The not-so dark art of semiotics

Door Kees van Duyn | 16-08-2022

Op 21 september spreken Kees van Duyn en Rob Drent op het MIE over de Power of Semiotics voor marketing en merkstrategie. Engeland kent een autoriteit op het gebied van semiotiek, en dan vooral het commerciële gebruik daarvan: Chris Arning (foto). Reden voor Kees van Duyn om hem eens te vragen naar zijn visie en aanpak.

Everyday we process a huge amount commercial signs and symbols, from Nike’s swoosh to Apple’s apple, subconsciously and in nano seconds. Without words, they tell the story of brands. That’s why some of the biggest brands in the world reach out to semioticians to decode signs and symbols, to solve marketing problems and provide springboards for strategy and creativity. However, in the Netherlands semiotics is missing in researchers’ toolbox. That’s a shame, because semiotics offers a critical piece of the marketing puzzle: cultural insight and foresight.

This interview with Chris Arning, one of the UK’s foremost semioticians, brings intellectually curious marketers and researchers up to speed with one of the brightest stars on the insight scene: commercial semiotics.

You are founder of Creative Semiotics, father of international semiotics conference Semiofest and convenor of the crash course How to Do Semiotics in 7 Weeks; who’s Chris Arning?

‘I’m a London-based semiotician and brand strategist. I founded Creative Semiotics, a boutique consultancy offering global semiotic thinking, in 2010. But I started dipping my toe in semiotics waters in 2001. I was working on an innovation project for Unilever with Alex Gordon (from Sign Salad). What Alex pulled up was an illuminating parallel between the need states of refreshment and indulgence and the retail set-up in shops. I still remember his language, which was based on binary opposites (a key concept in semiotics, red): the ‘citadel of refreshment’ and the ‘trough of confection’. He convincingly backed it up with loads of visuals. It was then that I realized I had come across a very fundamental way of thinking about human behavior.’

What’s semiotics about?

‘Semiotics comes from the Greek word semion, meaning ‘sign’. It’s borrowed from academia and used in more progressive marketing circles to help manage the cultural meaning embedded in brands and visual communications.’ At its core semiotics is about sensemaking. Along with behavioral economics it’s one of the key ways in which we understand the world. Yet to some people it may seem like a dark art because it deals with abstract and fuzzy concepts, such as ‘culture’ and ‘meaning’. It also creates these epiphany moments, which may seem magical if someone doesn’t immediately grasp where it came from.

Though the outcome might seem magical, everything that leads to it is pragmatic, like a craft. It takes a lot of labor to turn thousands of thick data points into a simple code map of a category or brand. That’s not magic but the result of very concentrated and hard intellectual work, using a tried and tested process. It’s also the sedimented hard work semioticians put into understanding culture, independent of projects. What I bring is 30 years of cultural curiosity. I’m constantly taking photos of ads when I’m on the tube to create a catalogue of popular culture as it evolves.’

‘Though the outcome might seem magical, everything that leads to it is pragmatic, like a craft’

That sounds dedicated. Can anyone do semiotics?

‘Semiotics is a tool, not a religion. But can anyone be a professional footballer? You need an instinct for joining the dots and the ability to synthesize huge amounts of data to explain ‘culture’, coupled with solid experience. On top of that you need the confidence to justify the findings, which are sometimes met with skepticism, and the ability to argue things clearly and simply.

Ideally you are also comfortable with adjacent disciplines, such as behavioral science. Like heuristics in decision making, I talk about ‘codes’ as short cuts to meaning, e.g. ‘vegan’ or ‘femininity’ are codes. People use codes to direct their behavior quickly and effortlessly, with the subconscious part of the brain.’

Semiotics is not about numbers. How is it different to qual research?

‘Like some types of qual research semiotics is an upstream methodology. It’s often brought in as a circuit breaker to disrupt narrow views of e.g. a category, by bringing in the wider cultural context.

But semiotics is more provocative and often deeper than qual. For instance, when I talk about marketing paradigms – we’re moving from an age in which brands were primarily offering assurance, to aspiration to empathy; and now we find ourselves in the age of ideology, which many brand owners struggle to grasp – those are very broad and deep cultural brush strokes that help explain how the world works. At the same time semiotics provides the granular visual evidence from popular culture, which makes it very powerful.

A key difference with qual is that semiotics interrogates culture without asking people questions. We ask ourselves questions, and culture is answering in ways that are useful for marketers, not through a crystal ball but through a structured analysis of all sorts of brand communications, from ads to packaging to websites and TikTok posts.

Semiotics is also more forward-looking than qual because it’s alert to emerging meaning. Qual, in contrast, relies heavily on interrogating ordinary people about what they think or feel in the here and now.

My fellow semiotician Rachel Lawes says in her excellent book Semiotics for Marketing that qual is an inside-out method: it tries to understand what’s going on inside people’s heads, whereas semiotics is outside-in. It studies the external inputs for psychological constructs such as perceptions and attitudes. But it’s not a zero-sum game. Semiotics is often a way to contextualize a problem, which you can zoom in on further with qual.’

‘Semiotics is often a way to contextualize a problem, which you can zoom in on further with qual’

The concept of meaning is very important in semiotics. How’s that?

‘Brands are fundamentally about meaning. Brand associations live in consumers’ mind, and they need to be built through comms. If something isn’t meaningful it’s unlikely to be coded in long term memory, which is what drives brand preference.

And meaning and value are inextricably linked. As a brand you are trying to enhance the symbolic value of a product. Without its symbolic meaning Alfa Romeo is just a car.

Meaning is both cultural and psychological, it also lives in the brain. But we shouldn’t look for meaning in brains. People make sense of the world as it presents itself, but culture provides meaning.’

Talking about culture. What do semioticians mean by that?

‘Culture is a magma of shared meaning. The way that mass marketing works is not because people have idiosyncratic views of an ad or a brand, despite differences in individuals’ experience. Many brand associations are shared.

For certain challenges you need to understand how culture works to ensure you’re not communicating in a vacuum. Brand are communicating through the medium of culture, otherwise messages would be garbled. The history of marketing is littered with examples of companies who did not take this seriously.’

‘Semiotics has infiltrated the more progressive minded companies and agencies, but it’s not a wave that has conquered the mainstream’

What’s the future of semiotics?

‘Semiotics has infiltrated the more progressive minded companies and agencies, but it’s not a wave that has conquered the mainstream. Semioticians may need to be a bit bolder in explaining how important it is. For instance, if you launch a new brand, you can’t do without it because you need to understand the world in which it’s going to live. Semiotics brings something very fundamental to the table that other popular methods don’t: cultural context. And brands have come to take culture more seriously. Contemporary culture is a minefield they have to navigate. The three horsemen of brand purpose – sustainability, diversity and inclusion and mental health – have prompted brand owners to think more carefully about culture. Semiotics has been a beneficiary of that.’

To conclude, recently you launched the widely popular course How to Do Semiotics in Seven Weeks. What’s that going to do for semiotics?

‘My motivation for the course was to take semiotics out of academia without losing its rigour. Eventually I’m hoping to get the message out that semiotics is an essential part of brand insight and strategy. It’s a skill that can be learned, but you’d need to be dedicated.

I like to think that hundreds of insight and marketing professionals going through this course will achieve a lot. It may even achieve Virginia Valentine’s (a key semiotics pioneer, red) ambition of training a raft of ‘semiotic technicians’, to propel the discipline into the mainstream. With 120 alumni I’d like to think that we’re achieving that.

In any case, the intellectually curious researcher or marketer is going to find loads in the course to help him understand the world. We are never too old to learn.

Op 21 september, om 11.15 uur, spreken Kees van Duyn en Rob Drent op het MIE over de Power of Semiotics voor marketing en merkstrategie. Alle informatie op

Auteur: Kees van Duyn, Auteur

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