By Steve Verba
Big Data is big news. Bigger than anything else in IT, except The Cloud. Bigger than anything else in its impact on Marketing and Market Research. So big that it seems Semiotics would hardly be expected to lay claim to relevance to Big Data immense hype and impact. And yet, on closer examination there are several powerful contributions semiotics can make to bridge the gap between Marketing, Marketing Science, Big Data and Data Science.
Importance of Big Data to Organisations
Tweets about a new product launch, posted blog comments criticizing a brand, news article posts critical of a manufacturer, job board ratings of an employer all constitute new varieties of marketing data, appearing at real time velocities and accruing into huge volumes. On these 3 dimensions alone, marketing and marketing science struggle to keep up with potential impact Big Data can have on Pricing, Promotion, Placement and Product.
With this tsunami of new data, comes a new philosophy from the Big Data community that is at the heart of its perceived benefits: “Big data represents a cultural shift in which more and more decisions are made by algorithms with transparent logic, operating on documented immutable evidence. I think “big” refers more to the pervasive nature of this change than to any particular amount of data.” (Daniel Gillick, Senior Research Scientist, Google)
The biggest appeal of Big Data application in business is that the sheer amount of data provides a sort of intrinsic credibility. Secondly, the appeal also comes from the notion that the tools used to analyze Big Data are positioned as applying pure logic to that data to make precise predictions.
This is both a great Brand Promise and a Unique Selling Proposition for Big Data. But that simplicity sells itself short. It is not so much that current use of Big Data by Data Scientists is not right, so much as it is self-limiting in terms of providing truly useful and breakthrough insights.
However, if we stand back and look at what is happening from a semiotician’s point of view this can be seen more clearly.
What’s the Meaning of Big Data? Ask Semiotics.
Big Data includes a vast array of analytical techniques borrowed mostly from statistics, math and operations research modified to operate on vast data sets. Semiotics, on the other hand, draws our attention to the existence of an underlying code system informing the choices made within the discipline (e.g. what is ignored, devalued or glossed, or what is valorized, optimized or rewarded).
Merging of Big Data with Semiotics can also successfully solve many brand conundrums. In an ad agency competition for a major American ladies undergarment account, all competing agencies already knew a prior campaign had failed and generated negative sentiments.
The winning agency took that data and reverse-engineered the meaning behind the failed campaign using a semiotic framework. They uncovered that the realistic settings and photography did not match the desired whimsical fantasy intent, and instead triggered common uncomfortable dreams of being in public partly clothed.
All agencies had the same social media data – but the interpretation of meaning using a semiotically informed marketing framework is what made a difference in understanding (and won the account).
Big Data is providing marketers with the richest sources of data ever available. The analytical tools today are likewise at their zenith. However, for marketing neither the IT folks working to manage Big Data, nor the Data Science folks seeking to analyze it, can fully leverage their data working only from within the code systems of their own disciplines. Doing so serves to “bake in” limitations of insight and impact relevant to the marketers and business stakeholders.
Unlocking Meaning of Big Data via Semiotics
So how does Semiotics help with these limitations? Simply put, by elevating Meaning back into the pure equations, logic and data troves in play today. We can see this in two dimensions:
Dimension 1: Semiotics of Big Data
We have already illustrated one aspect of how semiotics can help Big Data get it right for marketers – by shining a light on the fact that how you pick which data you analyze and how you pick what tools you use are dependent on implicit code systems you may not even be aware you are using.
A semiotician can therefore shed light on how Big Data itself creates its own meanings and cultural codes as a community. Providing this self-reflection can “open up” Big Data and Data Science to its own blind spots and help forge closer relationships with mainstream marketing practitioners.
Likewise, Big Data needs to reflect on whom it thinks it is analyzing when it deals with marketing data from consumers about brands and products. What is the implicit model of consumers? Are consumers also seen as making consistent “decisions …made by algorithms with transparent logic, operating on documented immutable evidence”? Are Brands obviated because consumers are just exercising micro-economic utility theory decisions based on features?
Marketing has long ago gone past these earlier notions of how consumption takes place. In fact, semiotics has itself helped marketing move past these earlier theories. If we have hope to have real dialog between data scientist and marketers, market scientists and market researchers, we must bridge this gap.
Dimension 2: Semiotics and Big Data
At a more tactical, granular level there are several practical ways semiotics can contribute to the analytics used in Big Data.
Social Analytics – sentiment and text analytics are an obvious place where semiotics can make a greater contribution. After all modern semiotics has considerable roots in linguistics. The use of semiotics square and the concepts of markedness, structural semantics and psycholinguistic engagement measurement are untapped tools that have been applied previously on social analytics data by semioticians to uncover far more meaning and insight than simple broad emotional reaction counts.
Data Visualization – Big Data analytics includes significant emphasis on data visualization. Recent work has treated data visualization and informatics as a form of semiotics engineering to ensure understanding of complex data by treating the code systems of the reader/recipient as key. Semiotics provides the framework on which to judge poor vs excellent data visualizations for a given audience.
Cognitive Computing – one of the most powerful developments in Big Data analytics can be seen in IBM “Watson” which uses hundreds of linked algorithms (neural nets) and an immense knowledge base to process and answer questions like a human. This constitutes what IBM refers to as Cognitive Computing. Watson explicitly exceeds limitations of hard-coded linguistic models using semiotics: “Semiotics allows for representation and synthesis of topological systematic models of different kind, including diagrams. Wherever needed, linguistic models can be converted into semiotic representation with transformational mechanisms using IBM Watson parsing.” Dr.Gary Kuvich – IBM Certified IT Architect
Moving Marketing Forward through Big Data & Semiotics
To consider the larger perspective of semiotics helping to bridge the gap between Big Data and Marketing, it is useful to get a sense of where marketing seems to be going. Paraphrasing Philip Kotler, here we can look at four changes that are going to occur in marketing over the next couple decades: need to co-create products, crowdsourcing ideas, marketing automation based on artificial intelligence rather than done by skilled marketers, and lastly learning how to produce “lovemarks” with customers and employees.
Firstly, Big Data provides the opportunity to co-create products through web interaction – semiotics provides the framework to understand the marketing meaning behind those interactions needed for proper positioning, packaging and branding. Likewise, artificial intelligence systems like Watson can begin to include semiotic frameworks relevant to marketing and marketers to begin to answer questions about campaigns and promotions.
Finally, as we start to look past traditional definitions of brands we see concepts like ‘lovemarks’ that explicitly valorize great stories, dreams, myths and icons. These are the very “stuff” of semiotics. Harvesting these dreams, myths and icons from social media big data and refashioning them to enhance deeper brand loyalty is an ongoing job for the semiotician sitting right between marketers on one side and data scientist on the other.
- Big Data carries its own brand promise and USP, which while appealing, limits its impact.
- Semiotics can provide a very useful perspective on the underlying code systems in the Big Data community. When seen from a semiotic perspective, Big Data can provide more value for marketers and market researchers, but also traditional IT departments.
- Semiotics also contributes to the evolution and use of Big Data analytics tools. Big Data and technology are changing marketing. Semiotics is already part of that path forward.
Steve Verba is a multi-disciplinary consultant with a track record in applied semiotics, technology systems, Big Data and IT. He is based in Ohio a can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Mariane Cara and Ashley Mauritzen
The Rio Summer Olympic Games will take place in August 2016. The Games are a spectacle surrounded by strong symbolism, from their powerful governing ethos to strict built-in structures. The Olympic flame and five rings are iconic nonverbal cues that carry a strong relationship with the Games and their meaning-making process. When we see them, we know the Games are at hand. Yet the power of Olympic visual communications goes much further.
Every Edition Logo brings something new, subtly altering the essence of the Olympics through its chronological and spatial context.
Understanding these contexts constitutes two major strands of commercial semiotic thought. The chronological focuses on the aesthetics of zeitgeist (signaling a diachronic perspective) whilst the spatial centers on the differences between cultures and their representations (endorsing the power of synchrony). In order to demonstrate these two related contexts to RWConnect readers, two semioticians have analysed two different Summer Edition Logos for this article: London 2012 and Rio 2016.
From a semiotic perspective, these logos present a very distinct set of meanings, each with their own particular signifiers (colors, shapes, dimensions…), specific narratives and dissimilar cultural meanings. For the purposes of comparing and contrasting contexts, British semiotician Ashley Mauritzen has focused on London 2012 and Brazilian practitioner Mariane Cara has analysed Rio 2016.
Created by design firm Wolf Olins, the logo for the London Olympics 2012 prove extremely divisive. Both widely maligned and passionately defended, it makes a strong case for the challenges and rewards inherent in dramatic national rebranding. Because whilst its detractors may have chosen to focus on the logo’s passing resemblance to a carnal exchange between Bart and Lisa Simpson, the real controversy stems from its bold semiotic statement of a new progressive British national identity for a global age.
The logo palette couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the traditional authoritarian navy, red and white of the Union Jack. Electric pink was the most widely used inflection – a bold post-gendered statement. Other versions signify an upbeat (orange) and contemporary (cyan) outlook. The existence of several options constitutes a celebration of variety and choice.
An abundance of rectilinear shapes pointedly confounds the rural idyll more commonly associated with England’s ‘green and pleasant lands’. Their dynamic relationship with each other cues the haphazard layout of the urban landscape, and their sharp edges resemble leading edge British architectural design. There is a sense of aerial perspective, cueing both the skyscrapers that dominate the contemporary city and its breadth of outlook.
The urban connotations of the logo are further compounded by the vertical arrangement of the numbers 20 and 12, which bears a close resemblance to the tags that abound in street art.
The energy of this subversive art form is also channeled into the logo through the use of yellow borders. The implied techiness of this ‘electric’ radiance is further compounded by the presence of a dot. When placed at the center of a phrase, it clearly signifies the language of the Internet, positioning the logo as a vital destination (or ‘address’) in the digital age.
The London 2012 logo constitutes a bold statement of intent by a country keen to forge a new post-empire identity for itself. It is a deliberate repudiation of the values more commonly associated with Britishness – calm, order and maintenance of the status quo. Britain may be nationalistic but it is fresh-faced nationalism with a twist, as the images below show:
Contemporary Britain – and London in particular – is keen to promote itself as a hotbed of creativity. The colour, asymmetry and fierce originality of the logo bear striking resemblance to some of the outfits that have featured recently at the notoriously edgy London Fashion Week:
The urban connotations of the logo neatly coincide with the foregrounding of the city of London as a globally relevant 21st century city and vibrant identity marker. Technological innovation, creativity, youth, spectacle and multiculturalism are the core values of this urban metropolis – values that this logo expresses in abundance.
The result of this heaving hotbed of signifiers, of course, is a certain indexical unreadability to which we can attribute the logo’s controversy. In short, it’s not immediately clear what it means. It is, however, in this very haziness that we find its most important message. Because this logo (in keeping with the central proclamation of the grand opening ceremony) ‘is for everybody’ – in precisely the same way contemporary Britain is. And, in order to be so, it needs to be open to endless creative interpretation and reinterpretation, whatever the risks.
The Rio’2016 logo created by Tactil Design de Ideias was well received by public opinion but also carries a feeling of déjà vu because of the similarities with the three graces in Botticelli’s painting Primavera (1482), The Three Graces from Raphael (1504-1505), La Danse from Henri Matisse (1910) and also Telluride Foundation logo and Salvador Carnival 2004 logo.
In fact, a figure of three (or five) people together in an embrace is exhaustedly seen in a large variety of visual representations. One of the reasons is the political correctness, which personifies the celebration of collectiveness, harmony and participation, without gender, social status or hierarchy. These points are very desirable in an Olympic logo, but by the other hand, they are very common, with a lack of originality.
The set of codes in this logo starts with the main colors: yellow, blue and green, which reproduce the colors of Brazilian flag and repeat three of the five colors from the Olympic Rings. The symbolic meanings of those colors could be many, but to Brazilians the most common are: yellow means energy, blue is the easygoing way of life, and green goes to the natural environment.
Sequentially, the Design team decides to construct the logo based on curves, creating an organic figure. In this respect, it is important to note that Brazilian shapes are frequently curvilinear per se, being a land of voluptuous outlines and complex contours. To cite few of them, we see plenty of curves in the architectural work from Oscar Niemeyer, and in the sculptures from Tomie Ohtake. And if we follow the direction of the prosaic world, we will face the arched movements in the pavement of Copacabana’s sidewalk.
In Brazil, we are so accustomed with curves, even our most famous rhythm (samba) demands a lot of curvy movements, and to do it right, every single dancer must to perform in a flexible way, constantly.
Crosswise this bending path, the logo exhibits some shades and lights coming from the glossy treatment of the 3D representation. This tridimensional appearance tells something about the concept of movement. In every corner of this logo we can see a new shape, which also reveals the Brazilian multifaceted way of life. To be concise in this regard, our culture is all about curves and flexibility. For us, nothing is static and unchangeable.
Finishing this section, the last signifier of this logo is the typography, which was designed as a handwriting style, in a more humanised shape, which represents the concept of craftsmanship.
In Rio’2016 logo the narratives are presented in many layers. The first is the stylisation of the human figure in a neutered sprite of three people altogether. This unit brings a social layer, showing everyone participating in this celebration, and is really closed to the Olympics Creed.
The concept of unity also speaks a lot about Brazilian culture. Usually, Brazilians work better in teams. In Sports, our most recognisable modalities are collective, as Football and Volleyball and, in daily life, some of our popular aphorisms have the collectiveness as pillar. For example: “A união faz a força” (the unity makes the power) or “juntos chegaremos lá” (together we will get there).
The embrace also represents a joyful circle dancing (Ciranda in our language), and is commonly related to the wellbeing feelings. The Cirandas are excessively represented in Brazilian´s Naif Art and are widely seen all across the country.
Following the narratives, the organic shapes of this logo make some relevant references, as the representation of the Sugarloaf Mountain, showing the unique topography of Rio; the mimics of a heart shape, maintaining the allusion to the emotional side of our culture; the mention to the Olympic Rings; and the last, but not the least, the word Rio between the human figures.
With respect to the chronological/spatial contexts, Rio’2016 is much more a spatial logo than a chronological one, being created to display the cultural signifiers and the synchronic narratives, without specifying any historical period.
This is an intense logo, which brings a diverse system of meanings, with a strong relationship to what we call Indexicality. Semiotically speaking, indexicality means the set of representations which points to something, in this case it indicates the closer relationship between the image and the Brazilian culture.
With so many indexical references, this logo will never be accused of meaningless. It is meaningful and brings familiarity with the Carioca’s Spirit.
This article provides a very quick example of how a semiotic approach can be applied to research related to visual communications and cultural analysis. We could have gone deeper and written a lot more.
Semiotics proves a powerful means of unveiling the web of meanings inherent in visual communication, by finding relevant signifiers and strong narratives. When it comes to cultural analysis, the application of semiotic methods provides an important means of understanding context, thereby avoiding misperception and misuse in different markets.
In keeping with this, it is important for market researchers to establish a network of semioticians across different countries, in order that they can use their particular cultural understanding to develop a more refined understanding of different contexts.
Mariane Cara is Commercial Semiotician at Comunicara based in Brazil. She can be reached on Twitter via @MarianeCara.
Ashley Mauritzen is a freelance semiotician and cultural analyst based in the East End of London. She can be reached on Twitter via @mauritzmash.
by Sarah Jane Johnson
Banking is one of the more challenging categories when it comes to brand differentiation. First of all, most banks are really pretty similar: large institutions offering more or less the same products: savings accounts, mortgages, credit cards and loans. Secondly, specific offerings are complex and can be difficult to compare directly.
For many years, Canadian financial services seemed stuck in a world of lookalike brands. Every bank ad relied on the same tired clichés: smiling couples in the offices of helpful-looking bank employees, or proudly clutching the keys to their new home. Clearly, the intended message was that banking with X would make you feel happy and confident. But, the proliferation of this type of advertising did little to differentiate individual banks. More importantly, it failed to tap into some of the more powerful cultural discourse around wealth and banking.
Here’s where Semiotics can truly play a role.
Semiotics shines in categories – like banking – where it can be hard to articulate brand differences through language. Language often relies on rational argument and proof. Semiotics is about the power of suggestion, creating associations for brands through the use of symbolism that has powerful cultural and emotional significance. In fact, as neuro-science has revealed, this approach might actually be more motivating.
As we now know, 95% of decision-making occurs at the subconscious level, by processing non-verbal cues like imagery, scent, colour, and music, all of which are the province of Semiotics. Deploying these semiotic cues can help brands build stronger emotional relationships with consumers at the powerful sub-conscious level.
It’s important to note that Canadian banks’ communication challenges are somewhat different than those of other markets around the world. In other countries, public trust has been severely eroded by banking’s role in the financial crisis that led to the recession of 2007. In Canada, trust was actually increased by the fact that Canadian banks avoided the financial crisis due to their more prudent approach to lending. In fact, the Canadian banks’ policies offered significant protection to the Canadian economy such that most Canadians weathered the global recession more or less unscathed.
This strong sense of public trust meant that Canadian banks were not faced with the job banks had in other countries: attempting to re-build trust with disenchanted consumers. Banks were generally seen as trusted institutions, although there were the inevitable complaints about banking fees taking advantage of the little guy. However, Canadian banks were also seen as remote and impenetrable, a perception reinforced by the monolithic bank towers in every major city, and the high bank counters, creating a symbolic barrier between customers and tellers in every branch.
But, one impact that the global financial crisis did have on Canadian banking was that it increased the importance of retail banking. As money markets and other global investments lost their profitability, Canadian banks suddenly found that loans and mortgages to the average punter became much more important to their bottom line. This made it critical to establish a deeper relationship with retail customers, and to provide stronger differentiation from their competitors.
The most successful banks did so (consciously or not) by effectively deploying Semiotic cues to create distinct positioning for their brands that truly tap into anxieties about wealth and financial security. In doing so, they began to engage in a powerful cultural conversation with their customers.
In Canada, as everywhere, achieving wealth is a significant preoccupation. However, over the past ten years, the cultural discourse about wealth has been evolving. Traditionally, wealth meant material wealth: assets and consumption. But, with global economic uncertainty, and a job market that works people incredibly hard, only to summarily dismiss them, new notions emerging are about what it means to be wealthy and the best way to go about achieving it.
Traditional Canadian discourse had two simple perspectives on wealth and banking: 1) The only wealth is Material Wealth and 2) A good bank is one with Authority. Essentially, the message all banks conveyed was “You can trust us to help you build wealth because we are established, and secure and WE UNDERSTAND these things.” Bank architecture resembled Temples or Palaces, Semiotically conveying their power and prestige. Bankers controlled the relationship and customers had to conform to their conditions, including opening hours.
The Royal Bank of Canada (now known as RBC) is Canada’s largest bank and as the market leader does an excellent job of occupying this traditional territory Semiotically, as can be seen in this recent ad:
Its blue and gold colour scheme connotes royalty, wealth, and authority, suggesting a bank that is firmly established, prestigious and expert. The use of the “British Banker” mascot reinforces and deepens these associations by evoking the cultural myth of British banking as the archetype of the Money-Making Establishment, as well as tapping into a certain Canadian nostalgia for being part of the British Empire. At the same time, the cartoonish aspect of the mascot takes the edge off the authority he conveys. All of these Semiotic cues will resonate with customers seeking a big, established and prestigious place to keep their money.
We can see how banking discourse has evolved somewhat with this ad from TD, Canada’s second largest bank, which also uses Semiotic cues to connect with its customers:Like RBC, TD seeks to associate itself with Material Wealth through its use of the colour green, which in North America signifies money. However, TD differentiates itself from RBC by positioning itself as a Nurturer, rather than as an Authority. Nurturing is suggested by the icon of the green armchair, which looks both comfortable and supportive. The implication is that TD is a bank which is accessible and which puts its customers first, unlike the high-handed approach of traditional banks.
A smaller upstart bank, President’s Choice Financial, also positions itself against Authoritarian “Big Banking” as the low fee, low bureaucracy option for building Material Wealth. It taps into the cultural discontent with Established banking fat cats who have huge profits via high fees, interest rates and other padding. President’s Choice Financial Semiotically conveys Transparency and Integrity via minimalist art direction. Its use of the colour red suggests good fortune and alertness.Scotiabank, on the other hand, has chosen to differentiate itself by re-framing the meaning of wealth. It consciously reflects the current cultural conversation about global economic uncertainty and the dark side of striving success by positioning itself as a supporter of Spiritual Wealth vs. Material Wealth. Its advertising presents “meaningful moments” as true richness, and suggests that unlike other banks, it understands “what really matters”. In place of the Trust that Material Wealth aligned banks evoke, Scotiabank evokes Optimism: with our help, the important things are attainable.
Credit Union Vancity offers another challenge to the notion of Material Wealth by taking an explicitly ethical stance. Its promise of “good money” (aka: ethically sourced) is Semiotically reinforced by the image of people participating in a natural harvest. It also Semiotically distances itself from the “Big Banks” with its “handmade” looking art-direction. Yet, at the same time, like RBC, it positions itself as an Authority (as the answer to its own rhetorical question) and source of Prestige, with its invocation of personal pride.Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the four themes most heavily leveraged in this category, Material Wealth vs. Spiritual Wealth, and Authority vs. Nurturing, are in fact natural opposites (not surprising as each theme is essentially a response or anti-thesis to the other).
These opposites can then in turn be plotted on two axes, allowing for the creation of a Semiotic Positioning map, that places each of the banks in its own distinct quadrant or territory:As we can see, RBC Royal Bank strongly occupies the quadrant of high Authority and Material Wealth, giving it a unique ownership of the cues associated with establishment banking: prestige, longevity and business acumen. This allows it to position itself towards customers who are seeking an established, trustworthy authority to help them grow their money.
In contrast to RBC’s more paternalistic position, TD Bank is more maternalistic, but still focused on traditional associations with material wealth. This allows it to appeal to customers who are put off by intimidating cues of high status and aloofness, but still seek a trustworthy venue for investment.
Scotiabank shares TD Bank’s nurturing stance but its position in the Spiritual axis signals an embrace of more progressive notions of wealth as a more meaningful way of life. This provides reassurance and a kind of transparency and trustworthiness for customers concerned with the realities of today’s economy and their ability to have the life they want.
Finally, Vancity, occupying the quadrant of Authority and Spiritual Wealth, is evoking a moral authority instead of a social one, and evangelizes a vision of wealth that is outer-directed and beneficial to others. This positioning, while niche, will appeal to those truly disillusioned with traditional Capitalism and traditional banking — and provides a venue for them to express their values while still having the safety net of a trusted place to invest their money.
But, there is one outlier we have not discussed yet. CIBC is another one of the “Big Banks”, but unlike all the other Financial Institutions (large and small) we have discussed here, it is not making an effective use of Semiotic cues, nor is it really taking part in the overall Cultural Conversation of the banking category.This CIBC ad epitomizes the clichéd “smiling happy customer” school of traditional advertising, and does not appear to convey any meaning beyond just that. The woman’s context is unclear – she appears to exist in a vacuum, as does the brand itself. It does not take a stance on any of the main poles of the category discourse: it does not evoke Authority or Nurturing. It appears to support neither Material, nor Spiritual Wealth. Semiotically, it conveys very little for customers to connect with. The only clear Semiotic cues are its colour scheme, a dated burgundy and gold combination that primarily evokes the 1970s. Frankly, it appears a bit lost, a fact which maybe reflected in its market share: it has the lowest share of any of Canada’s “Big Five” banks.
Brands that lack a clear point of view would benefit from the use of Semiotic Analysis, to help them understand the true Cultural Conversation at play in the category and to help them identify the most resonant Semiotic Cues they could use to position themselves within that conversation.
In a time when it’s more important than ever for brands to stand out from an increasingly crowded field of brands and ads, Semiotics offers the opportunity to increase cultural and emotional resonance with customers and prospects. And that’s something any brand can take to the bank.
Sarah Jane Johnson is a Principal at Toronto-based Athena Brand Wisdom. She can be reached on Twitter via @AthenaBrand
by Marzena Żurawicka
In the past, consumers could identify the gender of a brand without major difficulties. It was enough to ensure that the brand’s communications use the sign of a man or a woman, or objects that explicitly represent the world of males or females. For example, in Polish culture the object-sign of masculinity was a disposable razor and the object-sign of femininity – perfumes. The term “perfumes” was not used to describe a man’s fragrance at all, the term “eau de toilette” was used instead. These two signs were clear for consumers and their use in communications sufficed to identify either of the two worlds.
Nowadays, given the development of unisex products and services, which target both men and women, ensuring unambiguity in the identification of brand gender is becoming more and more difficult. The earlier-quoted objects – a disposable razor and perfumes – have lost their previous status. Today, their gender is decided by designers, people creating individual products, packaging, and communications.
Significant changes have also occurred in the area of consumer behaviours. Consumers feel more and more confident juggling signs and symbols emphasising their cultural, and not necessarily, biological gender. Looking at Warsaw’s streets from the sidewalk level, deciding explicitly whether the person is a woman or a man is becoming increasingly difficult. The footwear of most pedestrians is not a simple exemplification of their owners’ gender, nor does it send a clear message. The footwear of Warsaw’s pedestrians often has mixed characteristics – feminine and masculine or neither feminine nor masculine. Yet, there are also pedestrians, whose gender can be identified without too much doubt – they are those, who wear stilettos or moccasins.
These small examples from our everyday life illustrate the scale of the problem and show the need for more conscious management of masculine and feminine attributes. Therefore, answering the question – what gender should be given to the brand so that it achieves our business goals? – is one of the requirements of contemporary marketing.
Footwear, a sidewalk, and the Greimas semiotic square
Before we immerse ourselves in the world of marketing cases, let’s focus for a moment on the earlier raised topic of Warsaw’s sidewalk, footwear, and the Greimas semiotic square.
In Polish culture, stilettos are a sign of femininity, while moccasins symbolise masculinity. But in line with the logic of the semiotic square, the term “gender” means more than just masculinity and femininity. These two categories do not fully reflect the full scope of the term. According to Greimas, masculinity and femininity are completed by non-masculinity and non-femininity. In Polish culture these ideas correspond to an effeminate male and “a butch female”. Whereas we can quite easily quote attributes of masculinity – moccasins or femininity – stilettos, we cannot say much about attributes of the footwear, which would best identify an effeminate male or a butch female. The answer is in the semi-symbolic system of non-masculinity and non-femininity, which is composed of cultural situations, colours, language, music, and other sounds.
Nonetheless, even a superficial analysis of the vast cultural material suggests caution in addressing the topic. While each of the four categories has rich symbolic representation, each is in the state of permanent change. Hence, attributing either gender with its own system of signs, requires stopping the passage of time, even if for just a short moment, and selecting examples that are their best most evident exemplification.
“Feminine” gender is co-composed of signs, motifs, and symbols of a woman’s erotica, sexuality, allurement, but also signs of a girl’s innocence or a woman’s duality, as well as lucent colours.
Non-masculinity is the gender category, which reflects the idea of effeminacy, ie. masculinity with additional feminine elements. This gender is represented by signs and symbols of metrosexuality and masculine romanticism. Parts of non-masculinity are images of a man’s body shown in a feminine manner and situations, in which men perform women’s roles.
In the semiotic square, non-femininity means femininity with additional masculine elements. In Polish culture, it is represented by signs of women’s aggression, extreme feminism, and images of a woman endowed with masculine attributes, e.g. an athletic body, logical reasoning, calmness, and self-composure.
Problems with identifying brand gender
Male-female relations have never been the simplest topic in culture. They have often been the reason for wars, social revolutions or even economic disasters. However, until not long ago we were sure that signs like long hair, a long dress, a graceful body, a velvety voice identify femininity. Nowadays, we do not have such certainty anymore – Conchita Wurst, the winner of last year’s Eurovision, is a good example.
Similar suspicions relating to gender, yet this time the gender of a brand, were shared by one Polish telecom company. In 2012, the company turned to us for help in identifying the identity of their own brand. Based on the results of the consumer studies, the company suspected that the gender of their brand changed. The study showed that the brand was less and less popular with men, while its popularity with women was increasing. Despite the significant similarity of the product offer of the company’s brand and the brands of its competitors, the company was increasingly afraid of losing male customers. The brand’s new advertising communication and visual identity system were blamed for the situation. This hypothesis formulated by the client seemed probable.
Five major telecom brands operated on the Polish market at that time: Orange, Plus, Play, Era (T-Mobile) and Heyah. In the rebranding process, one of them gave up the use of its logo and blue/ navy-blue colours in favour of intense pink. The change in the brand’s logo colouring had a cultural significance. Everyone in Poland knew that a blue colour was the sign of a male descendant and pink – the sign of a girl. Although, new associations with pink enriched culture over time, this was yet to show in social practice in 2012. Logotypes of masculine brands were dominated by colours like blue, black, grey, and white. The first Polish masculine brand, which inaugurated the use of pink in a logotype, was the Polish branch of Tauron, a producer of electrical energy.
The use of a pink colour in the brand’s communication was not an ordinary marketing decision in those years. However, neither we nor, even more, the client considered the change in the logo colouring to be the exclusive factor responsible for the brand’s gender. We were convinced that the development of the brand’s gender was a complex process, which was down to a whole system of signs, symbols, and codes, including those used in advertising.
Cultural glossary of feminine gender
In order to identify the brand’s gender we proposed an analysis, which consisted of identifying the sign system existing in advertising messages. To do this, first we had to determine the process of gender conferring in today’s culture and the signs making up each of the four gender categories. We needed cultural measures.
The sources of analysed materials included strictly masculine and feminine magazines, film posters, movies, and advertisements for selected product categories with a clearly defined gender, eg. perfumes, cosmetics, and clothes. Collecting the most distinctive material was crucial.
During the analytical process, after a preliminary study of the material we decided that our glossary would consist of the following units:
- Cultural situations, to which reference was made in the advertisements
- The palette of colours used in messages
- The mood of photographs, frames, editing, and pace of narration
- Language and text forms
- Sounds, music, and the voice of the lector
These parameters were distinctive and enabled us to describe the communications of each of the gender categories.
Below we present selected elements of our glossary in the case of femininity.
Strictly feminine situations in culture were represented by girls’ meetings, women’s moments, and idealised romantic relationships.The palette of colours creating feminine gender was led by sensual violet, underlining textures, round shapes, but also pastel colours, symbolising a woman’s naivety and childishness. Feminine colours included brown-golden glamour, emphasising elegance and style as well as ultra-feminine pink, most often combined with traditional symbols of femininity, ie. flowers and ribbons.Mood of photographs, building femininity in culture, was created by the use of radiance, sunshine brightness, softened outlines of objects and people, whitening effect, as well as lightness and airiness. The photographs were dominated by flowing fabrics and hair, floating light objects. A feminine mood was added to the photographs by showing close-ups of fine features, which underlined sensuality, the feeling of the moment, as well as intimacy.
Apart from visual elements, feminine gender was also decided by language. Notions dominating feminine culture included: changeability, seasonality, fashionable character or stylishness as well as elements relating to magic. The feminine nature of the language was strengthened by the use of intimate words, referring to care or exceptional moments.
The above-described elements of the cultural glossary did not exhaust the wealth of forms and conventions belonging to the feminine world. However, for the purpose of that study we identified the sign systems, which were most characteristic for feminine culture, thus helpful in further analyses of mobile telecom advertisements.
The cultural glossaries of, respectively, masculine, non-masculine, and non-feminine attributes were created following the same approach.
Gender in mobile telco advertising has many names
With the glossary-measures in hand we could finally start the main analysis, which included ca. 200 advertisements of the five mobile telecom brands operating in Poland.
All the telecom brands targeted their offers and communications at both men and women. That’s why it was important to determine, which sign systems are used by each brand and how its gender is created. Various approaches to brand gender could also be identified.
For example, in its identification and advertising communications system from 2011-2012 Plus used symbols and signs, which shaped its strongly masculine gender. Over a few years, the brand’s communication was dominated by masculine colours ie. graphite, cold black, and laser lights. None of the competitor brands used this repertoire of colours in such a consistent manner. Moreover, the brand’s masculinity was built by the language used in its advertisements – full of terms from the area of technology, technical precision or the world of thrills belonging to action movies. The brand’s masculine gender was also co-created by military metaphors, and even sexist wit. The brand used quite a wide range of masculine culture signs.
A totally different example of brand gender building was used by T-Mobile. About 80% of the brand’s advertisements from 2011-2012 were dominated by feminine culture symbols. The brand’s identification were light soap bubbles, floating in the urban space or flowing woman’s hair. While the feminine character of the photographs was achieved by using techniques such as radiance and blurred outlines of people, its femininity was completed by the widely used colours ie. pink and flesh-coloured beige. The advertising agency based the brand’s communication on the situations characteristic for feminine culture ie. women’s meetings, romantic relationships, and tender images of childhood. The brand’s slogan referred to feelings.
An example of the mix of the two approaches came from Orange. One half of the brand’s communications used signs of true masculinity – colours like black or graphite. The language was filled with quite many references to technological precision, mastery, sensational dynamics, and logic or rationalism. In its masculine advertisements, the brand used many phrases taken directly from the language of masculine entertainment. The other half of Orange communications was built on feminine symbols. The feminine mood of photographs showed in their radiance and the predominant brown-golden colour. The brand’s communication was based on romantic situations, idealised relationships or women’s moments. The language used in the brand’s communications used terms from the area of magic and emotional care.
It is evident that the way feminine, masculine, non-feminine, and non-masculine attributes are used in brand communications is quite often mixed and a well-thought out symbolic strategy is rare. As indicated in our analysis, the quantitative proportions between masculine- and feminine-type advertisements used by individual brands may also impact the perception of brand gender.
The Orange brand strategy is safest for mobile telecom brands, whose customers are both men and women. The brand has created two parallel semi-symbolic systems responsible for feminine and masculine gender. It has given consumers the possibility of picking messages suitable for them and freedom in choosing their approach to feminine and masculine gender signs.
Orange has allowed consumers to sometimes wear stilettos and sometimes moccasins. But what conclusions were drawn by the brand which turned to us for help? In its new communications, the brand clearly discontinued the use of the distinctively feminine system of symbols. New advertisements were developed using a masculine system of signs. The brand’s communication was balanced with masculine colours ie. silver and grey, and by metallic elements.
The semiotic gender analysis showed that masculinity and femininity are not exclusively built on images of men and women, but also on wide-ranging sign systems, which can be deliberately managed. Having no control over these systems has serious complications for the brand’s life, especially in the case of brands targeting both genders. The results of the study brought inspiring recommendations for strategy and creation experts in advertising agencies, as well as guidelines for brand managers as to how better to manage the brand’s gender, which masculinity and femininity signs to use in the brand’s communications and in which proportions in order to, for example, create a sub-brand with feminine attributes within the masculine brand.
Marzena Żurawicka is a Partner at Semiotic Solutions, Poland.
by Ximena Tobi
Emotional bonds and sense of belonging
Regarding football, Brazil and Argentina feature a particular mixture between business and popular culture. Beginning with the curious fact that the first World Cup took place in 1930 in Uruguay, South American football has developed a particular way of playing quite different from the European way, along with a huge popular devotion for this sport. In this context, every four years the Football World Cup is quite an extraordinary event. That’s the reason why in these countries almost every brand from global to local, even the small ones had something to say about the World Cup.
The ubiquity of the event brought a multiplication of texts talking about it and generated a topic with several codes through which it was developed. Everybody wanted to say something about the World Cup, a way of being attached to something bigger than us: a collective experience.
For the 2014 Football World Cup, regional brands worked on their campaigns for one year looking for the brilliant idea that would make the difference to get the brand to stand out among the competition. In this kind of situations, semiotics helps brands to find new communication paths and avoid falling into the trap of the commonplace; usually nationalism in contest like this one.
Every social phenomenon has many layers of meaning, some more dominant than others, some more visible than others. For example, a football match in Latin America leads us straight away to some social stereotyped images: a group of male friends in front of the TV drinking beer, the team training before the match, fans with the team signs entering the stadium, and so on. But it does not link so fast to the image of the football players’ mothers feeding and raising their little sons —as it is shown in La Serenísima milk TVC.
Brands will find in semiotics a powerful tool to create new relevant stories, appropriate at the same time to the category and to the brand identity. Semiotics works as a cultural dissection tool to identify micro-meaningful everyday social images/situations/ practices that could be the triggers for the desired brand-consumer identification.
For example, football fans cheering in their various forms is a key to building bridges among people and between brands and people. Just a colloquial expression —as Quilmes beer— or real fans’ heartbeat recordings —as Itaú bank— are different ways to show what Latin Americans feel about football. Something that has been always out there, but semiotic analysis displays as brand communication opportunities.
Let’s see two case studies of Latin American brands’ 2014 World Cup campaigns and how they include semiotic insight from regional football cultural codes.
Brand communication decoding
Building the collective experience
Quilmes (beer – ARG) & Itaú (bank – BR)
Based on football popular cultural codes, these regional brands campaigns tell stories about a sense of belonging. It is the gregarious quality of human beings that is the primary theme; and football works as the live example of what we can do and how we can feel when sharing experiences with others.
Every brand talks about the local way of living football. Argentinean team sponsor Quilmes beer shows several collective TV reception scenes (TVC: Vamos Carajo), following the popular ritual of gathering together to watch the match. Two words are the common thread that joins all the scenes —“¡Vamos Carajo!”— as a cheering mantra; there is no joy, but unease and nervousness. Fans encouragement appears as the necessary complement of a successful team. Team and fans are defined reciprocally. The one cannot exist without the other. In the same way, Brazilian bank Itaú collected fans’ heartbeats throughout the country ‘inside’ a ball (teaser: Batucada de Coração), which is delivered to the national team as a sign of the power of unity. Itau says: “200 millions hearts beating can change everything.”
‘Building a collective experience’ is a common code —quite dominant— in both brands, but it can be presented in different ways.
In the case of Quilmes, the product is presented as the usual companion of football match watching. As the national white & blue striped t-shirt, Quilmes brand has a constant presence in this kind of situations. Repetition is the semiotic tool to show ‘the same in the different’. Different locations where people are watching the match with the same cheer (“¡Vamos Carajo!”) to the national team build a line of energy ending in the football players. This synchrony of feelings is the power behind the possibility of win. Nevertheless there is not only encouragement, but also nervousness and the different ways of dealing with it: peeling off the bottle label, tapping the feet and bending the bottle lid. Therefore Quilmes helps fans to release tension not only by drinking the beer, but also providing an object to fiddle with.
In the case of Itaú, the collective experience is presented as part of the preparations for the World Cup. There are no settings, no actors. There is no representation but presentation of actual fans.
In contrast with Quilmes, Itaú shows its reach to every part of a huge country such as Brazil, meeting real people in beaches, parks and streets, who want to offer their heartbeats as a symbol of emotion and encouragement to the national football team.
Whilst Argentineans are represented suffering, being nervous and anxious at the beginning of a match, Brazilians are always happy, smiling and relaxed. It is associated with a deep cultural difference —an atmosphere, an attitude— that could also be detected in several cultural expressions like national music: the difference between samba and tango. While samba is a festive, expressive and colourful rhythm, tango conveys an intimate dramatic passion.
Football, not only a men’s matter
La Serenísima (milk – AR)
Building a more intimate atmosphere, La Serenísima —Danone associated— launched a series of TVCs (Gracias por alimentar tanta pasión) with the mothers of the main Argentinean football players telling anecdotes about how they raised their children, fed them, took care of them and supported their efforts and sacrifices to become the master players they are today. Based on the cultural archetype of the nutritive mother, this milk brand communication goes directly into the family circle through the testimonies of the players’ mothers.
They talk about the upbringing period, when children establish their main human values that will guide them over their adult lives. In this frame, milk has a leading role: it synthesizes the mother-child bond, because it is a tangible and concrete object signifying all the love, trust, hope and happiness that mothers feel about their children. Furthermore, the glass of milk takes us to the Argentinean typical family scene in the kitchen-dining room, where children right after arriving from school, drink their milk usually with cookies.
Everyday life references (arrival from school, going to football training, daily baths) appear as a way to find the human behind the idol. Football stars were once also common kids as any of us, with similar habits and stories to tell. La Serenísima places itself in the core of quite a universal semiotic territory. From land to motherhood, the brand message conveys the idea of back to the origin, a place of simple and real authenticity. As a result, La Serenísima becomes the equivalence point between football players and their fans. The nature of mother-child bond is similar to the players-fans relationship in that they are both emotional. There is a semiotic chain: brand – mother – player – fan, synthesized in the brand slogan: “Feeding Argentine people with passion” (= “Alimentando con pasión a los argentinos”).
- Cultural codes cross brand communications, independently of brand intentions. Semiotics gives brands the opportunity to detect and choose the better cultural codes to support their brand messages.
- Any brand category can communicate relevant messages referring to any specific context, in our case the FIFA World Cup. Semiotics allows brands to analyse their context and find an original way to talk and interact with it.
- Given a semiotic territory, brands communicational challenges are to convey an appealing and unique perspective when talking about a dominant and mainstream theme.
- In this frame, semiotics helps in the design stage of brand communication to distinguish textual levels (codes, styles and tone of voice) and therefore use them as pieces of a puzzle, which can be combined in different ways, some more typical, some more innovative. For example, the two different ways in which brands talk about the code ‘Building a collective experience’.
Finally, I would like to thank my colleagues and friends Clio Meuer and Ángeles Mendoza for their help gathering and translating the Brazilian material.
Ximena Tobi is a Partner at Semiotica Studio based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She can be reached via Twitter at @ximenatobi