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
Alter, A (2013) Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, And Behave, The Penguin Press, New York
Bergen, B (2012) Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, Basic Books, New York
Bruner, J (1990) Acts of Meaning: Four Lectures on Mind and Culture, Harvard University Press, Cambridge
Danesi, M (2006). Brands, Abingdon, Routledge
Danesi, M (2007) The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice, University of Toronto Press, Toronto
Frith, C (2007) Making Up The Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester
Gains, N (2013) Brand esSense: Using sense, symbol and story to design brand identity, Kogan Page, London
Kendrick D and Griskevicius V (2013) The Rational Animal: How evolution made us
Gregory, R (2009) Seeing Through Illusions, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Hofstadter, Douglas (2001) Analogy as the Core of Cognition, in The Analogical Mind: Perspectives from Cognitive Science, ed D Gentner, K Holyoak and B Kokinov, The MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 499-538.
Kahneman, D (2012) Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin, London
Krishna, A (2013) Consumer Sense: How the 5 Senses Influence Buying Behaviour, Palgrave Macmillan, New York
Lakoff, G and Turner M (1980) Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Lindstrom, M (2010) Brand Sense: Sensory Secrets Behind the Stuff We Buy, Kogan PageLimited, London
Panksepp, J and Biven, L (2012) The Archaeology Of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion, WW Norton & Company, New York
Roberts, D (2002) Signals and Perception: The Fundamentals of Human Sensation, Palgrave Macmillan, London
As the strategic needs of your brand expand, one of the first areas that begin to feel a bit small is the scope of your brand research. When your brand research is no longer influencing your brand strategy and/or not reflecting the brand’s evolution, it is time for a more in-depth brand tracking tool.
The essence of this tool is rooted in connecting multiple layers of brand information at the respondent level:
1. Consumer Reported Positioning (What do consumers think of you)
2. Consumer Engagement (How do consumers interact with you)
3. Consumer Purchasing Data (How and to what extent are consumers using you)
In the end we are going to be connecting your brand experience to the brand perceptions, and then to the sales data. This helps us answer:
1. How much is a point of satisfaction worth?
2. Where else are your best customers shopping?
3. How much do they like your competitors? Why?
4. Does your brand need to build different levels of trust to convert within your different product categories?
5. Where in the engagement process do consumers start to commit to your brand with their purchases?
For now, we will assume that you have or can gain access to the transaction data.
Clearly areas one and two are not conceptually new, but in order for them to work well together they need to be laid out very purposefully so that result works well with the transaction data that will be layered on at the end.
Consumer Reported Positioning
The consumer reported positioning is made up of many of the same metrics that we find in most brand satisfaction studies. Though to keep the questions effective we have to be a bit more efficient and restrained in the design phase. The questions included should fit into one and only one of three buckets:
A. Brand Experiences
B. Brand Perceptions
C. Success Metrics
Brand Experiences define what the respondent did or did not do while interacting with you or one of your competitors. These are questions that help determine how prevalent a certain activity is when using your brand. They have the side-effect of working well within skip-logic too so you are able to determine if the respondent is eligible for different questions within your survey.
For example, did they try asking an associate for help while shopping? Did customers check competitor prices while shopping your store?
These questions can balloon quickly so it’s critical that each experience question has a purpose. Why will that particular experience impact the brand – or if not the brand directly, the analysis?
An experience question will usually only impact the brand directly when we need to understand how often a certain activity is taking place. One example that we all hear a lot about is checking prices on Amazon before completing an in-store purchase.
Brand perceptions are the questions that determine how and what consumers think about you vs. your competition. This is where we’ll find the ‘Brand is right for me’, ‘Knowledgeable staff’, and ‘Thought leader in the industry’ attributes.
The trick here is to make sure that the perceptions you choose to include are supported by the experiences that you are asking about. Let’s take ‘Has a knowledgeable staff’ as an example. There is an argument to make as to whether respondents should be asked the question if they have not interacted with a staff member but regardless, for a clear analysis we need to know how many and which respondents actually asked your staff a question.
If the perception that your staff is knowledgeable is lower than the competition, it is going to be necessary to determine if this is stemming directly from interactions with the staff or is a halo effect from something else.
The brand experiences and brand perceptions are meant to complement each other so that every experience is impacting an intended perception and each perception is supported by at least one experience. There are usually more experience questions than perceptions and it often makes sense for one perception to be supported by multiple brand experiences.
The success metrics are pretty straight forward. This is where we will add Overall satisfaction, Likelihood to recommend, etc. However, one that is all too often missing is the brand mission statement. Satisfaction, recommendation, and likelihood to use again are obviously important but this is the place where you can see how you are delivering on whatever mission your brand has tasked itself to accomplish.
When this part of the design is completed you should have success metrics that articulate how often you are winning the hearts and/or minds of your customers (success metrics), supported by what they think of you (brand perceptions), further supported by why they think of you that way (brand experiences). For the sake of explanation these question categories are grouped together but this is not meant to imply that these questions should be asked consecutively in your survey. Best practices regarding survey flow should be applied.
This one portion of the tool can take quite a bit of discussion but it is just one piece of the puzzle.
Consumer engagement can be measured in all sorts of ways; each with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. At this point we believe the best way to understand if and how consumers feel connected to a brand is through the brand funnel. The point of the funnel in this instance is not a path to purchase but a measurement of advantage or disadvantage in the marketplace.
Different industries can influence the ideal set-up but for the sake of illustration, we’ll keep the funnel relatively basic.
It is nearly always appropriate to have both unaided and aided awareness included in the survey. These responses need to not just be tallied but coded so that they can be reincorporated into the data set at the respondent level. Unaided awareness is an exceedingly more valuable equity than aided awareness; knowing how these people ended up with your brand as their top-of-mind is going to impact strategy.
Familiarity / Consideration
Either but ideally both of these funnel metrics could have levels to indicate low vs. high familiarity or consideration. These levels will represent the devilish details that can really bring light to your findings.
That said, as a whole this section level of the funnel can be harder to deal with than most people give it credit for:
1. Are people familiar with the brand because they considered it?
2. Did people consider the brand because they were familiar?
This is where we have to invoke our initial disclaimer at the start of this section. The funnel is not purposed to be a path to purchase for the individual. Besides, the critical interaction has very little to do with time-traveling; all that matters is how many people that are familiar, decide NOT to consider. Understanding that ratio for your brand vs. the competition is a great foundation for understanding the broader marketplace.
Understanding why they did not consider matters too but that will be covered as you bring section 1 into your analysis.
Note that in the illustration below, consideration and purchase are labeled in the past tense. This is intentional since we like to separate our purchase funnel from our loyalty funnel (different topic). For our immediate purpose, we want to keep the funnel focused on past behavior instead of intent of future actions.
That is to say, we know and appreciate a brand funnel that ends with loyalty. We suggest that it be included in this tool and in the analysis but for this exercise we are focusing on only the areas of the funnel that reflect past behavior.
If you do not have access to the transactional data in any way, simply covering these first two sections in a single study will allow for a solid brand study that connects perceptions with engagement. More importantly you will see some cause and effect as you measure the impact of your evolving marketing efforts. Understanding how and when you are impacting reach, perception, and engagement is very powerful especially when you can see how your competition is affected.
Consumer Purchasing Data
Tying your respondents to your transactional data offers substantial power to what we have already laid out. Specifically, this is where we connect brand perceptions and engagement with dollars and action. Remember our brand experience question about interacting with the staff – this is where we see how much more is a positive staff interaction is worth.
The sampling methodology is the critical first step to making this work. If you just try and field your research among your in-house panel, or send out a link among your loyalty members, you will be skewing the information. For one, brand research should be blind – respondents should not know who is asking them to take the survey before the rate the brands. Second, but maybe less clear, is that the people on your in-house list are going to be demographically dispersed in a way that differs from a census based distribution provided by your panel company.
This means that you have to make the effort to match your outside respondents with their transaction information. A loyalty program number is a really nice way to do that since it avoids issues with collecting contact information from panel company respondents.
Once the matching is complete and transactions have been merged with your survey data, the limitation on the analysis is equal only to the limitation on your sample. In our experience match rates can vary between 40-70%.
Taking It One Step Further
Continuous fielding is not required but is a strong preference. The ability to capture unduplicated respondents throughout the year ensures that your measurements reflect the brand and account seasonal skews or short-term campaigns. This is especially true for competitors when you may not have real-time visibility into what campaigns are being run.
Internally, consider dashboards for your Key Performance Indicators. All researchers cringe a bit when data goes out without full analysis but for your funnel metrics, satisfaction scores, and other core measures; keeping these numbers up-to-date expands the useful life of your results beyond just 1 or 2 times a year. Due to sample, we like keeping these to Monthly or Quarterly updates.
That said, very often a basic study does the job very well and is more often under-analysed than under-performing.
James Rohde is Research Supervisor at MARC USA
With a few notable exceptions, the marketing research industry looks and feels rather ‘own label’. Here Lucy Davison of Mustard marketing shares how a strong personal and business brand can help you and your business grow.