Culture comprises the patterns that establish a cohort’s normative and aspirational benchmarks of thought, attitude, and behavior. As the definition goes, Semiotics is the art and science of investigating the meaning and importance behind symbols and signs.
Cultural semiotics connects these elements by decoding signs and symbols important to a consumer target group. Its aim is not only to identify the cultural norms and aspirations governing the group but also to align visual, verbal, and auditory vocabulary with that pattern.
By aligning with this pattern, a brand can tap into subconscious pathways of decision-making embedded in the consumer, establishing an instinctive consumer connection with the brand and its DNA.
How to Optimise Culture Semiotics: Bringing Theory to Action
In our experience, the most optimum way to action culture semiotics is to go through the following structure:
This refers to a systematic investigation to gather relevant cultural artefacts. The process starts with a breakdown of the clients’ objective, business action scope, and constraints as well as a review of relevant past work done. This allows the investigation process to be both in-depth and efficient, zooming in and out as needed. Typically, an investigation process will have different components, the importance of which varies based on the exact client’s needs:
- Origin Investigation: social-political-economic history and/or religion-myths-folklores
- Expression Investigation: Both high and low culture expressions: arts and literature
- Consumer Creation Investigation: UGC content and consumer Journals
- Marketing Mix Investigation: material from category and adjacent category brand and competition
- Technology Investigation: Needed only in specific cases, such as brands with sustainability objectives or specific technological competitive advantages or challenges.
As might be imagined, this stage requires extensive secondary research, expert interviews, consumer creative journals, and depending on the complexity of the objective, consumer in-depth interviews. Considering the specific marketing/ branding and category, the importance accorded to investigating each of these artifacts needs to be determined. Nevertheless, a cross-sectional investigation is non-negotiable.
This initial stage ends with a substantial collection of artifacts gathered from the various investigative streams.
During this stage, the artifact bank undergoes Greimas analysis, examining the structural relationships among the various artifacts. This leads to grouping them into homogenous clusters based on their purpose in the collective imagination, giving rise to the emergence of culture codes.
This stage ends with the identification of culture codes with specific best-example artifacts plotted on each one.
This stage is aimed at putting these culture codes through an acid test. To do this, consumer-facing stimuli are created, tailored to each code identified in the previous stage. The challenge involves distinguishing semiotic cues and crafting code-specific stimuli that can singularly communicate each code without any ambiguity.
This stage results in stimulus in the form of narrative sketches and mood boards for each code.
Here, the generated stimuli are presented to consumers, usually done through consumer groups. The objective is not merely to assess the ‘appeal’ of the stimulus but, more importantly, to refine the elements within each code, provide better definitions and determine the strength of category-connection and the brand’s right-to-play through consumer reactions to the stimuli.
This stage adds a stronger consumer voice to the data set.
For this last step, marketing strategy specialists collaborate with semioticians and consumer specialists to identify the most potential pathways for the brand to leverage.
This stage ends with a presentation or workshop where implementation blueprints are aligned in terms of comms brief and NPD direction etc., as within the scope of the project.
How can cultural semiotics help to elevate different aspects of branding and marketing strategy?
A brand positioning space must align with consumer truth, category relevance and brand value proposition to enable brand superiority. With the increasing democratization of innovation across various brands and geographies, the challenge often lies in identifying a distinctive enough ‘space of play’.
Cultural semiotics help us get a fresh perspective on the category’s importance in the consumer’s life by placing the individual in the broader context of the current macro-economic forces and the inherited cultural subconscious. This allows for the identification of unique white spaces where the brand can position itself.
One of our recent works in this space tackled a particularly difficult positioning ask for a heritage brand in the drinking water category. A market leader in the mass segment, the brand was trying to fend off challengers waging aggressive price wars. The cultural semiotic work done for the brand enabled it to identify a positioning that broke out of the mold of the category, and elevated the brand’s proposition to the consumer, despite the category being highly commoditized.
Brand Localisation and/ or Communication Blueprints
For some time now, global brands have realized how critical localization is to win consumers. Cultural semiotics can not only accurately interpret a brand communication key or brand purpose in the local context but also elevate it. This work would typically end in a playbook of sorts, with multiple dimensions identified and prioritized for the brand to act upon.
The work in this space can cut across categories as diverse as beauty, food and beverage, white goods, and finance.
New Product Development (NPD) Inspiration
A successful NPD is not only about creating something new; it involves establishing an immediate emotional and functional connection with consumers. In this context, cultural semiotics enables a unique parallel thinking approach. It allows us to explore seemingly unrelated aspects of contemporary culture to source inspiration that is unique enough to stand out yet grounded enough to resonate and gain traction.
In recent work, trying to source fragrance innovation inspiration for a fabric softener, culture semiotics led us to delve into trending sitcoms and movies. The key here is not to simply identify the source of inspiration, but to anchor it in category. Culture semiotics enables us to do both as it pinpoints the exact elements and structures that make up the anatomy of that inspiration and marries it with the deep-seated cultural relevance the category holds.
Virality is influenced by culture; while global hashtags may trend across markets, the more impactful viral trends are often localized, differing from one cohort or market to another. However, it is possible to make sense of seemingly scattered trends by connecting them into deeper motivations and semiotic spaces that brands can leverage to set trends. This is typically done by collecting viral content from the internet, semiotically analyzing each element, and then linking it back to broader PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, Environmental) narratives.
To provide brands with actionable insights, the final output should be organized with a macro-theme, followed by nuanced execution codes serving as building blocks of virality. This includes comprehensive guidelines for broad categories such as themes, music, characters, visuals, narrative, etc. Each category, like music, should be further broken down into components like rhythm, lyrics, beats and tunes.
The insights are then compiled into a virality playbook, providing clients with a strategic guide to initiate new consumer trends.
Cultural semiotics offers marketers a dynamic and forward-thinking framework and is a powerful instrument for truly understanding and connecting with consumers in an ever-changing cultural landscape.