This piece is first of a two parter on the state of the art of applied semiotics in consumer insight. It is primarily written for practitioners of semiotics interested in the development of the methodology and for interested researchers, strategists, planners and ambitious, progressive insight specialists. So I write this piece to give my opinion on the utility of approaches to give a sharper sense of the demarcation lines between them and how they can best work together as a consolidated insight.
Semiotics has grown in currency in the last two years. It is on companies’ radars there is increasing demand for semiotic insight, however as it makes modest inroads into research budgets, another issue hoves into view: lack of clarity amongst clients on where semiotics sits in the insight suite: how it works with other methodologies.
Miscellaneous queries I have fielded recently from clients and prospective clients range from a confusion between semiotics and ethnographic approaches, uncertainty over how combinable semiotics is with neuro-metrics or with behavioural economics, whether semiotics is legitimate if it analyses consumer generated content from qualitative research, and the difference between trends findings and a emergent cultural code. There is a lot of uncertainty out there. So I wanted to address this.
To state an interest, my mission is to move upstream in the insight chain to tackle the big strategic problems facing companies and individual brands. I am a creative problem solver, not just a semiotics methodology provider. I want to become an insight broker bringing the above suite of tools to brand creation, product innovation briefs where there is a genuine appetite for a culturally sensitive approach to the big strategic choices but also a need for triangulation of results from other approaches. I would welcome views from practitioners and clients on aspect of this, in particular those who want to collaborate with and partner with Creative Semiotics on projects.
Some semioticians see semiotics as a singular cultural critique that stands outside of and can never be mixed with empirical positivist science. Some prospective clients only see semiotics as a stand alone approaches for a narrow range of applications.
I used to be Head of Semiotics at Flamingo Research so I started off applying the methodology in triangulation using qualitative research. Often a combination of focus groups, triangulated with semiotic and ethnographic approaches - that at the time seemed to be termed 'bricolage'' - were the lifeblood of my day to day work.
a WARC Best Practice report, ‘What we know about bricolage and semiotics’ July, 2017 writes “Bricolage does not put interviewing, or any particular information-collection method, at the centre of solving the client's problem. Instead, it puts the researcher's detective and analytical skills at its core. It means treating many more things as empirical materials to be read than the products of groups and interviews.”
Vice President of ABM Research, Charles Leech, wrote at Toronto, Semiofest 2017:
"One of the challenges in the search for rich and accurate insights is the inevitable partiality of any one research approach. If you only examine an issue from one perspective (or with one research method), you end up with a distorted view of reality (a can looks like a circle, not a cylinder, from only one angle). The only way to get a true picture of reality is to triangulate: look for the same truth using at least two different methods, and see what comes up... As a result, Triangulation, or mixed methods research has become increasingly popular".
The core of the piece compares insight techniques for decision making such as trends syndication gathering, big data analytics, behavioural economics, implicit response and neuro-metrics All these approaches potentially replicate aspects of the semiotics toolkit. All of them help to highlight different facets of the unconscious factors and context that underpin and drive consumer mindsets. I believe that the simultaneous deployment of these approaches get us to a richer insight and can give a fuller picture, to eliminate blind spots and be of better service to our clients.
Semiotics has alluded to above has long been blended with other insight tools, for example ethno- observational techniques. Observational research helps to capture behaviours and patterns subjects reveal in the course of their lives in unguarded moments, things they themselves are not aware of. Semiotics can then bring the essential 'structure' and a cultural backdrop to 'amorphous' observational data.
But what about more contemporary technology and science inspired methodologies? In the below, I attempt to set out what these individual specialisms claim to provide, the insights they provide, and the types of semiotic project they replicate. For each methodology I cover what the method is, how it works, the semiotics services substituted, the threat level and potential for semiotic friendly combination.
DISCLAIMER *This is not meant to be an exhaustive account of the way these methodologies operate. I seek only sketch out their utility so as to be able to compare them with semiotics. Please comment and correct me if you feel I have misconstrued or misrepresented a methodology in which you work. Whilst I have a working understanding of these areas, my specialism is semiotics; I cannot be an expert in everything!*
2.1 TRENDS SYNDICATION
Source: LSN Global website, https://www.lsnglobal.com
Trends Houses are focused on keeping in touch with the latest in popular culture, in technology and social and cultural practices. In an accelerationist and hyper-cycling culture industry where things move faster than ever, and we all infected by FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), this sort of insight helps clients spot innovation opportunities and helps them see where the cultural zeitgeist is moving.
Trends in general are very well curated and smart.
Drawing on in house resources, trends are usually packaging in a very attractive way using glossy photography with examples from digital art and smart custom design infographics. trends provide a blanket, generalised market intelligence which is distinct from the specific enquiries posed to semioticians to forensically deep dive on specific cultural or category areas. I am doing a talk on hip-hop and masculinity in a few weeks and have downloaded LSN's Masculinity report, as well as Faith Popcorn's to give me a snapshot of prevailing discourses.
The only rub is that some trends (not all, but some) identified can be rather frothy,ephemeral and transient without a sense of their place in a cultural churn and likely longevity. There is also sometimes a lack of nuance towards the way culture works. An inherent neophilia with some of this work blinds us to the deeper patterns of recurrence and repetition and longer arcs and trajectories of change that the art of the long view afforded by semiotics can provide. As Rachel Lawes writes, when encountering some interesting socio-cultural change we need to ask of it: "Is it a micro-trend? Is it the start of something large? How long will it last? How can all of our business respond to it with new consumer goods and services"
Creative Semiotics recently contributed to a BackSlash, the TBWA agency thinkpiece entitled Wacko World. This is a timely exposé on the excrescence of wacky aesthetics on and offline. Semiotics added some perspective on the history of collage and randomness (Dada etc) in art and connected these aesthetics with ideologies. Semiotics need not vie with Trends Agencies on being first to unearth the super new but just needs to concentrate on their significance, placing them in wider context.
2.2 QUANTITATIVE / BIG DATA ANALYTICS
Source: Scenario DNA website: https://www.scenariodna.com/work
What is Big Data? Typically it can be defined as extremely large data sets that can be analysed computationally to help us to see patterns. So for example mashing up Ordnance Survey data and Department of Transport accident data to create a map of road junctions where most accidents happen so as to improve warning signage.
Marion Tanis writes:
“The dream of accurate market segmentation and audience targeting is now a reality through the usage of these new devices and the output of big data and metrics. As a result, the industry has become obsessed with this profitable dimension of market sustainability and the quantification of consumer behavior. Spending on big data is set to reach $48.7 billion by 2019, with associated revenues reaching $187 billion by the same year (Olavsrud, 2016). “
So, what sort of problems does Big Data solve in the consumer insight realm:
If we consider a company such as Palantir. “Palantir is helping Hershey’s Chocolate better understand how and where their chocolates sell in stores. For instance, Palantir were able to mine customer transaction and store data to figure out that when Hershey’s chocolate is placed next to marshmallows, it increases sales.”
Steve Verba, in the RWC ESOMAR series on semiotics series looking at Big Data and opportunities for semiotics notes about its obsessive appeal:
“The biggest appeal of Big Data application in business is that the sheer amount of data provides a sort of intrinsic credibility. Secondly, the appeal also comes from the notion that the tools used to analyze Big Data are positioned as applying pure logic to that data to make precise predictions. This is both a great Brand Promise and a Unique Selling Proposition for Big Data.”
Marion Tanis notes, in an research proposal Big Data and the Future of Technology in which she ponders: “Is big data evolving faster than our ability to properly use it?’ asks, quoting Joe Stanhope at Forrester whether we are reaching the limits of our ‘cognitive power’ when it comes to the interpretation of digital data. Tanis writes that: ‘it is important to note that we are currently ill-equipped to make decisions on the highly advanced outputs from rapidly growing technologies. In other words, the problem is that big data is outpacing our ability to properly handle it.’
Semiotics can help to correct some of the biases in as Verba writes: “Semiotics draws our attention to the existence of an underlying code system informing the choices made within the discipline (e.g. what is ignored, devalued or glossed, or what is valorized, optimized or rewarded)”. The big issue with Big Data is the problem of meaningful interpretation, digging into statistical significance etc.
Verba challenges the axioms of Big Data as transparent logic applied to immutable documented evidence by showing the limits to the interpretive frameworks used. He gives an example of gaining competitive advantage using semiotics to reverse engineer social media data.
I recently shared a stage with the Digital Forensics team from Flamingo, my old employers showing how the Big Data can work with other methodologies which they call digital forensics which involves analysing a repository of self-ethnographic data.
There have been companies operating in this space for a while. Scenario DNA, run by Tim Stock, a previous attendee at Semiofest specialises in data visualisation based on Linguistic and Machine Learning. Previously (SEmiofest, 2012) he has tracked the spread of affiliation with Anonymous or the Raw movement in the US by detecting as is stated on the website “and tracking cultural signals to reveal critical patterns and emerging narratives that create competitive market advantage.”
Signoi have started a service called quantitative semiotics, that helps "clients quickly cut through the cloud of culture and focus on what signals are truly important for your brand or category. What’s growing and emergent, the natural meaning structures and codes within a category? How do we track their evolution and use them for commercial advantage?” Quilt AI that are seeking to pair semiotics and Artificial intelligence to create powerful synergies. Where they combine the scale of data points along with the cultural nous and interpretive skill of the digital anthropologist.
However, it is harder to see how quantitative semiotics can make the sharp, precise interventions such as are required in account pitches or creative inspiration – and if you are interested in a very specific area of culture, you need bespoke, rather than off the shelf insight combination of the weight of numbers and semiotics insights. In this case crowdsourcing and semiotics might be as good or even better combination.
2.3 BEHAVIOURAL ECONOMICS
Source: The Behavioural Architects website https://www.thebearchitects.com
Behavioural Economics has been bubbling under as a methodology for use in research and insight since 2010 or so. Behavioural Economics has striking parallels with semiotics. Both focus attention on context, on the unconscious factors that influence decision making and looking for patterns in order to create insight.
As a qualitative researcher colleague wrote:
"Behavioural science tends to start with a behaviour and seeks to explain it; its expertise is centred on its ability to drill into psychological process, but not so much on understanding the environment's inputs. Semiotics on the other hand starts by describing environments/stimuli and what they mean to people apprehending them."
Behavioural economics, popularised by books such as Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational, and Nudge can be used to evaluate anything relevant to where a decision is to be made – clearly relevant to buying decisions as there are many variables involved. Areas of research researched by behavioural economics is anything to do with the influence of consumer-brand interfaces, service design or consumer journey work where the principal interest is in gauging nudges or levers of engagement at every point. It is also becoming influential in understanding organizational dynamics.
Behavioural Economists apply a panoply principles such as Framing, Social Norms, Loss Aversion, Framing, Choice Architecture. Much of these have been derived from Daniel Kahnemann, a Nobel Prize winner for the book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, a psychologist who coined the term System 1, to designate the more impulsive part of the brain which works on a nonconscious/ implicit brain processing model, responsible for the vast majority of the actions and which processed billions of bits of data, versus System 2, the more reflective part of the brain which is more purposeful, effortful, but less efficient, and is easily overwhelmed.
Behavioural economics has done a much better PR job than semiotics. Rather than languish for years as an obscure backwater, it was dramatically heralded as a revolutionary technique, gathered powerful advocates and then quickly set about carving itself out a niche. It enjoys a higher profile, and perceived relevance.
For this reason some clients may, erroneously, believe that it covers off exactly the same ground as semiotics - analysis of the context of communications and decision making. The thrust of BE findings can also seem more relevant because they focus on the mechanism by which the environment cause behaviours, rather than the way we interpret visual signs in culture and how these findings unconscious influence us.
Along with ethnographic research, this is the most compatible with semiotic data. This is because though the pure academic subjects are based on different epistemological foundations, they are siblings within market research and consumer insight industry for the reasons of shared concerns and premises set out above.
I just worked with a Behavioural Economist on a project and this lens helped, along with the semiotics to explain why the category service design and packaging posed an acute Empathy Gap for consumers, involving bewildering shelf layout (-ve Choice Architecture) and created friction and paralysis in decision and Cognitive Overload and how the category needed to combat Endowment Effect with some smart heurists. The semiotics contributed sharp analysis on garish colour choice, and misconceived speed metaphors on pack. Together, the semiotics and behavioural economics was a dynamite combo in explaining why this packaging wasn't working!
As Nick Southgate writes:
"Behavioural Economics says framing works. Semiotics, commercially applied, could be seen as analysis of framing - the cultural norms, symbols, etc. that are part of the implicit message of the presentation of any decision. When BE identifies a framing issue, semiotics should be able to suggest widest array of levers to pull"
2.4 NEURO METRICS
Source: Neuro-Insight website https://neuro-insight.com
Neurometrics techniques have risen in credibility in the eyes of marketeers and cases studies seem now to be ubiquitous at research conferences. This has been driven by the increasing sophistication in brain understanding and the decreasing cost of technology on the one hand, heightened need for data in decision-making and a greater appetite to embrace neuroscience on the other. The Advertising Research Federation in the US has embraced Neuroscience. In the UK, WARC runs regular seminars to popularise these techniques.
Neuro-metrics tend to work through either EEG or Electroencephalography which measures electrical activity in parts of the brain and fMRI or functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery which measures the blood flow to various parts of the brain. Neuro-Insight have pioneered and patented a retuned version of EEG called SST or Steady State Topography. Neuro-metrics helps clients or agencies to optimize communication by tracking the emotional intensity, approach withdrawal or long term memory encoding happening in the brain during the exposed stimulus.
Neuro-metrics claims to identify the creative factors correlated with peaks of brain response and across a range of measures. These measures can be correlated with desirable consumer responses, for instance, emotional intensity or long term memory encoding. The latter, in particular is somewhat of the holy grail amongst effectiveness metrics since it is shown to correlate very highly with ad effectiveness.
In a think piece developed for Thinkbox, the trade association for commercial television advertisers, Neuro-Insight, with whom I have worked before, present a series of elements: emotion over hard facts, classic storytelling techniques, and skilful placement of branding and music that can help to maximise the impact of communication. This clearly give another approach alongside semiotics as technique for deconstructing brand texts.
Darren Bridger in his 2016 book Neuro-Design sets out effectiveness principles – including neuro-aesthetics, gestalt psychology, behavioural economics - to help the designers of all sorts. The chapters cover such aspects as processing fluency, how first impressions work, multi-sensory design, visual saliency and persuasion and even virality of memes. The book is laser focused on distilling techniques that will help to move the needle on work in fields like advertising, architecture, UX design.
Semiotics, on balance semiotics tends to operate at the level of big creative ideas, their cultural resonance. Semioticians tend to do so by delving into the detail but we seek to connect these with the bigger picture. Semioticians in creativity know that what is left out is just as important as what included. The semiotician would start with the question: what meanings are you trying to convey and through what signs?
Starting from the perspective that all branded signs are freighted with cultural meanings, the semiotic will change the meaning, for instance, how swapping out frame A instead of frame B shifts visual impact or connotations of a print ad, or how a different music track can transform our interpretation of a visual montage.
Neuro-metrics is more tactical; signs (shots, frames, scenes within a video or ad) is about the optimization. This leaves untouched the more upstream brand ideation, positioning and brand proposition studies which semiotics specialises in. Neuro-metrics tends to be more developmental, not inspirational.
semioticians, when working with neuro-metrics specialists can bring heightened awareness to analysis of visual features, their potential connotations, multi-modal aggregation of meaning (for example the likely effects of types of music or sound used). Semiotics can create testable hypotheses for alternative approaches, via commutation test tweaking of different meaning units to optimise performance.
2.5 AFFECTIVE BIO-METRICS
Source: Affectiva website https://www.affectiva.com
Bio-metrics is not just about market research.
It is a technique used to detect, sense and measure the unique biological signs or even features of human beings for some purpose. In a blog post about this area of research within consume insights…Are Implicit Techniques the Future of Market Research?, Neal Cole writes: “Biometrics are implicit research techniques that measure the body’s physical response to a stimuli. Biometrics monitor bodily functions such as heart-rate variability, skin conductance, respiration and eye movement. This allows researchers to identify unconscious responses to marketing activity that self-reporting would never be able to accurately measure.
Companies like Affectiva, Imotions and Real Eyes use software recognition hyper sensitized to facial micro expressions on a second to second basis in response to video and other types of visual media, and who can report on the emotional responses moment to moment to stimulus, this very much like neuro-metrics.
Emotient writes: “Emotient software translates facial expressions into actionable information that helps companies make better decisions based on audience response to media, products and experiences.” http://fortune.com/2015/09/11/affectiva-emotient-startups/
Bio-metrics is clearly more of a developmental rather than an upstream strategy tool. It is not going to threaten the ideating, provocative side of semiotics, but it will certainly be a threat to the evaluation of multi-media, traditional TV ad, music video and other moving image artefacts. This is a parallel threat to that posed by the neuro-metrics agencies. The threat may be greater in this case however as the availability and the accessibility of the desktop cam technology can make it scale faster and the emotional pull of the tests might help reduce any resistance.
So for bio-metrics like, neuro-metrics, tests require the textual literacy needed to dissect and pinpoint what elements in the given stimuli which spark meaning. A classic example of the sort of study that might eventuate a blended bio-metrics, semiotics study would be a recent enquiry from a qualitative research agency who had commissioned a Galvanic Skin Response study and wanted a semiotic facet.
For example, a recent enquiry for some semiotics read:
"we are exploring the moments of high arousal and aggravation when shopping in a co-op by combining eye tracking and GSR data with qualitative questioning and observations. We’re interested in adding a semiotic layer of analysis to the outputs"
In this case, the semiotics brings interpretive skill and would review the footage of the respondent, or photos, the ambient media other sensory elements respondents are being exposed to at key points when a spike or dip occurred in measurements.
2.6 IMPLICIT RESPONSE TESTS
Source: Vision One website http://visionone.co.uk
Branding is based on associative thinking. This is clearly very enticing for clients, in 2018 since it chimes in with the focus on distinctive assets as driver of brand choice - as promoted by Byron Sharpe in his book How Brands Grow so it is about owning equity irrespective of whom else does. Van Praet in his book his book Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience can Empower and Inspire Marketing writes:
“when a brand consistently repeats a coherent, compelling message over a period of time, the net result is…a physical change in the brain’s circuitry at a cellular level.”
Implicit response typically measures the relative speed of response to different types of stimulus to determine how closely associated a given brand or visual brand asset is with a desired brand value. The respondent is asked to rate something that is either congruent or incongruent in 500 – 600 milliseconds. It is based on associative and semantic priming, which typically involves – 2 or 4 different concepts and attributes. As Andy Dean from System 1 Insights whom I spoke with explains, "by triggering concepts in consumers’ minds, requiring them to respond indirectly within a very short time window, tests measure precisely the strength of association between a brand and a fragrance / packaging / ad / taste and related concepts it evokes. The idea is to circumvent an individuals' conscious mind, to do this they are confronted with alternatives and purely react to how they see on the screen."
Implicit seems to be most useful when you are considering how closely brands or commercial entities match up with various desire values - and this clearly has very wide application. It seems to be best at working with static imagery, so brand logos, packaging that can be flashed up and registered instantaneously. The main areas of usefulness for implicit being Brand Category Positioning, Advertising Sponsorship, Product Placement, Celebrity Endorsement. It also helps in Sensory branding too.
Brand value is said to reside in the neural networks in the brains of consumers. Brand equity is at least partially built via the associations and values accumulated by brands through their identity and communications. Both these methodologies help in understanding associations, semiotics through dissection the culture to see what associations are encoded in the culture within which people are conditioned, it is a rich, and suggestive technique. Implicit response tests how tight associations are.
Semiotics focuses on how these associations work through the web of culture and how they are reliant on cultural codes and can be complex and multi-layered and inter-textuality or work through disentangling subtle metaphors or allusions.
Implicit response cuts through the speculation by simply assessing the speed of reaction time as a proxy for the gross relative tightness of association between values. This is great for comparison and selection, but as Darren Bridger, a lead Consultant at Neurostrata recently wrote, “I think that Implicit Response could work very well in tandem with semiotics. With semiotics covering the ‘why’ of iconography triggering associations, and implicit measuring the ‘how much’ of particular designs”.
A brand audit by a semiotician would pull out the various cultural and inter-textual references giving a rich account of the meaning potential in each alternative. And then when determining which of a series of strategic options generated by semio, most closely associates a given value needs the failsafe arbiter of implicit response.
Semiotics can be used up front to sift brand or design alternatives and to build justified, non-arbitrary creativity in , generating a palette of design sample of alternatives into an array of prototypes. Semiotics can helps in post rationalisation of implicit results or help provide interpretive guidance to development pointers.
We can see a summary of the above below along with the aspects of semiotic services substituted as well as threat level to these services:
What I have attempted to do in this piece is to set out pragmatically the place of semiotics within a suite of other insight techniques. I look at the burgeoning area of neuro-metrics and behavioural science and show the facets of semiotic applications that overlap with or are infringed on by aspects of methodologies, but argue that this should be a cause for celebration not trepidation on the part of semioticians. It should also be fertile fishing ground for companies and agencies interested in best in class insight – offering cross-fertilisation of perspective and valuable synergies too.
Semiotics can bring valuable interpretive nous and textual awareness to the stimulus and cultural materials studied by these other disciplines. Moreover, it brings humanist instincts, hyper vigilance, ornery counterblast, to fast changing, accelerationist, confusing world. I am however keen to 'right size' semiotics amongst in the world of insight. Semioticians need to respect and gain respect from neighbouring disciplines. Semiotics in and of itself is not a panacea, and is not appropriate for all research problems. However, neither some of the other disciplines mentioned here catch-all solutions. There is often a fetishization of Big Data for instance without adequate attention paid to hidden assumptions and interpretive nuance.
Triangulating approaches afford rich potential for inter-disciplinary blends that generate more than the sum of their parts. Firstly, because the triangulation principle allows you to layer perspectives to give a fuller picture to more confidently iterate towards the true state of affairs as well as throwing up anomalies that are actually opportunities to dig deeper or are themselves commercial opportunities. Secondly, because there is invariably rich corroboration between the findings of independent work stream and that gives added confidence to clients through reduced risk of skews. Thirdly, because shrewdly planned interventions across methodology can be more cost effective than splurging on a single methodology that is brittle, and does not optimise ROI.
For example, the below diagram shows how semiotics could work alongside the other methodologies in part of an insight suite in comprehensive brand development and communication projects that run from the Exploratory, Analytical and Developmental through to Evaluative phases. Please contact me if you’d like to pilot such a project.
We live in a complex, fasting moving and joined up world and the most intractable and interesting communication, insight or behaviour change projects require multi-faceted solutions with imaginative inter-disciplinary teams covering each others’ blind spots. These solutions are available, we need to be bolder in utilizing them. This is a Brave New World and a very exciting prospect for us all. Ideally, more research commissioners would have the confidence to green light these multi-methodology, blended approaches.
I would welcome views from semiotics practitioners and those involved in related fields and clients on aspect of this and in particular those who want to collaborate with Creative Semiotics on projects or who want to partner on methodology development.