S1 > -S2 and -S1 > S2]. This three-dimensional structure accounts for the nuances and ambiguities that fall within the two poles of the paradigm and extends the semantic complexity of the semiotic analysis (Figure 1).
The dialectical opposition of “wet” and “dry” baby frames the dominant semiotic space for the diaper category, as represented by the solid arrows joining the contradictory terms of Wet and Dry [S = s1 and s2] on the inner square. In order to account for the implication of wet and dry diapers in the ideological opposition of Nature and Culture we projected another square on top of the first one, structured by the contradictory relation of Nature to Culture, represented by a solid arrow [S1a and S2a]. This approach both anchored the physical attributes, Wet and Dry, in the cultural context and increased the number of quadrants in which to position the Baby’s Best brand.
Pampers and its clones were positioned in the upper right corner of the grid and associate dryness with order, tidiness, and the “Good.” In order to move Baby’s Best out of the “Good Mother” quadrant and build a unique brand positioning, we deconstructed the contradictory relations structuring the category into secondary and tertiary binaries. We traced secondary relations of contrariness, i.e. not Wet and not Dry [-S = -s1 and -s2], associated by dashed arrows. We then traced tertiary relationships of implication, Wet and not Dry [s1 and -s2], and Dry and not Wet [s2 and -s1], using a dashed line.
This exercise led to the development of a new cultural paradigm for the category based on oppositions between a cultural ideal and the reality of motherhood. This paradigm emerged in a two-stage process. First, by breaking down the primary binaries (Wet/Dry, Bad/Good, Nature/Culture) into their contrary terms (i.e. Not Dry, Not Wet, etc.) analysis opened up an alternative to the rigid bifurcation of the category into moral absolutes such as Good and Bad, Nature and Culture. Second, by implicating these contrary units in each other at the lower end of the Semiotic Square, analysis identified a counter-cultural space in the diaper brandscape that called into question the Mommy Myth and its underlying beliefs and values.
For example, the implication of “Not Wet” in “Not Dry” emphasizes the role of diapers in the real transitions between these two states. In this neutral space, diapers moderate the accidents and uncertainties associated with baby’s body, Nature, and mother’s busy life—they do not erase them. Furthermore, the implication of “Not-Nature” (-S1a) in “Not-Culture” (-S2a) places in question the assumption that Nature, i.e. the messy bodily functions, transcends Culture. In fact, baby’s toilet functions are not intrinsically “bad.” They are censored from the dominant brand positioning in response to cultural biases about the role of mothers in society.
The Real Mom forms a counter-cultural space for busy moms who must negotiate the tensions between society’s ideals and the realities of modern motherhood. It also mapped out a new competitive space for Baby’s Best that side-stepped Pamper’s Good Mother myth altogether. Secondary research suggsted that the Real Mom positioning could draw momentum from counter-cultural representations of motherhood in the popular culture. The counter culture uses irony to soften the blows of the cultural critique, making light of the ideal mother without violating the sacred sanctions protecting family, mother, and apple pie in American culture. Programs such as Roseanne and The Simpsons use humor to demystify motherhood, give vent to the frustrations of every day moms, and provide an alternative representation of motherhood for the Baby’s Best brand.
The disposable diaper category has lost value over the years due to a lack of brand differentiation. Generic and store brands claim a growing share of market by simply copying Pampers‘ Good Mother myth in packaging and merchandising that feature stereotypes of perfect babies and saintly moms. Failure to challenge Pampers‘ cultural positioning has lowered competition and profitability across the category. Baby’s Best‘s innovative positioning opened new possibilities for competitive difference within the disposable diaper category based upon contemporary, more realistic expectations and perceptions of motherhood. As a result, strategic semiotic research proved essential for growing value in the category as a whole.
Laura Oswald, Ph.D. is founding director of Marketing Semiotics Inc. based in Chicago.
She can be reached via Twitter at @MarketSemiotics
Successful brands understand both the universal qualities of human behavior and the cultural context of the local markets in which they operate. Thus, good brand management integrates universals of human nature with locally relevant nurturing through the prism of culture.
So do semiotics and neuromarketing have much in common? Although there has been little interaction between behavioral scientists and semioticians, they share more than is commonly acknowledged and are often solving the same problem from different perspectives.
Context, context, context
Behavioral economics experiments consistently show the crucial role that environmental cues play in shaping human behavior, when even the smallest change to the context of a decision can change that decision (Kahneman, 2012). Semiotics looks from the opposite direction to understand the ‘meanings’ that culture creates for signs and symbols in the world around us (Danesi, 2006; 2007).
But aren’t the two disciplines really doing the same thing? In reality, the brain is a highly sophisticated pattern recognition machine. As information floods in to the brain through the senses, it is analyzed for patterns that have ‘meaning’ in shaping our decisions to help us achieve our goals (Bruner, 1990; Frith, 2007; Gregory, 2009).
Sensory perception is the interface between the outside world of signs and symbols and the ‘inner’ world of the human mind and its decision-making processes. The senses are our signal detection system (like a radar) that act as transducers, converting physical and chemical information from photons of light, sounds waves, food particles and the body’s physical feedback mechanisms into electrical signals forming patterns in the brain and meaning in the mind (Roberts, 2002).
Universal and cultural signs
What do I mean by ‘meaning’? Think of the taste of sugar on your tongue. Even newborn infants are already primed to like sweet tastes, as the meaning of ‘sweet’ is that something is nutritious and contains energy (generally a very positive meaning until very recently in human history). Likewise, even young babies do not like bitter tastes, which are associated in nature with substances that are toxic. These are universal ‘signs’.
A very simple example of a more ‘cultural’ meaning is the flavor Wintergreen, which was rated as the best liked smell in America in one study, while at the same time it was least liked by those in the UK (superficially a very similar culture). The reason for this is that many Americans are first introduced to Wintergreen as candy, while for the British it’s more likely to be first encountered as the taste of medicine.
Our memories store information associatively, linking meanings to experiences, which is why analogy and metaphor are so pervasive and powerful (Lakoff & Turner, 1980; Hoftsadter, 2001). These associations form the basis of the meaning we attach to everything around us, and most particularly whether we associate something with a positive experience or a negative experience (within a specific context). One definition of ‘culture’ would be the collective sum of the associations and meanings shared by any group of people.
The evolution of human goals
The meanings that humans seek go beyond good and bad (or approach versus avoid). Recent work in evolutionary psychology indicates that the mind is not a single holistic entity, but rather a number of (sometimes competing) systems with specific goals associated with successful strategies (by which I mean evolutionary success, see Kendrick & Griskevicius, 2013; Panksepp & Biven, 2012).
In humans, these systems number at least 12 (beyond the basic drives like hunger). These human goals are reflected in the StoryWorks model of brand emotions and motivation, which includes belonging, care, idealism, authority, understanding, transformation, courage, creativity, individuality, freedom, play and intimacy expressed through universal archetypes (Gains, 2013; see Figure 1).
Brands and emotional signals
Recent work in evolutionary psychology shows that these goals or motivations are ‘hard wired’ into the brain, each running through an independent bundle of neural circuits that effectively take control of decision-making according to the context and therefore the most relevant goal. If you are scared, and your brain focuses on the goal of self-protection, not only do you focus on signs that area associated with this goal, you ignore those that are not relevant.
That’s why successful brands can help users to maximize the emotional rewards associated with achieving their goals by sending the right signals. For example, Nike focuses on the goal of bravery, courage and strength across all their communications and how this can be achieved both for professional athletes and amateurs. Nike communicate these meanings through its advertising, as well as the symbolism of its name and logo too.
But can such meanings also be communicated through the senses? And can semiotics inform the design of products and experiences as well as the communication of ideas? I believe they can, and moreover that the meanings derived from experience are often more powerful and lasting than those that come from words (Bergen, 2012).
Most of the published work on sensory branding and marketing has focused on the latter rather than the former – looking at the importance of the senses in creating customer engagement, but with much less emphasis on the symbolic value of sensory experience in creating brand meaning (Lindstrom, 2010; Krishna, 2013). However, the best brand experiences are the ones that have meaning.
Stories, symbols and senses
One of my favorite examples of sensory branding is Dettol, which works at three different levels at communicating its meaning (see Figure 2). The story of Dettol is its “Mission for health”, symbolized through a sword that dominates the logo. The sensory experience reinforces this symbolism, through a distinctive and strong antiseptic smell and a visually impactful white colored milky emulsion that is produced as soon as it is mixed with water. The brand story, the pack symbolism and the sensory signature all create a strong link to the brand promise (associated with the same goal as Nike – the courage to ‘”fight the fight” for cleanliness and health).
The smell of Dettol is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever used the brand, as is the ‘ouzo effect’ of the white colored milky emulsion produced when it is mixed with water. These aspects of the sensory experience signal the potency and activity of Dettol’s disinfectant chemicals, creating a strong link between product use and efficacy. The smell is used as a sensory signature across Dettol’s range of products around the world.
So how can market research combine semiotic thinking with the latest understanding of human decision-making? TapestryWorks believe that semiotic thinking can contribute to building non-verbal research tools and have developed our own visual vocabularies for exploring human emotions and sensory experience.
Metaphors and visual thinking
I mentioned earlier that metaphor reflects the ‘language’ of the brain, as the majority of the brain’s activity is focused on processing sensory information, 90% of which is visual. We know that the (decision-making) brain thinks much more in the language of physical (sensory) experience than in words. We also know that humans are much better at recognizing something that has been experienced before than in recalling or retrieving a memory of a past experience.
Although, projective techniques have been used in market research for a long time, they have most often been used in a very open way without underlying structure or frameworks. One approach is to develop visual stimuli that can be linked back to a standard framework to aid interpretation. TapestryWorks have done this both for human motivations and the emotions associated with positive and negative outcomes, as well as for the full variety of sensory experiences.
For sensory experience, we then broke down each aspect into binary oppositions (where possible) to create a set of double-sided cards that have proved invaluable in helping clients explore the senses in primary research. The tool helps clients capture implicit associations and non-verbal categorisations (in Daniel Kahneman’s System 1) through a simple card sort.
Semiotics and primary research
In a recent study in Indonesia, we helped a client understand implicit perceptions of two beverages through a series of visual card sorts, helping them decode the differences between their new product variant and a strong market leader. The cards revealed that the key advantage of the market leader was its association with carefree states of mind. This was strongly linked to the experience of consumption, which was perceived as very mild and gentle experience (the client’s brand was seen as more intense and strong), and as very simple and soft (where the client’s brand was seen as more complex and hard edged – see Figure 3 for an example of the cards).
Based on the research, we were able to recommend that the client revise a number of aspects of product and packaging execution, in order to create an experience that was more comparable with their target customers’ goals. This included removing visual and verbal packaging cues that were associated with a sweeter and milkier drinking experience (and therefore creating a perception of a more intense flavor), and adding visual cues for natural (the proposed packaging was seen as relatively artificial).
Semiotics and behavioural science
In summary, behavioral science teaches us that implicit decision-making works in a very different way to that assumed by many standard market research approaches. Specifically, most of the brain’s experience of the world is non-verbal. The best way to understand implicit decision-making is through approaches that work non-verbally to access the meanings that people attach to brands, products and experiences.
As the science of symbolism, semiotics has much to contribute to developing market research tools that can help businesses better understand brand meanings, both by looking from the outside in to decode cultural meanings, and also crucially from the inside out to access how those meanings shape individual human decisions.
Neil Gains is Managing Partner of TapestryWorks and author of Brand esSense.
He can be reached via @neilgains
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