A presentation on using Semiotics in marketing and advertising:
QR codes adorn every plant container and seed packet now, but I saw surprisingly few people using them while shopping in the early morning. Partly it’s an issue of function; dripping water and the jostling of bodies as they scramble to squeeze through the tight corridors of stacked plants make using your smart phone a potentially dangerous act. But there is also a symbolic disconnect in this environment. Planting, gardening, etc. is still a primitive act and this particular shopping experience lends itself to a symbolically charged return to simplicity. It is, in many way, the antithesis of modern innovation.
We can do practically anything when it come to technologically augmenting the retail experience, but should we? And if we do, how should it be done? All too often, strategies are built around function and form, the symbolic elements dismissed as so much ambiguous fluff. But that is a flawed strategy. Indeed, it borders on being a series of tactics held together by a loose set of intellectual leaps that don’t reflect deeper patterns of human behavior, but the desire to sell more stuff. Unfortunately, if you get the pattern wrong, or ignore it because your cognitive frame won’t allow you to see it, you lose money because you taint the experience.
This isn’t to say technology doesn’t have a role, it is to simply say that shopping is about more than the objects we seek out. Shopping begins in the collective memory and shared symbols of a population. It is pleasure, validation, a reflection of values and a way of creating meaning in our world. A strategy needs to be grounded in those complexities, not at odds with them. You don’t get that knowledge from segmentation schemes and demographic data. You get it from immersion in a cultural process and from seeking out the links between observations.
The sign is the central term in semiotics. The sign is made up of the signified and the signifier. The two always go together, they are like the two sides of a coin. The signifier is the physical form of an object; what we see, touch and smell in the objective and shared reality. The signified is the content, the meaning of the object; what we experience, think and feel when we interact with the artifact, be it a billboard, a banner ad or a toaster. All old hat to anyone interested in the use of symbols, whether as a designer, marketer or academic. But what is often overlooked is the medium in which the sign manifests itself – and the medium has a dramatic impact on the interpretation of the sign. The medium is anything but neutral.
Television, radio, journals, and particular texts derive meaning from the media that is used. As Marshall McLuhan famously exclaimed “The medium is the message”. What this means is that when developing a marketing strategy, brand identity or anything else, it isn’t enough to understand individual signs, you have to understand how the signs work together as a systematic whole. Waxing jargony for just a moment, it means understanding what a syntagm is (for anyone of a less geeky inclination, the next paragraph should be avoided).
A syntagm is the combination of interacting signifiers, which form a meaningful whole within a symbol system. In language a sentence is a syntagm of word, so too are paragraphs and chapters. A larger syntagm is composed of smaller syntagms with interdependence between both. Syntagmatic relations are the various ways in which elements within the same text may be related to each other. In other words, syntagems are made up of symbolic elements, each independent in meaning but transformed when combined into a whole.
So what? It’s all very interesting, but how does this play out in a business context? It plays out when we think about context and how messages and products are consumed. Products that belong to the same paradigm perform the same function in a given context. So, for example, if we are thirsty we can choose to drink juice, water, cola, beer, wine etc. Which product we choose is shaped by socially defined, shared classification systems – we wouldn’t think twice about drinking a beer at a bar, but we probably wouldn’t have one for breakfast, though that was exactly the norm until the last few centuries. This is the symbolic side, rather than the functional.
Now, consider how people consume your brand and your messaging. How we promote goods in one location may not always make sense. For example, how we understand the Hallmark cards section in a Wal-Mart is different than how we understand it in a Gold Crown store because of context. Messages that make sense in one may be lost in another. In simpler terms, it would make sense to see a print ad for lingerie in a fashion magazine, but not in the church flier. Granted, this is an extreme example, but it speaks to the underlying need to think about the symbol systems we use to promote products and services, which means understanding the relationships between elements in the system. If you plan to market a toaster, you need to think about the various symbolic triggers to which people will respond negatively and positively. What does a retro design mean vs. another design? What does making something as simple as toast say about being a good parent? Will the same ad be interpreted the same way in a print campaign as it is when viewed on an iPad? When we consume marketing messages, whether through advertising, promotions, etc., we are interpreting them through a syntagmatic lens, subconsciously filtering out those symbol systems that don’t “make sense”. Selecting the right symbolic elements means little if they don’t work as a unified whole, and that means lost revenue. Get the combinations right and you will convert shoppers into buyers and consumers into advocates.
In an age of cutting research budgets, I would argue that going down the cheap = good is a tremendous mistake. The more you know about the customer that goes beyond the standard metrics and segmentation study, the better positioned you are to win their hearts. And their dollars.
Design always has a message. Design always has a meaning. And that means design, regardless of medium, is always a shared experience that requires interpretation. Why it matters is that it turns design into a semiotic exercise, open to structure and refinement based in analysis rather than an arbitrary point of view. Of course, that leads to the very simple, very obvious question of what that entails. There are two, though possibly more dimension of consideration then when thinking through a semiotic approach to design: a particular design understanding and the articulation of a semiotic analytical method.
Taking the work of Susann Vihma as a jumping-off point, the first step is to outline a design understanding where the design product consists of several different dimensions: The product has a sort of primary basis in factors such as function of the object/image/message, knowledge of materials/medium and embeddedness in a usage situation. In other words, how do the components governing the need for, development and placement of the design come together to express their rationale for existing as a unified whole. But there is a deep dimension in understanding what a product is – it is the semantic level where a product, brand, logo, etc. finds meaning and expresses symbolic and emotional continuity. It is the representational level that ties the object to our understanding of what it means to be human. And this is the point at which context becomes the focal point for coding and decoding what design.
Designs (again, whether they are objects, webpages, brand messages or anything else) always contain meaning, which is expressed through the given design manifestation and within the framework in which it is embedded. Point is that while we tend to focus on the obvious/functional elements of the or on the aesthetic side of the design process, it is at the juncture of the two where meaning, and thus value, are created.
This means understanding that we create more than things when we design. We create and reflect interpersonal interactions, cultural norms, aspirations, etc. Consequently, when thinking through the analysis of an existing design or creating a new design altogether, we need to think about the ways in which form creates meaning, how form is communicated and expressed under a host of circumstances and what factors influence interpretation by the user, consumer, and/or shopper. In other words, we need to think about how the brand/product/service construct and convey meaning. Once we understand that, we can start to tease out, in a systematic way, how to use color, how to express function and benefit, how to position the brand/product/service and how to make the design message resonate, what does the brand/product/service represent, etc.
We and our customers always perform our interpretations from a particular perspective derived from a mix of cultural knowledge and individual experience. That means meanings are negotiated, like a dialog between people. Thinking about design from a semiotic perspective creates a tool for heightening awareness of the messages the designer wishes to express and the context of this expressive act. In simpler terms, it means you make better designs, messages and things that lead to greater sales. Design ALWAYS has a message. Make sure you get the message right at the outset.
121 years ago yesterday the massacre at Wounded Knee took place. December 29, 1890. By the time it was over, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed and 51 wounded, though some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. And this anniversary got me thinking, for a number of reasons that go well beyond the lack of recognitions at the national level of one of the greatest atrocities in American History. It made me recall the comment someone I knew made many years ago after watching Dances With Wolves – the person in question, understandably moved by the realization of what had happened to native populations in the US, decided that she was metaphorically Sioux. “I’ve decided I’m Indian. Maybe not by blood, but I am by how I feel.” This blond-haired, blue-eyed person began buying dream catchers, adorning herself with an array of turquoise and listening on occasion to Gabriel Ayala – consumption was the expression of her new-found respect and she saw the repurposing of another population’s material culture as an expression of solidarity. However, her first visit to the Kickapoo reservation was, shall we say, a bit of a shock and led quickly to disillusionment. The realities of the “Noble Savage” in the modern world were a shock, as was the fact that her announcement of Indian-hood wasn’t met with the enthusiasm she expected. Understand, I don’t write this as a condemnation of her or her motives. I mention it because it reminded me that representations of culture are more than objects to be consumed by the dominant population, they have meaning, particularly if the population having its culture appropriated has been beaten, exploited and mythologized. I got to thinking about the nature of cultural appropriation, globalization and how we make money.
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It often denotes acculturation and assimilation, but it often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture as well. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. Once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, they take on meanings that are significantly divergent from those they originally held. More often, they are simply stripped of any real meaning.
George Lipsitz developed the notion of strategic anti-essentialism to address the phenomenon. It is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group. Increasingly, in a hyper-branded, postmodern world where people are in a near-perpetual state of self-reinvention, adopting material and symbolic elements of another culture is the norm. Their symbolism and significance is retooled and they become something new. Granted, this is a normal aspect of cross-cultural interaction, but there are issues of power at play here that can’t be overlooked.
I remember a colleague getting terribly upset of the number of people in Hong Kong wearing crosses back in 2005 – the use of the cross as a fashion statement had become common, even amongst non-Christians. When I pointed out that he had a yin/yang tattoo but wasn’t a Taoist, he had no difficulty justifying the appropriation of that symbol. While he continued to struggle with the idea of his religious symbol being used in a largely non-Christian context as a fashion piece, he did recognize that it was bound to happen in a changing global milieu. But the difference between the context of Western/Eastern cultural appropriation is shaped by scale and wealth. Unlike China, native populations in the US (or the world over, for that matter) aren’t seeing the equality gap change. There is no semblance of equal power. “When the majority culture [or elements of it] attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not the perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.” So what does nay of this have to do with businesses and brands? Quite a bit, actually.
Depending on the brand and the product, it is often difficult to puzzle out whether a company is attempting to make a comment about the oppression and condescending observation of the “other” by the dominant culture, or simply reflecting a stereotyped feeling of the exotic in a way that was insensitive and ultimately diminishing to the people from whom they have taken cultural expression. And that’s a problem. Not only is it morally suspect, it can lead to a backlash against the brand. What this means is that companies need to do more than have a superficial understanding of the symbols they use and the products they sell. They need to understand the people behind them, what is off limits and how the use of those symbols and objects will be interpreted both by the minority culture and the population as a whole.
The intent of advertising is to associate desire with commodities and services, and to cement feelings of positive affect to brands. It is to create a sense of meaning that ensures interest, sparks curiosity and develops bonds with the things we buy. But simply making promises about quality and cost are meaningless unless a deeper connection is established, a connection based in symbols and shared associations that require a two-way exchange.
So what does it mean to have a two-way exchange? Simply this: ads, and indeed all marketing tools, must produce narratives, be they texts, visual representations or any other means of conveying a message, that are sufficiently compelling that viewers are motivated to decipher them. They can’t simply impart information, they need elements that require the viewer to decode meaning and interpret meaning. Ads and marketing tools require viewers to complete their meaning and to make the necessary turns of meaning that give value to the brand. In other words, we encode ads with symbolic information that requires viewers to decode and interpret.
It’s worth noting here that no matter how much they strive to make the decoding process an identical replica (inverse though it may be) of the encoding process, advertisers and marketers can never achieve an absolute equivalence between the encoding and the decoding processes. The process is simply too messy and loaded with baggage from the development process. The encoding side establishes the interpretive parameters for making sense of the campaign by the viewer. Both advertisers and the viewers apply a socio-cultural grammar, or a shared set of propositions about how marketing materials and ads are structured and how the narrative of these media will unfold. Recognizing and making sense of ad messages usually takes place at a non-reflexive level for most Americans and Europeans. Increasingly this is true for the rest of the developed world. Like any language, the grammar of the ad remains unspoken. It is simply part of the subconscious background that makes intelligibility and communication possible.
Commercials employ a shorthand of signification. Advertising agencies look to referent systems for vocal, textual, visual and musical signifiers, compressing and sequencing them together in a recognizable structure. Referent systems designate widely shared systems of knowledge and clusters of meaning. For the ad to work the viewer most validate the sign. In other words, they must attach a signified to the signifier. Supported by the various elements we all recognize as part of an ad (narration, music, background sound, the relationship of each image to others in the commercial) and the viewer’s knowledge of the referent system from which the signifier is drawn, the viewer is guided through this validation process. The intent is not to co-create meaning, but to direct it. Certain clusters of signifiers recur again and again, of course, because it makes the process of decoding that much simpler. There are commercials in our thought-scape that are composed of disparate shorts that flow at a staccato pace. And yet viewers are able to easily decipher and interpret the intent of these commercials and associate both affect and a signified to a brand. Whether or not they accept the ad’s intended conclusion is another matter, of course. But they do interpret the underlying meanings with relative ease.
At its most elementary level branding is about equivalence. Brand building works to create an association in the consumer’s mind between a recognizable commodity or service and imagery of a desirable quality. First, the brand itself is given a recognizable, but differentiated, representation: the logo. Then, that representation is attached to a series of layered signifiers that point to a specific set of meanings: the signified. The goal is to blend layers of signifiers to support the branding message. Vectors are created across elements (visual, auditory, textual) so that when we experience a trigger we think of the slogan. Or a shared color in the commercial might create a visual equivalence between a global scape and a corporation. Elements both signify and serve as conduits for these vectors of equivalence. A sound signature (think of the Intel song) might cement a narrative to a logo as well as signifying something in its own right.
The signifiers that share the same space must indeed appear to have a natural connection. To create this sense of unquestioned objectivity, advertising draws on a range of devices to establish a sense of equivalence between commodity/brand and a meaning plus affect. These devices include composition, size, color, music, narrative, spokesperson, images, text, logo design, or anything that suggests this and that are one and the same. If the viewer valorized this process, the formula (brand equals signifier equals signified) is completed.
Even though I am thinking more about the future of the US economy, the significance of cultural translation in emerging markets and the symbolic significance of the Smurfs in branding, I thought something a little more practical was in order. Specifically, I am thinking about mind mapping as a great technique for pulling abstract and concrete ideas together into a holistic understanding of what people do, say and believe. A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea. Mind maps are collections of words structured by the mental context of the actor with visual mnemonics to help in memory and organization. Therefore, though the use of color, icons and visual links is informal, it is necessary to the proper functioning of the mind map. When time is short or you need a visual and textual representation of a complex system of beliefs and actions, mind mapping is a marvelous technique.
Structure of a mind mapping session typically involves the following:
- Start in the center with an image of the topic, using at least 3 colors.
- Use images, symbols, codes, and dimensions throughout your mind map.
- Select key words and print using upper or lower case letters.
- Each word/image is best alone and sitting on its own line.
- The lines should be connected, starting from the central image. The central lines are thicker, organic and flowing, becoming thinner as they radiate out from the centre.
- Make the lines the same length as the word/image they support.
- Use multiple colors throughout the mind map, for visual stimulation and also to encode or group.
- Use emphasis and show associations in your mind map.
- Keep the mind map clear by using radial hierarchy, numerical order or outlines to embrace your branches.
Whether quoted in a college lecture hall or printed on a bumper sticker, some maxims ring truer than others. While the origin of the well-known adage, “Think Knowledge Is Expensive? Try Ignorance,” is likely rooted in either philosophy or politics, it’s certainly a fitting truism in the world of branding as well.
How many times have marketing directors rang up their agencies with urgent requests for new direct mail concepts before bothering to learn that their customers respond better to email? How many “out-of-the-box” creative concepts nailed it in the conference room, then tanked in the real world with customers—customers who were never part of the planning process. Simply put, many marketers fail to recognize the importance of customer research—a critical part of the marketing planning process—until it’s too late.
Let’s examine this conundrum in three parts we’ll call “Media” (how the information is disseminated), “Message” (the “creative” component of the information) and “Meaning” (what insight customers take to or from the message).
Most marketers start with Media—“We need a new outdoor campaign!”—as they engage their advertising agency. Once the media vehicle is determined, the creative team is called in to develop the Message. All too often, Meaning comes at the end of the process in the form of a “creative autopsy.” After discovering their killer campaign flatlined with the target, the advertising guys summon the research guys to investigate cause of death. A couple of focus groups later—and revelation! “Prospects hate the color green.”
Without knowing the specifics of any failed campaign, it’s fair to say most wind up dead on arrival because their creators had everything backwards. The fundamental workflow—Media, Message, Meaning—should have happened in reverse order.
The most successful brands begin their marketing process with genuine consumer insight gained via robust customer research. Only with a firm understanding of customers’ hearts and minds (Meaning) can an agency create relevant and differentiating creative (Message). And only after a marketer has the contextual perspective of Meaning can he or she best know where to place a Message so consumers experience it in the right place at the right time (Media).
How do you gain the kind of consumer insight that sets a foundation for sustainable success? By uncovering the true thoughts, feelings and desires of your customers. Simply talking to them (through surveys, focus groups or other methods) is no longer enough. Now more than ever, consumers know when they are being marketed to and how. Sure, survey respondents and focus group participants can tell you something, but what do their words mean? Can their words be trusted? Do their comments reflect the context of their daily lives and the complexities of behavior, culture and symbolic relationships?
For these reasons, qualitative research practices, especially that old stand-by, the focus group, must be complemented with more in-depth, investigative methodologies. Such methods include ethnography (observing customers in their natural environments), semiotics (uncovering the meanings of signs and symbols), semantics and linguistics (the nuances and meaning of words and language)—even cognitive psychology, proxemics (the meanings of place and space) and basic biology. Only by starting with insightful customer research can agencies and their clients break the customer code, deliver meaningful messages to consumers and build sustainable brands.
As you begin planning your next major marketing initiative, check your course. Are you starting from an informed, customer-centered position? Or, are you starting at the wrong end of the path. Use customer knowledge as your marketing GPS and you’ll never make a wrong turn down the Meaning-Message-Media one-way street.
To the credit of marketing, advertising, and research people the days of talking about the consumer as the sole focus of shopping activity are essentially gone. We recognize that the shopper and the consumer are not always the same. Indeed, it is often the case that they are not. The focus has shifted to the process that takes place between the first thought a consumer has about purchasing an item, all the way through the selection of that item. While this is a reasonable approach to understanding the people who buy and use a company’s products, it still has one principle flaw. Namely, it focuses on individuals rather than systems of people and the behavioral and cultural drivers behind their actions. The distinction is subtle but important because it assumes the shopping experiences goes well beyond the product itself, which is largely functional, and considers the product (and brand) as a means of facilitating social interaction. In other words, it thinks about shopping as a means of establishing cultural norms, emotional bonds, and identity.
Shopping as a Function
Think of the shopping experience as a continuum of cultural patterns with the shopper moving along the line as influences shape their intent and behavior depending on context, consumer, and people of varying influence falling at different points along the line. The baseline goal may be as simple as getting groceries in the home with the consumers all adding to the shopping list. On the surface, it is a reasonably simple process to understand. We need food to survive and we need to make sure the food we buy reflects the realities of personal tastes within a household. This is the functional side of the shopper experience. First, shopping is viewed as a collection of interdependent parts, with a tendency toward equilibrium. Second, there are functional requirements that must be met in a social unit for its survival (such as procurement of food). Third, phenomena are seen to exist because they serve a function (caloric intake). So shopping is seen in terms of the contribution that the individual shopper makes to the functioning of the whole or the consuming group. Of course, this is part of what we have to market to, but it is only one part of the shopping equation.
The problem is that this approach is unable to account for social change, or for structural contradictions and conflict. It is predicated on the idea that shopping is designed for or directed toward a final result. Shopping, it assumes, is rooted in an inherent purpose or final cause. Buying cookies is more than getting calories into your kids. In fact, it has precious little to do with the kids at all and it is at this point that the shopper begins to move to the other end of the shopping continuum.
Shopping as Part of Something Bigger
Human beings act toward the things they buy on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters. Shopping, then, can be viewed through the lens of how people create meaning during social interaction, how they present and construct the self (or “identity”), and how they define situations with others. So, back to cookies. The mom buying cookies is rewarding her children, but in doing so she is expressing to herself and the world that she is a good mom, that she is loving, and that she understands her role as a parent.
As another example, imagine a husband who buys all organic vegetables for his vegan wife. He is expressing solidarity, support, recognition of her world view, etc. He may, however, slip a steak into the basket as a personal reward for having been a good husband which he expressed through accommodating her dietary needs. The fundamental question is not whether or not he responds to advertising describing the products, but what are the social and cultural mechanisms under the surface that shape why he makes his choices. What the shopper buys and the consumer shares are individual, rational choices. They are gifts that create an obligation to reciprocate in some way. Through the gift, the givers yield up part of themselves and imbue the product with a certain power that helps maintain the relationship. The gift is therefore not merely a product but also has cultural and social properties. In other words, the shopper and the consumer are doing much more with products than fulfilling the need for which the product was designed. The product becomes a tool for maintaining relationships. What that means for a marketer is that when we design a shopping experience, we need to dig deeper than the product. We need to address the underlying social and cultural patterns in people’s lives.
Speaking in Broad Terms
All of this means that when we are develop a new means by which we target shoppers, we need to remember to speak to both ends of the continuum and remember that shopping is both a functional and a symbolic act. Shoppers and shopping break into two categories. On one end is the purely functional element and on the other is the structural/symbolic element. Shopping for nuts and bolts clearly falls on the functional end, but not necessarily the tools with which they are used. Understanding and talking to both ends of the continuum leads to a broader audience and that leads to increased sales and brand recognition. Which is, when all is said and done, the ultimate goal.
What’s in a meal, anyway? Meat! Or so we think. Though throughout human history the bulk of what we ate on any given day was vegetable matter (or bugs when we could get them), meat has become the conceptual focal point for what makes a meal. So if you’re a food manufacturer, what does it mean to you and your brand?