In the San Francisco Bay area, a place dominated by Google, Apple and Facebook, culture is permeated with messages about the crucial need for innovation. We’re told that innovation lives in the space between intelligence and dreams; it’s nimble, creative thinking that frees itself from the confines of convention. We need innovation, the story goes, because there’s an increasingly higher bar set by competition. According to Fast Company, ‘Exceptional is expected.’
Creative thinking is required whether innovation is big or small. While innovation helps brands meet changing technological needs, it also helps generate new ideas in static brand and product spaces. Even consumer goods such as toilet paper have benefited from micro-innovations redirecting stale energy in their category. And, while meeting competitive challenges is key, it’s also important to incorporate innovative thinking into every aspect of brand development, including strategic R&D decision-making.
This leads to a crucial question- how do we get to creative thinking that makes a difference? As a commercial semiotician and trained researcher, I’m not going to tell you that semiotics alone has the answer. Research methodologies are often best used in sync to offer multiple perspectives and answer complex questions that drive product and brand development. But, I will tell you that semiotics can provide the ‘special sauce’ that makes innovative brand and product decisions sing.
Creative leaps are tough, and even incremental innovation requires creative associations that may not be immediately accessible. For example, consider the innovation inspiration workshop, traditionally fueled by brand and competitor positioning data, pipeline projects, target segment profiles, and social trends material. The problem is, these materials don’t feel fresh for the team charged with being ‘creative.’ The stimulus isn’t there, and they find themselves churning out the same list of ‘insights’ as in prior years. Turning to your own category for innovation inspiration can also result in recycled ideas rather than the bold leaps and unexpected juxtapositions that mark truly compelling thinking.
Considering these challenging conditions for creative innovation, I’d like to highlight the role semiotics can play as an innovation inspiration tool. Semiotic insights can feel fresh and unexpected, jolting brand teams into new conceptual spaces and opportunities. Semiotics also offers a vision of possibilities beyond immediate brand and category expectations since it draws from a broader brand and consumer context, offering deeper resources to plumb.
Semiotics reveals fresh thinking about brands, categories and culture
So, we know innovation requires fresh thinking – going beyond the mainstream, everyday view. As Apple’s classic ‘Think Different’ imperative implies, this is about reflecting and articulating emergent, alternative and compelling beliefs about the world.
Semiotics excavates the foundations of cultural meaning associated with the linguistic, visual, gestural and sensory world we live in. This meaning is encoded in our everyday world, but semiotics makes these codes obvious. In doing so, semiotics makes clear how brands leverage cultural codes to maintain their symbolic heft. Semiotics tells us why the scent of fresh apple pie is powerful, even when replicated in a fast food setting, and why Levi’s couldn’t do without its red tab. Importantly, semiotics reveals which codes are mainstream, and which reflect emergent beliefs about the world. Emergent codes offer clues as to how brands can stay fresh in the evolving marketplace.
For example, the recent renaissance in yogurt fostered a range of brands reflecting consumer beliefs about staying healthy. A semiotic analysis reveals two extremes in the yogurt category landscape. There are yogurts focused on sweet indulgence – in a sense nourishing our ‘spirit,’ and those focused on proactive health, which appeal to our need for rational health management – essentially nourishing our minds. But, analysis also reveals opportunity spaces linking nourishment with a sense of place and origin. This reflects emergent beliefs about the relationship between the human body and spirit and sense of place. That is, this opportunity space connects health to a kind of yogurt terroir (Saint Benoit), an emergent, increasingly salient idea. More recently, savory yogurts (e.g. Blue Hill) have carved out a space combining the terroir approach with indulgence, reflecting other shifts in foodie culture and everyday nourishment.
The fact that semiotics helps contextualize these (albeit smaller) innovations is essential. Moves into broader, less familiar yogurt territory wouldn’t be possible without understanding both the layout of the category, and opportunities offered by emergent cultural shifts.
Semiotics offers ways to finesse and elaborate category themes and highlight routes into uncharted territory
Let’s face it, micro-innovations within established categories drive success for most consumer brands and products. These innovations require more finesse to feel freshly compelling.
Previously, I mentioned that semiotics offers a way to structure and map category landscapes within a cultural context. Positioning work offering a point of view about opportunity spaces is a core dimension of any innovation effort. But, semiotics also offers the opportunity to scan analogue categories for brand inspiration. Analyzing analogue categories offers less expected ideas, elicits fresh insights and fuels creative springboards.
Analogue categories are brand categories that share qualities, essences and even sensory inputs. For example, consider how the language of simplicity (in images, language and design) is leveraged by natural food brands. This language of simplicity connects ideals of purity to the body, reflecting our cultural beliefs about how pure our bodies should be. These ideals of purity are also carried through skincare brands. Skincare has long evolved in sympathy with natural food brand codes – both categories freely borrow codes from one another since they share this same essence of purity.
Looking across categories semiotically offers a broader arena from which to pull inspiration, and opens up the repertoire of available themes to creatively leverage in product development and brand communication.
Importantly, this broader repertoire of inspirational nuggets invites play and experimentation – the combination and creative disruption of codes stimulates the evolution of new meaning, innovative thinking and problem solving. It’s not simply borrowing across categories, but the creative combination and hybridization of codes that marks true innovation and new expression.
Massimo Leone outlines this in his wonderful article ‘The Dancing Cop: Semiotics and Innovation’ (Southern Semiotic Review, 2013) which relates the story of the Filipino traffic cop who innovatively merged his traffic direction repertoire with Michael Jackson moves to create an entirely different experience for drivers.
While incremental innovation often emerges from exploiting gaps or emergent themes in the category, innovations that leap into truly different territories hybridize codes more fearlessly, and in a way that’s less easily duplicated.
A fun example of this has emerged in renewable energy. Uncharted Play’s Soccket is a soccer ball that stores kinetic energy generated by play. Soccket generates light and powers small appliances. It’s a boon to developing nations, where people have limited access to a power grid.
Briefly, every aspect of the Soccket, from design to product name, innovatively merges themes regarding play+power+self-powered+empowered in a way that makes the connection fresh, yet very clear to consumers. These themes are so accessible for consumers because they’re already heavily leveraged in analogous categories: toys, sporting goods, technology and energy.
Guiding principles for innovation inspiration via semiotics
While the rigor of semiotics can’t be fully represented here, there are guiding principles driving the work. Employing semiotics ensures input fresh and diverse enough to inspire even the dullest innovation workshop:
- Understand the fundamentals of the category using a cultural (not traditional marketing) lens. What’s the category ‘about’ within culture? What’s the essence? Which cues within its symbolic landscape (language, imagery, gestures, sensory associations, juxtapositions and relationships,) speak to key cultural drivers?
- Systematically analyze the competitive set and cultural themes leveraged. This requires recognizing and analyzing semiotic patterns across a full body of brand communications over time, including packs and retail spaces, where relevant. Once the map is drawn, identify opportunity spaces and emergent ideas.
- Find the relevant and culturally resonant analogue brands/categories. Brand/category analogues are crucial contextual tools offering insight into variations in rules of code use, and fresh interpretations of cultural themes. Think broadly about the idea of ‘category’ as well. For example, what are the parallels between confections and popular music (pre-Dark Horse Katy Perry comes to mind)?
- Look at changes within the broader cultural context. What are the emerging values and beliefs? What can we learn about how brands interact with the changing cultural context? Emergent themes and cultural cues may speak to an evolving category, from a product, communication or consumer relationship perspective.
- Maintain a continuous dialogue among these key elements throughout the process. Culture is an ever-changing moving target.
Semiotics helps ignite creativity and inspire innovative thinking in several ways. First, semiotics lays bare opportunities presented by positioning gaps and emergent codes within categories. Semiotics also helps us understand the variance in how emergent ideas are communicated by enabling analysis and comparison across categories. In revealing the full breath of emergent cultural cues, semiotic work broadens the pool of creative resources to draw from. Semioticians use the guiding principles above to ensure that we draw from cultural resources that are fresh and diverse.
Once these fresh codes are identified, the path to innovation, the unique combination and hybridization of codes, becomes clear. In other words, semioticians specializing in brand innovation like to think like Steinbeck: Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.
Ramona Lyons, Ph.D. is a freelance semiotician and brand and cultural insights specialist based in San Francisco.
Design Semiotics is a specialised approach that combines the rigour of design analysis with the richness of cultural insights from semiotics offering advice on how to create cultural relevant designs, as well as to enhance and explore brand design equities. It is driven by the application of theory and technical knowledge intrinsic to design helping brands to understand their different design systems and allowing them to create robust design languages that connect with consumers and their cultural realities. Undoubtedly, it helps brands to stay one step-ahead from their market competitors and visual trends.
It works by uncovering the distinctive layers of information present in products and communications which is highly relevant for brands to be able to understand the different semantic dimensions of design experiences. Design Semiotics deconstruct hidden and visible design grammars that can lead to detection of visual problems and understand products deeper.
This tool is not only limited to the analysis of communications, it also encompasses product design, digital and spatial experiences as well as covering the emotional qualities of design and the analysis of different user interactions present in design objects. It brings a critical-neutral eye to the design analysis helping to rationalise cultural and visual complexity, minimising inconsistencies, and more importantly, working as a bridge between designers, brands and consumers. It is an approach that helps to engage brands with cultural contexts and their different design dimensions. It opens directions to global and local brand programmes.
Design Semioticians are always thinking about the relation between form, message, and functionality, particularly when brands need to take their offer across different cultures. Some of the questions our clients tend to ask revolve around shapes, colours, materials, typographies, among other elements and how these work in relation to production and consumption practices. They want to know how different design elements are adjusted to a specific cultural context or category. How form constructs meaning in a specific culture and how is it different from other cultures? Are product grammars aligned to category messages? What type of design signs are they sending to what type of consumers? Or simply understand why a product is not working from a design and cultural viewpoint.
Design Semiotics as an opportunity to inspire, innovate and compete
We have been using Design Semiotics as an instrument to help brands to understand their own visual systems as well as to provide a diagnosis on their design problems. We have also used this approach to semiotics to initiate conversation around innovation as well as helping brands to make their design experiences relevant to the different markets they operate.
Understand the health of their brand systems
Design Semiotics is valuable to identify and locate problems and symptoms of visual impurity, graphic dilemmas and design ambiguities. It helps companies to have a clear diagnosis of how their brands are working across different touch points at both visual and cultural levels.
We worked last year on a project for a quintessential British brand in the luxury body care market which was looking to expand to other categories and countries. Their strategic objectives required a clear understanding and definition of the brand internal systems as well as understanding how these systems worked in relation to the concept of gifting. After deconstructing the visual DNA of the brand, we found that although the brand was highly recognised for some of its visual elements such as logo, bottle shapes and materials used in their outer packaging, there was still work to be done in relation to the internal design vocabularies as these were minimising the uniqueness of the brand. The structured layouts, shapes and colour combinations used by the brand were almost identical to their main competitor and leader in the category. The concept of gifting was not aligned to the design principles of precision, attention to detail and sensoriality which are key to survive within the luxury segment. The design codes were reinforcing the idea of mainstream rather than luxury, positioning the product in the wrong consumer segment.
As a result, the brand went through a ‘cleaning’ process, the packaging systems were revised to be in agreement with the discourse of luxury gifting, (especially as the brand was highly popular in the Middle East and East Asia) and retail touch points were being considering even more. The different design insights were integrated into the business to inform brand identity, product development, retail experience and tone of voice across the whole brand system.
Be culturally design aware
Product language is always understood in the realms of cultural interpretation. Design Semiotics connects with consumers, cultural contexts and products via the invisible structures that operate in design. The way different consumers around the world interact with objects always reveals extra layers of information. By identifying local and global design parameters, we advise in the creation of designs that conform to current and future cultural codes connecting with specific cultures.
Recently, we worked on a project for a global tech brand studying the design and cultural cues of premiumness in five different countries across Europe, Asia and Latin America. The brand wanted to position themselves as number one choice in the premium market and for doing that they needed to clarify the different visual and cultural codes of premiumness.
We uncovered the different visual narratives that are critical when communicating premiumness across these markets. We found that ideas of durability, authenticity, precision and sensoriality are common ground when communicating premiumness globally, the way design provides an emotional reassurance in relation to these concepts varies significantly across markets. The square-ness of a box might have different meanings across different countries, a cardboard is a cardboard but a 1 mm less or 1 mm more can create a different effect from one country to another. Although the codes detected in the premium space can be globally executed, certain aspects of design need to be localised to create more effective campaigns.
The distilled information presented new potential design codes to explore, as well as making evident the design disparities present in the brand product range in relation to the design grammars of premiumness as well as local interpretation. We tailored these results to each country and provided a global viewpoint on design equities for the brand. As a result they are revising and innovating on materials and finishes for both packaging, product and consumption experiences.
Pushing product innovation
In recent years design thinking has been centre-stage in the global language of branding and innovation allowing brands to talk about the intrinsic value of a product as well as its intangible elements. Design Semiotics helps companies to articulate brands across different design dimensions, challenging them to improve their design weaknesses and inspiring a constant innovation.
Design Semiotics is not only being used by gigantic corporations, we have also worked with small and medium companies interested in innovation practices. An example of this comes from an event company recognised for organising product innovation events across America and Europe, they asked us to revise their current brand systems in relation to the design language of innovation, especially around their PLM (Product Life Management) offer.
In the PLM category, visual signifiers tend to operate within the business language of innovation reinforcing a corporate culture of innovation via use of blue, images of bulbs, hands, and shapes such as squares, triangles and arrows. The design discourse of innovation definitely was lacking innovation!. We wanted to take them away from a rigid, mechanical and squared space owned by the vast majority of innovation brands by showing them visual evidence that innovation could be challenged too. We helped them to move out from an innovation space that was visually represented as squared and mechanical to a space that was using organic and simple-complex geometries reflecting the real dialectics of innovation. We developed a brand system that was based on the principles of simple-complexity, formal-informal and movement which allow them to grow and challenge their own innovation concepts.
The brand has now expanded beyond PLM covering other sectors such as Apparel and Design innovation. They are constantly using design semiotics techniques to push themselves to think about innovation from a design and cultural perspective.
Opening collaborative practices
It is not unknown in commercial environments that designers and semioticians normally work in ‘silos’ which have limited the channels of communication and potential strategic opportunities. The evaluation of design products, communications and brand systems is commonly being carried out by designers and cultural insights being executed by semioticians. Although, designers recognise the value of semiotics inputs, they feel sometimes frustrated by the lack of understanding of design language in semiotics recommendations which sometimes create the impressions that Semioticians are more of an enemy than a collaborator.
Semiotics in general is there to generate design conversations not to constrain them. Design semiotics gives practical and inspirational insights to take a product or a concept forward. As one designer put it one day during a workshop “This method has helped me to understand my own work better, it is pushing me to think differently about my own design boundaries”. Design Semiotics help designers to rationalise a process that often comes from intuition creating better conversations between strategy and creative teams.
When it’s time to use this tool
This approach is valuable not only once a product has been released to the market but also during the early stages or during the design process, as it can be used as a tool for evaluation, inspiration and further understanding of cultural & design codes.
It is highly recommended when in need of aesthetic-cultural direction, especially around clarification of culturally challenging ideas and merging meanings, understanding emergent concepts or communicating when entering a new market to avoid cross-overs and re-interpretations. It becomes relevant when thinking of creating new products, communications or just when wanting to fix design impurities.
Design Semiotics will be very helpful to determine the internal failures of a product, pack, and design system or to understand the visual parameters of the category to innovate, helping brand to think about their own design values and be in tune with its strategic principles.
Lucia Laurent-Neva is Founder and Director at Visual Signo. Lucia can be reached at @visualsigno
Tim Stock and Marie Lena Tupot
We talk a lot about icebergs when we are attempting to visualise culture and understand its seemingly hidden dynamics. But the way we use icebergs to illustrate culture is not indicative of culture at all. In fact, it’s not even indicative of icebergs.
Culture is a manifestation of a human system of signs. It is not immutable. It is not permanent. Neither are icebergs. Picture this reality: 40,000 icebergs of various sizes and shapes breaking off each year, traveling erratically with the wind and melting. Icebergs form a system of movement patterns. So does culture. Looking at one iceberg to explain the dynamics of culture is an unfortunate simplification.
At scenarioDNA, we map semiotic data. By semiotic data, we mean the signs and symbols put out into the world, knowingly or not, by human beings. The human-ness of visualising data lies in the randomness of the data and the patterns it creates or avoids. Our purpose in mapping that data is to see the systems that are evolving and help expose tensions that might be otherwise pale.
If we only see the iceberg as a solitary mass, we lose the opportunity for innovation. Seeing synergy, tension, diversity and void gives us places to start asking questions, probe and think: “What don’t we know?,” “What might happen next?” and “Why?”
Yes. “There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” (Thanks for that, Donald Rumsfeld.) We need to get to the point where we know all that we could. The goal of a visualization should be to flush out and conjure up all the things in our power to know. Mapping is powerful.
Once clients can see the system that exists, it clears and opens their vision. It gives them an irrefutable lens to work with. And we can begin to think beyond their initial limits.
Because exploring culture is an inductive process, we are constantly mapping its patterns and evolution across genres. We don’t wait for briefs to start looking for evidence. This inductive process is what separates semiotic thinking from design thinking, which follows a more deductive approach. Whereas design thinking lands on a new concept, semiotic thinking allows clients to see the cultural system over time and confidently invest in multiple forward-thinking scenarios.
Mapping is more than looking for the cultural drivers of the moment. We’ve used mapping in a variety of ways. The following are six notable cases where our mapping foretold compelling new thinking that helped brands, media and countries make better sense of the worlds and cultures around them. Mapping lends context.
Mapping can identify yet-unseen cultures and untold stories. Mapping can identify the essence of culture. Mapping can identify information voids. Mapping can make sense of gestural and non-verbal communication. And mapping can reveal cultural nuances. Mapping lets us forecast a sustainable future.
Mapping proves that objects are not incidental.
The objects we use to express ourselves are critical to identity. One item out of sync can alter the messaging we want to convey. About three years ago, a global packaged goods brand reached out to us to help them better understand its regional territories. The brand recognised that it needed to better localise its messaging but had not yet captured what that looked like.
To bring the regions to life, we examined objects of power and desire that intercepted the brand in the UK, Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia. We worked with local analysts to cull input. We then mapped the analyst’s examples of the types of objects according to each country and its cultural dimensions.
Tailored design with modern shape and color showed up for the UK. A rich, but relaxed, earthiness was found in Brazil. Objects in Saudi Arabia portrayed an exotic distance. And, in Russia, unwavering legacy sat alongside dry humor. The ability to compare and contrast the objects by quadrant gave human dimension to the regional nuances.
This, along with exhaustive visual research, gave the client renewed perspective on marketing, and turned a formerly heavy handed cliche approach into a more integrated lifestyle message more in keeping with the brand identity.
Mapping can identify the essence of culture.
For a couple of years, we have been using semiotics to establish the brand positioning for Russian Standard Vodka. For the brand, we have explored the semiotics of vodka culture from a number of angles starting with the codes of the various generations engaged in drinking and also looking at the story of the brand itself — in order to understand what the brand might really mean to people outside of Russia.
The map here demonstrates how Russian Standard Vodka sits, semiotically speaking, among the sea of vodka we have in the US. It entered the market during the crescendo of flavored vodkas. Data was culled from online sentiment and cultural perceptions.
Semiotics allowed Russian Standard Vodka to forge new territory, and allowed its team to frame a uniquely Russian brand for relaunch in Europe and USA by returning to the fundamental values that make the brand worth talking about and sharing with others. Brand awareness increased by 30 percent.
Mapping can identify evolving cultures.
Back in 2009, the semiotic work we conducted for agency Cossette for Dorel/Cannondale bikes won the agency a $20million AOR. We started by looking at Cannondale and understanding where the competition sat as well as where its sister brands were (Schwinn, Mongoose and GT).
Today, we hardly think twice about bike culture, bike lanes and bike commuting. But, just five years ago, most of the talk teetered from Lance Armstrong to recreational biking. We were handed a foot-high stack of survey data from bike retailers to glean insight from. We crossed reference that information with social media postings. Bikes were evolving among people, but not at the retail level. Bikes were being hacked and augmented and used in ways no one was discussing — bike jousting, bike moves, anyone?
Our initial cast out for information eventually lead us to urban planning. There, within community studies, we found a pent-up demand for bike commuting. The semiotic symbols were all there, but the language of the category and the codes of bicycles had not yet been set in the minds of marketers. We mapped the archetypes of bike culture that we uncovered as seen in this semiotic map.
Semiotics helped the agency team push beyond their present knowledge and see the pattern of evolution as it was happening. It helped give the team a point of view that allowed them to differentiate each brand and give it breathing room.
Mapping can identify emerging stories.
About two years ago, we worked with Wieden + Kennedy to uncover deep insight for NIKE into the shifting perception of sport among youth in Japan. We collected data by tracking social media and conducting infield ethnography with teens in Tokyo, Osaka and Kamakura.
Mapping the words, signs and imagery that we saw infield, it quickly became apparent that there were a multitude of sports stories emerging. A critical observation, seen in the map here, demonstrates a breaking away from traditional bukatsu sports into more visceral expressive scenarios.
The resulting study helped NIKE visualise where kids were moving and understand what it means to be young and Japanese.
Mapping can identify information voids.
Most recently, we had been involved in an education grant looking at higher education curriculum. The exercise prompted us to deploy our Culture Mapping method to visualise university syllabus. We recognized that there had been a lot of talk about education reform, but no one was looking at what already exists. Courses live as siloed as ever, never teaching students how to move out into the real world.
We tested our theory by analyzing course descriptions from a sample of 1000 free online classes found on Open Culture. When a syllabus is mapped according to our culture mapping, classes consistently fall across four quadrants: theory; technique; outreach; and reporting. These quadrants become education archetypes, reflecting classroom learning and community engagement. Today’s students need educational experiences from each quadrant for a viable education.
Mapping the Open Culture-listed courses, all from respected institutions, demonstrated that the courses available online are sorely lacking in outreach. No surprise.
However, the imbalance also represents the state of most curriculum. When a student’s education lacks balance, it is either because they do not know how to structure their choices or the breadth is not available. If we can map a university’s syllabus according to the cultural language of its course descriptions, we can see curriculum evolve as a system and begin to reveal its patterns of strength and weakness.
An analytics toolkit was the result of this exercise. It visualizes higher education syllabus according to culture.
Mapping can make sense of gestural communication.
Gesture is so important to watch and read. Social media photography is one of the elements we watch consistently. During the recent Umbrella Protests in Hong Kong, a raised hands gesture appears. It was previously seen at the Ferguson protests in Missouri. The Ferguson protesters used the gesture as defiance, reminding police of the line they crossed with Michael Brown.
The Hong Kong protesters used the gesture as an assurance to police that their intention was peaceful. In spite of the difference in meaning, the raised hands gesture connected Missouri to Hong Kong. Solidarity messages began to appear in Ferguson encouraging Hong Kong protesters to stay strong.
Noteworthy in the Hong Kong imagery is how prepared students were with protective masks, coverings and other aid to alleviate the effects of pepper spray. From umbrellas to saline drops, posted imagery consistently demonstrated concise and proactive organisation.
There is a clear cultural delineation between the two protests that’s not evident from images alone. Looking at data without context is a big pitfall that happens all too often.
The fundamental challenge
In any case, the fundamental challenge of the 21st century is to make sense of human ambiguity. To that end, every company is charting futures to know where the opportunities are. Semiotics helps us curb our tendencies to land on singular ideas, on solitary icebergs. It helps us be comfortable in riskier territories, in investing incrementally. It helps us propagate great ideas that we don’t yet understand or see — to be assuredly provocative and impactful. Leveraging culture mapping to frame semiotics provides the critical context that is too often overlooked.
Innovation is wasted by recycling old cultural frameworks from the last 50 years. Even for icebergs. In France, four young architects are at work creating a system of floating cities irrigated by icebergs. (That’s plural icebergs. Not just one.)
Tim Stock and Marie Lena Tupot are founders of scenarioDNA based in a New York. Tim Stock can be reached at @timstock
The relationship between brands and consumers is constantly being renegotiated to fit new conditions. These are related to changing socio-economic and political parameters, shifting perceptions of the role of consumerism as well as increasing competition from a growing number of brands but also consumers’ familiarity and thus ‘immunity’ to promotional messages. So how can brands adapt to these new conditions and maintain loyalty and growth in such a fluctuating and demanding environment?
Brands need to fundamentally re-evaluate: from the way they view their broader role within society and construct philosophies and strategies to the way they do research, communicate and innovate. The key for such a shift in thinking and acting lies within culture. Brands need to perceive themselves not as mere money-making machines and vehicles of consumerism, but as intricate entities within the broader system of culture.
A Cultural Selling Proposition (CSP) encapsulates such a shift in branding. CSP enables brands to activate culture on their behalf and as such to establish deeper and more meaningful relationships with the consumers.
This is how Banks and McGee (1989) define the term culture: “Most social scientists today view culture as consisting primarily of the symbolic, ideational, and intangible aspects of human societies. The essence of a culture is not its artifacts, tools, or other tangible cultural elements but how the members of the group interpret, use, and perceive them.”
Culture has always been divided in two opposing poles: high culture (e.g. Fine Arts) and popular culture (e.g. TV, advertising). As it constantly evolves, what lies at the popular end frequently makes the passage into the high end with architecture, jazz, films, and graffiti being some examples.
This article examines the evolution of different propositions in branding and its ongoing relationship with the culture. It argues that at this specific point of time brands are also making this passage towards an amalgamation with culture.
A brief history of brand propositions: From USP to CSP
In the early stages, brand communication consisted of the absence of a specific strategic positioning, simplicity of form and content and directness in tone of voice. These characteristics were reflecting the early ‘exploratory’ stages of branding – a branding naivety if you will – as well as a new type of communication called advertising.
Nevertheless, even at such an early stage – and although at the time it was not realized – advertising was entwined with culture. From Toulouse Lautrec’s posters to Guinness’ specific graphic design aesthetics, advertising always held one foot firmly on the popular culture sometimes reaching out to higher levels of aesthetics achieving extraordinary results.
As consumerism progressed, the need for market differentiation, and hence more sophisticated branding techniques, created the Unique Selling Proposition. Branding was based on the product’s unique attributes and its competitive advantage. The role of communication was to highlight such distinctive attributes and through repetition create lasting associations in consumers’ minds.
The use of hard selling tone of voice, cold colours and centralized compositions signified extreme competitiveness, corporate order and rationality. USP belonged to a peak period of consumerism that was based on justification of value and purchase through a competitive advantage. It reflected a culture influenced by survival of the best: where Top Ten Charts, Awards, VIPs and Miss and Mr Universe thrived.
As consumerism acquired more pleasure-seeking characteristics, USP was replaced by Emotional Selling Proposition (ESP). Role of branding was to link a product with a specific consumer benefit instead of a product attribute. Role of advertising was to instigate a unique and intense emotional connection between product experience and consumers.
The characteristics of communication were warmer colours, asymmetry, sexual innuendos, and strong use of music signifying sensory stimulation escapism and indulgence. Advertisements became beautified objects being hanged on the walls and competing for awards. ESP reflected a period of consumerism excess that focused on seducing instead of convincing. It reflected a culture of self-indulgence, synaesthesia and distraction expressed through club culture, 24 hour reality TV and celebrity chefs.
USP and ESP reflected the changing cultural conditions of their times standing as evidence of the corresponding evolution of consumerism. And herein lays the next evolutionary step. Nowadays, culture has become much more important to consumers. They use it more in order to define themselves (from hipsters in Europe to cosplay in Asia), they produce more of it through technological enablement and appreciate it more due to increasing imagination and cultivation of aesthetics.
Culture ends up incorporating consumption in its repertoire of expressions and hence brands in its repertoire of meaning. At the same time, brands shift towards more ethical, pragmatic and realistic values and attributes. As a result, ads adopt a more culturally active role and are transformed into culture themselves rendering their products as indistinguishable from culture.
In a world where established culture (universities, museums, countries) becomes branded, branding reciprocates by moving towards established culture. This is how Cultural Selling Proposition (CSP) originates.
Brands become active agents in pushing the cultural agenda: they link their value system with emergent cultural meanings, transform themselves into active ambassadors of culture and thus tune into the cultural zeitgeist of their consumers. Culturally tuned brands are interacting with consumers in new ways, places and moments by telling stories that are part of culture and hence are more truthful and appealing. Consumers purchase branded products in order to experience and be associated with these stories and enhance their own cultural identities.
Brand communication becomes an end in itself acquiring autonomous character, substantial aesthetic quality and unique cultural significance. This affects not only content, but also media. Traditional media are on decline along with their influence. Emergently, brands are tapping into media that interact with consumers in real time and in their reality. Ambient advertising, events, pop-up stores and even certain digital media become the appropriate expressions of CSP as they act as agents of cultural authenticity and meaningful, experiential interaction with consumers.
The passage from USP to ESP and now CSP marks the historical maturing of branding. Culture and branding become inseparable in their definition and perception. Brands become cultural entities and communications become vehicles of culture.
Red Bull is an early stage example of CSP having already been turning their brand communication into cultural activities. Instead of creating fictional stories, Red Bull employs reality to promote itself, creating documentaries, having athletes and everyday people as its protagonists.
From the Red Bull Flugtag to Formula 1 races to record-breaking events, the brand employs the cultural fascination of flying and speed celebrated in such events as a symbol to communicate extreme energy, freedom and breaking limits. Coming to a point where instead of associating Red Bull with such events, the cultural idea of these events is inextricably linked with Red Bull – just try to think of the field of extreme games without Red Bull.
We can find strong locally relevant brands in many markets worldwide, including China. For example, Herborist is a Chinese cosmetics brand that taps into the new cultural renaissance of China inspired by traditional values and knowledge. It fuses wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine with the effectiveness of modern technology to create products that capture the best of both worlds. Herborist gives the concept of Yin-Yang a contemporary twist, one that consists of past and future, nature and technology.
This brand communication uses signifiers of tradition on one hand (Traditional Chinese Medicine ingredients, intricate circular patterns, Yin-Yang symbol, vertical writing, and those of modernity on the other (futuristic design, neon colour hues, transparency, animation and minimal compositions) to create the cultural connotation of ancient wisdom infused with technological expertise.
Herborist transcends the commercial sphere and stands as symbol of the emerging cultural momentum of China that combines pride of the past with optimism for the future. This is how it manages to create the sense of continuity and timeless-ness.
Role of semiotics in Cultural Branding
Semiotics takes a prominent place in research as one of the most effective tools of understanding communication and culture and their effects in shaping consumers’ perceptions and understanding. It treats all that it analyses as equal cultural texts: forms of communication conveying cultural meanings. In this way, branding can effortlessly blend in with culture: advertising can be easily inspired by animation, packaging can simply be guided by architectural design, retail spaces can simulate art gallery spaces and so on.
Semiotics can also deconstruct brand values to uncover their broader socio-cultural dynamics and current momentum as well as how to express those through specific visual compositions, music, language, shapes etc. Furthermore, it can monitor how these expressions evolve linking emergent signifiers with emergent meanings. Semiotics is the key that activates CSP: from the formulation of deep insight to the creation of clearer creative briefs that tie strategies close to executions to ensure cultural relevance, clarity and freshness.
In the hands of the marketing and branding professionals, semiotics can become a multifunctional tool for a diagnosis, discovery, strategy formulation, creative execution and innovation all in one. Semiotics is a skilled cultural advisor helping brands construct an effective and relevant CSP and elevate themselves into cultural icons.
Panos Dimitropoulos is Cultural Insight Lead Asia – Added Value
Storytelling is now considered an essential element of marketing communications and branding. Here Marian St. Laurent of Heavy Symbols in New York, talks about the underlying mechanics of cultural perception and semiotics in storytelling and brand communications.