By David Pritchard
The goal of Brand Tracking has always been to provide a robust platform and structure for benchmarking brand health, a critical measure of business performance. Brand Tracking studies are routinely used as a barometer for measuring the impact of business activity – be that advertising, reputation or service. As a result of this, many such programmes have morphed into a bloated ‘jack of all trades’, often lacking sufficient detail from which to draw sensible conclusions. Often, organisations place excessive scrutiny on brand outcome measures, without sufficient structure to understand what is driving these perceptions. We feel that the opportunity exists to make Brand Tracking more focused, actionable and influential. The traditional consumer brand model has suggested that advertising spend was the primary driver of brand awareness, which in turn laddered to increased consideration and usage. This straightforward model allowed for the development of the advertising effectiveness tools and methodologies now considered common currency. Once on-board, consumers were offered a limited choice of direct communication channels, which utilised structured customer handling models and were monitored for effectiveness. As a result, understanding the customer experience took on an operational, tactical focus, neglecting the wider influence of the brand.
Recently there has been some conjecture about the relative strength of the relationship between brand perceptions and overall business health. Many consumer experts are coming around to a way of thinking which suggests that it may be more relevant to create the link between business health strength of customer relationships, created by virtue of a delivered ‘brand experience’.
It’s hard to consider the modern customer experience in the context of ‘old school’ thinking. With the significant reach of ‘new’ media channels, the opportunity for non-customers to connect with brand touchpoints is a notable distinction. With much of the digital experience being hard to monitor effectively with a traditional Brand Tracking model, brands which focus their efforts here may wish to re-evaluate how they measure the outcomes. Thus, it’s important that we understand that our traditional customer experience model must evolve to incorporate a wider scope of audience – something akin to a ‘brand experience’.
Brand experience is fast becoming a new frontier, particularly in industries such as automotive, where small gains in differentiation can mean a significant impact of the bottom line. Customer, or brand experience is also being considerably championed by analysts such as Forrester and Gartner, with a recent Gartner report claiming that 89% of companies plan to compete primarily on the basis of customer experience by 2016. Brands must clearly set consumers’ expectations to create differentiation, it’s critical that businesses measure and monitor to what extent this promise is delivered upon, and market research agencies must evolve their Brand Tracking programmes to meet this demand. In the past, Brand Tracking has suffered through performing dual roles of monitoring both brand positioning and delivery, resulting in long, overly-complex questionnaires which did little to illuminate real insight on either topic. With experienced researchers typically tending to eschew long, laborious questionnaires in favour of wider and varied data sources, this offers businesses the opportunities to really focus brand research in a way that is organisationally meaningful.
Using the traditional model of advertising effectiveness, brand health can be ascribed to two main influences:
- Bought: Brand communication; a measure of perceptions. Evaluating the impact of advertising on perceptions of the brand. This would cover advertising effectiveness (reach, frequency) and the effects of advertising exposure on key brand measures.
- Owned: Brand experience; a measure of connections. Evaluating the impact of how the brand is delivered. This would reveal how the brand’s touchpoints are performing, and how connections (both for customers and non-customers) change brand perceptions.
For this two-sided insight framework to function effectively, there are a number of important criteria:
- There must be a common framework for evaluating brand performance across each area of measurement. In practical terms, this means that brands must be confident in the measures that they consider to be important health indicators – whether they be image factors, consideration or differentiation.
- Once brand health and success criteria are clarified, they must be replicated across each study area as outcome measures. This exercise not only ensures that comparably structured insights can be derived from each study, but that through statistical modelling we are able to understand the proportional impacts of each area on brand health.
- A clear demarcation of coverage between the two programmes is important to ensure that they deliver organisationally-relevant insights. These specific coverages are used to create tactical actions, while the wider view developed from considering both areas can be used to develop strategic guidance.
The idea of demarcation is an important one in the ‘brand experience’ economy, particularly as the coverage of each programme is inextricably linked with different business units. In doing this, we go some way to addressing a failing of traditional Brand Tracking. Historically, it has been difficult to assign organisational ownership of “Brand” as a holistic concept, with aspects falling into inter-departmental cracks.
The idea of separating measurement and action into “Bought” and “Owned” creates clear designation of ownership.
- “Bought” is allocated to marketing teams, delivering competitively benchmarked insights on campaign performance and impact on brand equity.
- “Owned” is targeted towards customer experience and operational functions, highlighting the competitive and comparative strengths of the customer experience, and their influence on brand equity.
This structure is not only different in its ability to involve and enable the right stakeholders, but it also allows insight teams to focus on getting actions to the right places.
David Pritchard is Client Development Director Network Research. He will also be blogging for ESOMAR at the upcoming ESOMAR Congress in Dublin. So stay tuned for more from him!
by Mariane Cara and Ashley Mauritzen
The Rio Summer Olympic Games will take place in August 2016. The Games are a spectacle surrounded by strong symbolism, from their powerful governing ethos to strict built-in structures. The Olympic flame and five rings are iconic nonverbal cues that carry a strong relationship with the Games and their meaning-making process. When we see them, we know the Games are at hand. Yet the power of Olympic visual communications goes much further.
Every Edition Logo brings something new, subtly altering the essence of the Olympics through its chronological and spatial context.
Understanding these contexts constitutes two major strands of commercial semiotic thought. The chronological focuses on the aesthetics of zeitgeist (signaling a diachronic perspective) whilst the spatial centers on the differences between cultures and their representations (endorsing the power of synchrony). In order to demonstrate these two related contexts to RWConnect readers, two semioticians have analysed two different Summer Edition Logos for this article: London 2012 and Rio 2016.
From a semiotic perspective, these logos present a very distinct set of meanings, each with their own particular signifiers (colors, shapes, dimensions…), specific narratives and dissimilar cultural meanings. For the purposes of comparing and contrasting contexts, British semiotician Ashley Mauritzen has focused on London 2012 and Brazilian practitioner Mariane Cara has analysed Rio 2016.
Created by design firm Wolf Olins, the logo for the London Olympics 2012 prove extremely divisive. Both widely maligned and passionately defended, it makes a strong case for the challenges and rewards inherent in dramatic national rebranding. Because whilst its detractors may have chosen to focus on the logo’s passing resemblance to a carnal exchange between Bart and Lisa Simpson, the real controversy stems from its bold semiotic statement of a new progressive British national identity for a global age.
The logo palette couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the traditional authoritarian navy, red and white of the Union Jack. Electric pink was the most widely used inflection – a bold post-gendered statement. Other versions signify an upbeat (orange) and contemporary (cyan) outlook. The existence of several options constitutes a celebration of variety and choice.
An abundance of rectilinear shapes pointedly confounds the rural idyll more commonly associated with England’s ‘green and pleasant lands’. Their dynamic relationship with each other cues the haphazard layout of the urban landscape, and their sharp edges resemble leading edge British architectural design. There is a sense of aerial perspective, cueing both the skyscrapers that dominate the contemporary city and its breadth of outlook.
The urban connotations of the logo are further compounded by the vertical arrangement of the numbers 20 and 12, which bears a close resemblance to the tags that abound in street art.
The energy of this subversive art form is also channeled into the logo through the use of yellow borders. The implied techiness of this ‘electric’ radiance is further compounded by the presence of a dot. When placed at the center of a phrase, it clearly signifies the language of the Internet, positioning the logo as a vital destination (or ‘address’) in the digital age.
The London 2012 logo constitutes a bold statement of intent by a country keen to forge a new post-empire identity for itself. It is a deliberate repudiation of the values more commonly associated with Britishness – calm, order and maintenance of the status quo. Britain may be nationalistic but it is fresh-faced nationalism with a twist, as the images below show:
Contemporary Britain – and London in particular – is keen to promote itself as a hotbed of creativity. The colour, asymmetry and fierce originality of the logo bear striking resemblance to some of the outfits that have featured recently at the notoriously edgy London Fashion Week:
The urban connotations of the logo neatly coincide with the foregrounding of the city of London as a globally relevant 21st century city and vibrant identity marker. Technological innovation, creativity, youth, spectacle and multiculturalism are the core values of this urban metropolis – values that this logo expresses in abundance.
The result of this heaving hotbed of signifiers, of course, is a certain indexical unreadability to which we can attribute the logo’s controversy. In short, it’s not immediately clear what it means. It is, however, in this very haziness that we find its most important message. Because this logo (in keeping with the central proclamation of the grand opening ceremony) ‘is for everybody’ – in precisely the same way contemporary Britain is. And, in order to be so, it needs to be open to endless creative interpretation and reinterpretation, whatever the risks.
The Rio’2016 logo created by Tactil Design de Ideias was well received by public opinion but also carries a feeling of déjà vu because of the similarities with the three graces in Botticelli’s painting Primavera (1482), The Three Graces from Raphael (1504-1505), La Danse from Henri Matisse (1910) and also Telluride Foundation logo and Salvador Carnival 2004 logo.
In fact, a figure of three (or five) people together in an embrace is exhaustedly seen in a large variety of visual representations. One of the reasons is the political correctness, which personifies the celebration of collectiveness, harmony and participation, without gender, social status or hierarchy. These points are very desirable in an Olympic logo, but by the other hand, they are very common, with a lack of originality.
The set of codes in this logo starts with the main colors: yellow, blue and green, which reproduce the colors of Brazilian flag and repeat three of the five colors from the Olympic Rings. The symbolic meanings of those colors could be many, but to Brazilians the most common are: yellow means energy, blue is the easygoing way of life, and green goes to the natural environment.
Sequentially, the Design team decides to construct the logo based on curves, creating an organic figure. In this respect, it is important to note that Brazilian shapes are frequently curvilinear per se, being a land of voluptuous outlines and complex contours. To cite few of them, we see plenty of curves in the architectural work from Oscar Niemeyer, and in the sculptures from Tomie Ohtake. And if we follow the direction of the prosaic world, we will face the arched movements in the pavement of Copacabana’s sidewalk.
In Brazil, we are so accustomed with curves, even our most famous rhythm (samba) demands a lot of curvy movements, and to do it right, every single dancer must to perform in a flexible way, constantly.
Crosswise this bending path, the logo exhibits some shades and lights coming from the glossy treatment of the 3D representation. This tridimensional appearance tells something about the concept of movement. In every corner of this logo we can see a new shape, which also reveals the Brazilian multifaceted way of life. To be concise in this regard, our culture is all about curves and flexibility. For us, nothing is static and unchangeable.
Finishing this section, the last signifier of this logo is the typography, which was designed as a handwriting style, in a more humanised shape, which represents the concept of craftsmanship.
In Rio’2016 logo the narratives are presented in many layers. The first is the stylisation of the human figure in a neutered sprite of three people altogether. This unit brings a social layer, showing everyone participating in this celebration, and is really closed to the Olympics Creed.
The concept of unity also speaks a lot about Brazilian culture. Usually, Brazilians work better in teams. In Sports, our most recognisable modalities are collective, as Football and Volleyball and, in daily life, some of our popular aphorisms have the collectiveness as pillar. For example: “A união faz a força” (the unity makes the power) or “juntos chegaremos lá” (together we will get there).
The embrace also represents a joyful circle dancing (Ciranda in our language), and is commonly related to the wellbeing feelings. The Cirandas are excessively represented in Brazilian´s Naif Art and are widely seen all across the country.
Following the narratives, the organic shapes of this logo make some relevant references, as the representation of the Sugarloaf Mountain, showing the unique topography of Rio; the mimics of a heart shape, maintaining the allusion to the emotional side of our culture; the mention to the Olympic Rings; and the last, but not the least, the word Rio between the human figures.
With respect to the chronological/spatial contexts, Rio’2016 is much more a spatial logo than a chronological one, being created to display the cultural signifiers and the synchronic narratives, without specifying any historical period.
This is an intense logo, which brings a diverse system of meanings, with a strong relationship to what we call Indexicality. Semiotically speaking, indexicality means the set of representations which points to something, in this case it indicates the closer relationship between the image and the Brazilian culture.
With so many indexical references, this logo will never be accused of meaningless. It is meaningful and brings familiarity with the Carioca’s Spirit.
This article provides a very quick example of how a semiotic approach can be applied to research related to visual communications and cultural analysis. We could have gone deeper and written a lot more.
Semiotics proves a powerful means of unveiling the web of meanings inherent in visual communication, by finding relevant signifiers and strong narratives. When it comes to cultural analysis, the application of semiotic methods provides an important means of understanding context, thereby avoiding misperception and misuse in different markets.
In keeping with this, it is important for market researchers to establish a network of semioticians across different countries, in order that they can use their particular cultural understanding to develop a more refined understanding of different contexts.
Mariane Cara is Commercial Semiotician at Comunicara based in Brazil. She can be reached on Twitter via @MarianeCara.
Ashley Mauritzen is a freelance semiotician and cultural analyst based in the East End of London. She can be reached on Twitter via @mauritzmash.
By Daren Poole
The rise of agile marketing will demand increasingly fast-paced creative development and execution. Researchers will be expected to provide advertisers with insight that allows them to make almost instant decisions to capitalise on opportunities to sway a consumer’s purchasing behaviour.
Ad testing will have to do some really heavy lifting. Developments in programmatic technology will multiply the amount of content that needs to be tested, while the need to develop impactful creative will increase as consumers develop their ability to ‘screen out’ ads.
Increased speed and capacity alone won’t be enough; advertisers will also need to know whether the core creative idea works, to be able to confidently ‘flex’ it across different channels and executions.
Moving the creative process forward
To evolve the level of pace required for on-the fly optimisation, and allow testing to be carried out close to execution, research will become more streamlined – with a sharp focus on getting fast, evaluative indications of an ad’s performance in market.
Questions that establish whether an ad will engage, deliver the intended brand associations and build brand predisposition will provide enough insight to choose the right ad from a set, for example. Automated tools currently exist that provide results within six hours, but we’re expecting a one-hour turnaround to be the norm.
Most current pre-testing is too slow for digital. Millward Brown studies comparing exposed to non-exposed respondents of various campaigns demonstrate digital’s potential to drive key brand metrics such as message association and brand favourability. A third of digital campaigns have no effect or a negative effect on the brand, however, highlighting the need for fast, cost-effective feedback.
Research tools have already developed the capability to quickly put ads into the context of Facebook and YouTube, for instance. These use behavioural metrics (did the viewer click, skip, watch to the end or interact?) to complement traditional survey measures and emerging neuroscience techniques – such as facial coding – that establish cut through, awareness and brand perceptions.
In the programmatic environment, testing will be critical to ensure that the ad shown is meaningful and useful to the viewer – complementing the context in which it appears, and engaging the consumer with the customisation, rather than spooking them. The next generation of tools will most likely harness some of the principles of programmatic to mirror the ‘tailored’ experience the audience would get; serving different content to respondents based on their behaviour and demographics while they’re in the survey.
Plan to be spontaneous
Agile adapting of content will only be possible if executions are based on a campaign platform that brings the brand’s purpose – what makes it meaningfully different – to life.
For this reason, gaining consumer feedback earlier in the creative development process should be part of an agile approach, to evaluate an ad’s strengths and weaknesses and then establish what works in different contexts, the media placements it best lends itself to, and how to get a better return – for example positioning it differently in a new market.
Once advertisers have learned what works for the brand, they can make frequent, iterative, customer-centric actions that speed up both innovation and return on investment.
To understand what will drive purchase decisions and build the brand, advertisers must find out how an ad makes the audience think and feel – and therefore the likely impact on brand perceptions and associations. A combination of passive and active research techniques should be used to watch behaviour, and also explore both emotional and stated responses.
The research industry has to find ways to consistently and affordably integrate direct questioning and neuroscience measurement into testing solutions, to capture both considered and instinctive responses, with results delivered ‘moment by moment’ to give the brand the full picture.
Start with the brand
All communications, however tactical, must ultimately serve to grow the brand. Firing off individual pieces of creative in different directions will lead to disconnect, and confusion about what the brand stands for.
That’s why an effective agile approach requires a third level of testing: full in-depth qualitative research that evaluates the strength of the broader creative idea at the core of the campaign, and its ability to deliver against brand objectives.
This is what will knit all the executions, across all the channels, together. If advertisers understand the creative idea, and it perfectly mirrors the brand values and purpose, then everything they build around it – the campaign as a whole, and its individual elements – will be meaningful, persuasive and impactful, and work as one to amplify the brand story.
The role of research in optimising creative to seize short-term opportunities must be balanced with the need to drive sustainable, long-term brand impact and growth. It’s all about the endgame – not the latest techniques or technology. Everything must come back to the brand, or the potential of agile marketing will never be realised.
Daren Poole is Global Brand Director – Creative Development for Millward Brown.
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.