Visualising Culture using Semiotics 6

Chris Arning

If we are talking about the value of semiotics, let’s start by asking: ‘what is semiotics worth’? According to the latest PWC research report commissioned for the MRS The Business of Evidence, the total value of market research in the UK is £3 billion. My experience with semiotics suggests that it is most usually employed in upstream projects involving core brand equity issues or in strategic initiatives. Even a conservative estimate would suggest that at least 10% of this £3 billion budget is amenable to some sort of semiotics intervention, totaling £300 million. If we assume that semiotics would add value as an insight tool – bundled into a multi-methodology approach – accounting for a fifth of the total project fee – semiotics would account for £60 million in revenue in the UK alone. Yet I would estimate that currently, semiotics in all its myriad forms, probably only accounts for a mere fraction of this. The total revenue of UK semiotics firms probably amounts to £10-20 million. Why this shortfall? Well, this is the topic for another article, forthcoming in this series; on barriers to the uptake of semiotics. The figures I have cited may not be exact, but the bottom line is that semiotics suppliers could be enjoying a much bigger chunk of this research budget pie! A reasonable inference from this data is that semiotics must still be considered an exotic, discretionary purchase by research buyers. I believe it should be considered integral to all consumer insight; as automatic as qualitative research. Andy Dexter and Virginia Valentine both presented papers to this effect at the 2007 MRS Conference. Anecdotal data suggests that awareness about semiotics is more widespread in pockets of organisations. Indeed, I was recommended to receive an RFP by the senior Head of Marketing of a global bank just last week. Yet, the discipline has still not reached the critical mass to become mainstream.

The challenge, I believe is wider appreciation and awareness of what semiotics can do. The problem is that whilst semiotics has become somewhat of a buzzword and has champions lodged in the odd pocket of organisations, not everyone knows what it means or understands its applications. What I will cover in this article is how I have applied semiotics in the brand management process.

Over the last 10 years I have used semiotics to help decision makers in corporate brand identity, brand creation, new product development, brand health, brand proposition, product portfolio management, brand communications and market development projects. Since I set up Creative Semiotics Ltd in 2010, I have seen my studies fall into 3 broad offerings, mirroring the brand management process.

First, before that a quick, but essential dive into semiotic theory. The basis of most commercial semiotics offerings is that of codes. A code is simply a system of signs (often visual) that have meaning for consumers and that can be used by brand owners as a shortcut to positioning their brand. For example, to use a simple example, muted colour scheme, minimalism in layout, rough cardboard packaging and stenciled lettering could be used by a snack brand to signify a premium position based on shabby chic. Semiotics identifies these codes of meaning, shows which brands are using which codes and the semiotic consultant then makes recommendations on possible courses of action for the brand team.

Brand Understanding
The first offering is brand understanding. Business decision makers often need to take a fresh look at a product or service category to better understand how it is structured. A semiotic category focused on packaging, lays out the meanings claimed by each brand and the codes that cut across brands. For example, for a chocolate client the main question was how to communicate notions of premium on pack so as to support their premium line in the UK. The semiotics applied art theory and determined that the brand in question represented propriety, class and old luxury rather than the passionate gastronomy emerging in new brands.

Semiotics brought this fact to light and offered guidelines for a new design brief. It could also be about simply making pack design more coherent in its bottle design (as with a cognac client, my first project, back in late 2010). Another example from last year; a client wished to elaborate distinctive and credible design codes for serum bottles. To do this, semiotics decoded the mythological underpinnings of the beauty serum its relationship with truth, and how myths of immortality or inoculation against decay are currently expressed in form language. With this piece of cultural intelligence, the research and development team used the semiotics findings to screen options and to kill assumptions within the team; it helped scope out an area that was, until then, a big unknown.

The findings from this sort of study can equally be used to tighten up segmentation, for product portfolio management or to choose right pack format.

Brand Inspiration
The second offering is brand inspiration, this has an overlap with brand understanding but usually involves a culture scope outside of a set category.  I am currently involved in a look at Britishness in three global regions for a major car manufacturer. I have conducted similar studies on the topics of invigoration for a confectionary manufacturer, and simplicity for a global food company. These studies are wide ranging and involve reviewing a huge array of cultural material (TV, films, brands, music, digital culture and often involving expert interviews). In most cases the semiotics is being used as a provocation or ignition for a new product development process, brand architecture reshuffle or in the case of the current project the commissioning client is the account team of an ad agency who want to use semiotics as a springboard to fresh creative ideas. The biggest and most clear cut impact I have had so far in my career was leading the semiotic component as part of an innovation process for Wrigley’s which led to the creation of 5 gum which has been a huge commercial and critical success.

Brand Evaluation
Semiotics can also be used in brand evaluation, which is to say to bring to light the symbolic aspects of strategic options currently being considered by a client. I have done this less than the previous two categories. It can be used to assess the connotations embedded in historical advertising, as I did for VW back in 2011. The semiotic approach can also be used as a filter with which to assess proposed logo routes. During a stint freelancing for another agency, semiotics was used as a corollary to qualitative research to assess a new logo for a freshly merged bank. The unique contribution of semiotics in this project was to help situate the logos routes in terms of visual metaphor in each target market and to evaluate each strategic option in terms of its alignment to desired corporate values. This was considered vital since the focus groups were not expected to supply such insight. In the event, the qualitative research and semiotics dovetailed nicely in their findings, recommending 2 of the 4 logos, one of which was successfully adopted. I have since applied semiotics extensively in crowdsourcing where it is used to screen and sort through the creative entries in order to help select the best work.

I have seen this synergy operating in countless projects. Grant McCracken remarked that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. I don’t know about that. But I do know that we are all immersed as sign users in a web of meaning called culture and we ignore it at our peril. As Rachel Lawes once wrote:

“traditional qualitative research takes an inside-out perspective. Interviews and groups are geared to getting psychological phenomena such as perceptions, attitudes and beliefs out of people’s heads. Semiotics takes an outside-in approach. It asks how these things get into people’s heads in the first place. Where do they come from? The answer is that they come from the surrounding culture.” Lawes, Rachel (1999)

As Mark Batey argues in Brand Meaning (2008), there are many layers at which a brand has meaning. Some of these are more to do with mindset and motivation idiosyncratic: dissecting them will require ethnographic or other interrogative techniques, others are about our cultural conditioning to interpret visual and other texts in a certain way– this is the symbolic aspect semiotics specialises in. The result when using semiotics properly is a fuller, richer debrief that joins the dots between consumer mindsets, motivations and underlying cultural codes.

It therefore makes no sense to be ensconced oneself in a sterile research facility while ignoring the reservoir of cultural information in the outside world. Semiotics makes the invisible visible by scrutinising the codes we use to make meaning. The best semiotics work provides minor epiphanies and a provocative jolt, not always through new knowledge but by reframing knowledge in fresh ways. What was previously fuzzily apprehended is suddenly seen clearly. Semiotics reveals the ways that brands rely on cultural meaning for their value. I have seen how its intervention in research brings radical, breakthrough thinking.

Chris Arning is Founder-Director at Creative Semiotics