Ways of Seeing revisits a previous column, Fragments. In this new series, we’ll explore the processes of sense-making, knowledge production, and world-building in our memories, realities, and imaginaries as South Africans, inspired by the use of semiotics (the scientific study of signs, symbols, and communication systems within sociocultural contexts) in our business landscape.
Semiotics is growing in popularity among brand analysts as it’s “the most appropriate tool for understanding questions surrounding brand symbolism and meaning and the multiple and layered messages that underpin this meaning,” according to Chris Arning. More and more businesses are ‘tapping into culture’ to create meaningful communication, to develop human-centred design, to position themselves competitively in shifting contexts, and to cue concepts and ideas that resonate with specific audiences.
“Semiotics, the study of signs and cultural meaning, has been gaining ground in the world of commercial research.” This is the opinion of Cato Hunt and Clem McCulloch in Epic. Semiotics has long been making waves in the business world but what we see emerging is a distinctly corporate and commercial form. “Commercial Semiotics can be used to strategically answer business challenges, providing cultural context as to why ideas are in people’s minds in the first place,” writes Caroline Brierley in Illume Stories. “By deconstructing culture to determine underlying codes, [semiotics] tells us how meaning is created,” says Ashton Bridges in Kelton. “Humans make emotional decisions. Those emotions are often guided by subconscious interpretations of words and images. Semiotics can help decode those subconscious messages to sharpen messaging and branding,” notes Lesley Vos in CXL.
HIDDEN IN THE DARK. We often speak of insights as gems to be mined, nuggets to be unearthed, buried treasures to be discovered, as if researchers are miners, archeologists, or explorers, and the people and places from which we draw insight are mines, caves, or uncharted territory. In this sense, culture — learned behaviour, value systems, beliefs and worldviews — is imagined to be hidden, underlying, deep below the surface, fossilised, rather than entangled, enigmatic, and evolving.
Aren’t we colonising culture by hunting, excavating, and claiming it? By flagging it, moulding it, and putting it on display?
CASTING SHADOWS. Have you heard the saying, “Old sins cast long shadows”? What we do today has consequences tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. In the same breath, we’ve inherited processes and practices that came before. The ways in which we gather, collect, nurture and share insight shapes the stories that are told, the perceptions formed of people, the innovations and strategies that are made. Our thoughts, words, and actions matter.
Consider, for example, what comes to mind when we think of shadows. Often shadows are associated with metaphorical darkness, mystery, and the unknown. If someone behaves in a ‘shady’ manner, we question the honesty or legitimacy behind their intentions. The shadow economy is used to refer to ‘unlawful’ activities that operate outside of the formal economy and so are beyond state control or benefit. The shadow pandemic encompasses the gender-based violence (GBV) that targets women and girls. In psychology, the shadow self is a part of the individual that they’re either unaware of or choose to suppress and not make visible or known in order to control and contain a version of themselves and their reality.
In thinking about our use of insight, what assumptions, judgments, and preconceptions cast shadows on the work that we do? How might we change these narratives, perspectives, and choices?
SHINE A LIGHT. Jean Paul Petitimbert, semiotician and brand analyst, distinguished between two branches of semiotics — one of French origin, and the other emerging from an Anglo‑Saxon world.
He explains that, “for the French strand of semiotics, the purpose of an analysis is to dive inside signs (whatever their natures), to disassemble them, so to speak, and to take them to pieces in order to understand the internal logic at work between their different components, with a view to describing the mechanisms that produce meaning.” In this sense, a brand is built on internal logics, philosophies, systems and rules. The semiotician “bring[s] them to light” so that a marketer might maintain the brand’s identity over time and space.
The English variant of commercial semiotics tends to border on trend analysis. You have probably heard of codes being described as emergent, dominant or residual. This also involves a consideration for the intention and interpretation of signs and symbols, says Petitimbert. One branch of commercial semiotics focuses on the internal, the micro, and the specific, while the other focuses on the contextual, the macro, and the external.
In short, “[t]here should exist marketing research programmes proposing to use both approaches in order to get the depth and width of analysis respectively provided by each type of semiotic enquiry so that clients can make really thoroughly informed decisions.”
Originally published on Marklives.