Design Semiotics: Aesthetics in Cultural Context

Malcolm Evans

In research, people tend to play back the norms of today. But they also expect brands to inspire and lead, not follow. So facilitating ideas that are not only innovative but culturally significant has to come from somewhere other than research with consumers.  One powerful source of such new thinking, as more and more brands have learned over the past decade, is semiotics.

Making a difference
The practical power of semiotics was first brought home to me by a senior marketing director at South African Breweries fifteen years ago. Responding to a cultural and semiotic analysis of beer in the context of other drinks in Russia, he spontaneously commented that this kind of prior insight into another East European market, recently invested in, could have saved him US $20 million.

What makes the difference? Being able to map and navigate the big picture of brands and categories within consumer culture and in fine detail, ie, actively understanding context – what my friend and colleague Hamsini Shivakumar calls “the meaning behind the meaning” – is one thing.

A strong point of view on a market and its future, grounded in systematic understanding of evolving cultural and category codes (the ‘unwritten rules’ of communication deployed by message-makers and subconsciously decoded by their receivers) is another.

Semiotics can provide tools for decoding the stuff of brand communication, the ‘what’ and the ‘how,’ in ways that generate ingredients for innovative new cocktails of meaning. Having a semiotic structure can help shape these new meanings in ways cohesive with a brand’s DNA and history, while mobilising the best of what’s emerging in the culture and the category to make a brand’s relationship with people sing and dance in new, more motivating ways.

Finally there’s the cross-cultural context. We’re all familiar with lowest-common-denominator ‘global’ communication which speaks to everyone in general and nobody in particular. Semiotics, by contrast, helps tune the cross-cultural communication strategy up to the highest common factor, while generating copious insight into the local executional opportunities and taboos.

The state of the field
In the late summer of 2012, I presented a keynote on semiotics to the second congress of the Colombian Market Research and Public Opinion Association (ACEI) in Bogota. I began with a chart detailing current clients for semiotics, a host of illustrious brands and organisations – P&G, Nestle, Unicef, EDF, Coca-Cola, Givaudan, Mercedes, BBC, Chase, Reckitt Benkckiser. It would be quicker to list clients who have not as yet found their way to semiotics.

The organisers, Juliana Galindo Azcárate and Rosalba Olivella, have asked for case studies, before and after examples of semiotic intervention, concrete examples of where it has made a difference. So we run through the early breakthrough campaign for GSK’s Imigran, which was inspired by semiotic analysis and smashed the cultural and therapy category codes for migraine. Migraine had been a culturally devalued condition associated with headaches, ‘women’s problems’ and sexual excuses. The Imigran campaign contextualized it as a major social and economic issue, a scientifically specifiable condition for which now, for the first time, an advanced scientific treatment was available.

On to the SAB beer innovation project, which resulted in Zolotoya Botchka, a male-bonding brand which consciously hijacked what were previously vodka friendship codes and became, in its first year, the fastest-growing beer in Russia. Then there’s the Guinness Competitive Advertising Decoding Kit, which moved semiotic insight-generation into the domain of client marketing teams by creating a keyhole into the mind of the competition and became a DIY tool for identifying white space opportunities for Guinness UDV brands. And so to Procter and Gamble’s 12 years of working with semiotics across categories, which helped establish, for example, five- to ten-year horizons of foresight in areas as diverse as fabric conditioner freshness and anti-ageing innovation opportunities in beauty.

Through to right now and new challenges for semiotics: engaging not just with communication but with material culture (NPD in fragrances, flavours, the design of kitchen machines); the nitty gritty of design recoding; and how semiotics can identify powerful emotional codes to deploy around sustainability, ethics and social inclusion. Or in the digital space, where qualitative research, ethnography and cultural/communications analysis increasingly converge, but semiotics provides the means to analyse cultures and communications directly and the structures within which to facilitate culturally significant brand-consumer co-creation.

Telling the story
Where did all this come from, how did it evolve? The emergence of brand strategy in the 1990s created a no-brainer gap for a methodology specialising in symbolic and cultural equities analysis. This opening coincided with a revamping of commercially applied semiotics pioneered by Virginia Valentine and her team at Semiotic Solutions in the UK. So semiotics began to change from a cerebral, largely academic method of interpretation (already established by the late 1980s in France, Italy and the US, with outposts in Japan and Latin America) into a more accessible and actionable approach combining detailed analysis of codes and signifiers with a broad-brush cultural perspective and trends-compatible focus on emergent codes and trajectories of change in category communications and popular culture.

From there, a slow process of research industry adoption, complicated by the labour intensiveness of semiotic work, difficulties in finding a flow of skilled analysts, by semiotics being hard to graft onto the existing skill-sets of the qualitative research community. This semiotic methodology was much trickier in this respect than applied ethnography, for example, to which most trained moderators were able to adapt, with some measure of pragmatic credibility, in easy stages.

Then an acceleration of process innovation – from still relatively opaque guru semiotics (consultancies that hung on the names of their founders) to process, semiotic tools, tangible deliverables and actionability – a new transparency with the additional benefit of facilitating semiotic insight via teamwork, plus quality control criteria beyond just the reputation of the established-name semiotician.

These developments, in turn, coincided with the huge opportunity highlighted in our Athens 2010 paper. What other approach could rival semiotics for helping brand path-finding in emerging markets? How else to generate plausible hypotheses across the rich cultural diversity within countries like China and India? How else to derive, for testing and fine-tuning with consumers, communication strategies with a substantiated point of view on the future, given the astonishing pace of popular cultural change in these markets and the need for brands to plan ahead of the curve?

And then an interesting turn around: just as semiotics brought focus to internal cultural diversity and speed of change, generating strong hypotheses on emerging markets for global brands, so the same tools now work in the other direction. Emerging market brands are using semiotics to gain rapid insight into what their local market provenance can mean (and how their domestic semiotic equities may be leveraged) in the global cultural context.

Semiotically emergent
And what of the currently emergent codes of commercially applied semiotics?

Just as a narrative begins to solidify around mainstreaming and a now ubiquitous understanding of the importance of cultural insight, the underlying discipline is rapidly on the move again. In conclusion, some key trends:

  • An acceleration of the move into material culture, product design, the specifics of how real objects (not just ‘texts’ of various kinds) communicate and carry meaning for people
  • A shift from the heritage of European semiology (the artbitrariness of all signs, absence of grounded meaning, tedious pontificating about the ‘postmodern’) to the real, to emotion and the psychological importance of meaning (the ‘affective turn’)
  • This affective turn in semiotics deployed in conjunction with neuroscience techniques to develop less wordy and more numbers-driven applications of the discipline
  • From the semiotics of culture to biosemiotics, ie, signaling in natural and ecological systems; new perspectives on sustainability; the microbiome; how the digital works in the context of human psychology and social reality
  • Semiotic networking (Chris Arning’s LinkedIn group, Semiofest, Semionaut, the launch of the peer reviewed International Journal of Marketing Semiotics); an increasing dialogue between the academic and commercial discourses; reconfiguring more of the powerful techniques available in the world of pure semiotics and putting them to work in the accessible and actionable domain of consumer insight and marketing.

Out on the horizon the moving shapes are always initially blurry. But watch this space.

Malcolm Evans is the founding partner of Space Doctors in the UK