Just a sign of the times?

More and more brands are using semioticians for their market research, but is the field already too crowded with options for a new technique to be a success? By Alicia Clegg

Think of a brand that has tried to reinvent itself – BP, Lucozade, the Labour Party or Royal Mail, perhaps. When an organisation wants to persuade us that it is changing, more often than not it does what all of these brands have done – with varying degrees of success – and adopts a new logo, a change of name or maybe a new form of packaging to symbolise the direction in which it is headed.

As consumers we are bombarded with signs and symbols, from logos, anthems to celebrity endorsements. We know instinctively when a symbol feels right for a brand and when it does not. But ask people to say why the red rose worked for New Labour, while multi-cultural tailfins bombed for British Airways, and often they will struggle to put their finger on why they responded as they did.

Whatever the pros and cons of focus groups, there is no denying that marketers have progressively lost faith in consumers’ ability to explain, still less to predict, why one brand or campaign should fail and another succeed. But it is not simply that marketers are questioning the views expressed by consumers. “If everyone is asking the same questions, you end up with a very limited stock of insights,” says Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy planning director Andy Nairn. Small wonder, then, that the market is overflowing with products and even ad campaigns that bear an uncanny likeness to one another.

A new approach

To counter such criticisms, research agencies are striving desperately to offer their clients something new – an innovative approach that might reveal a market opportunity that is ripe for the picking. The major agencies have expanded their repertoire of skills and most now offer a suite of methodologies, ranging from straightforward interviews to approaches that mix discussion with ethnographic-style studies of how consumers select and use brands in real life.

But while ethnographic techniques provide a snapshot of what people actually do with brands, as opposed to what they claim to do, they say little about the factors that predispose consumers to choose one brand over another, how people interpret a television advertisement, or what products they will want to buy in the future. To pinpoint these deeper factors that predict brand success, something more is needed – an understanding not just of consumer behaviour, but of the shifts that are taking place in popular culture and how consumers are affected by such changes.

One possibility is for market researchers to read tabloids and watch soap operas to keep abreast of trends. “There’s a lot to be said for the view, that one of the best (and cheapest) pieces of research you can do is buy The Sun every day – it keeps your finger on the pulse of British culture,” says HPI Research partner Giles Lury.

Another, more formalised, approach is to create networks of commentators who have a professional involvement in shaping cultural trends. Howard Beale, partner in creative communications agency The Fish Can Sing, says: “If you want to get a grasp of what’s happening in sub-cultures, or at the margins of popular culture, it’s quicker and a lot more revealing to talk to fashion artists, stylists and journalists than to hold a focus group.”

Understanding culture

However, it is not only style-leaders who are threatening to usurp the position occupied by consumers in market research. Semioticians are another group of professionals eager to help marketers make sense of consumer culture.

At the heart of the semiotic approach is the idea that culture shapes the consumer’s self-image, and that brands, through their imagery and symbolism, project an image of how they expect consumers to think and behave.

To give marketers an idea of where the two concepts coincide and where they differ, semioticians investigate the sub-text of communication. They begin with the brand, combing through the cultural connotations of ad imagery and language, the colour, shape and forms of corporate identity, where the brand is distributed and how it is displayed.

Then they look outwards to the consumer’s world, hunting for shifts in cultural meaning – how concepts such as masculinity, heroism or indulgence have changed over time and how they might be reinterpreted. Finally, the two investigations are combined, creating a picture of where the brand stands in a social and cultural context and where it might go from there.

“We explore the cultural conversations that surround brands,” says Alex Gordon, associate director and in-house semiotician at qualitative agency Flamingo International. Semiotics consultant Greg Rowland believes it is a way of taking ideas from popular culture to marketing: “We uncover brand truths. Then we grab metaphors to communicate those truths and engineer a space that the brand can move into.”

Although still relatively low profile, semiotic analysis has performed the groundwork for well-known ad campaigns. An analysis of the role of “chat” in popular culture, conducted by Semiotic Solutions, helped BT to tackle the British male’s aversion to idle chit-chat.

“Chatting was considered to be a female pursuit. Something trivial and purposeless,” says Semiotic Solutions founder Virginia Valentine. “What was needed was some way of legitimising the psychological value of phone calls, of making it OK for men to use the phone, like women, to cement family relationships and friendships.” The route BT chose was the “Good to talk” campaign, created by Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, featuring actor Bob Hoskins.

Porn again

Semiotics also contributed to the cult status achieved by Pot Noodle, by depicting the brand as food pornography. Rowland, who drew the unlikely comparison between dried noodles and porn, says: “We looked at the relationship between instant snacks and real food and saw parallels in the relationship of porn to love. Neither claim to be the real thing or to be good for you. It’s instant gratification and overly intense hits of pleasure.”

The idea was taken up and developed by agency HHCL (now HHCL/Red Cell) into the notorious “Slag of all snacks” campaign, which portrayed Pot Noodle as a shameful, but irresistible, pleasure that has consumers irredeemably hooked.

That semiotics has so far failed to attract the following enjoyed by ethnographic research, another relative newcomer to the scene, may be due in part to the unwillingness of potential clients to place their trust in a research method in which consumers feature only indirectly. Another stumbling block is the variable quality of practitioners, and the bookish image that is still attached to the discipline.

Nairn, whose agency has commissioned semiotic studies in a variety of areas, ranging from tourism to the cultural importance of tea, says: “If you pick the wrong researchers you’ll get a massive report couched in Freudian jargon, that’s at best difficult to read and at worst unbelievable.” But, he concedes: “It opens your eyes to different possibilities, even if you choose to ignore most of them.”

To make more of an impact, semioticians clearly need to shake off their scholarly reputation and present themselves as a commercial alternative or a complement to ethnographic and talk-based qualitative methods. This raises the question of whether the discipline could or should be integrated into mainstream agencies.

Do not dilute

Flamingo’s Gordon, one of the first semioticians to be employed by a major qualitative agency, is naturally an advocate of assimilating the technique. Independent semioticians, on the other hand, such as Rachel Lawes, founder of Lawes Consulting, express concerns at the prospect of larger agencies practising a “diluted” form of semiotics, lacking in methodological rigour that could ultimately damage the discipline’s credibility.

It is a viewpoint that wins sympathy from Research International Qualitatif managing director Andy Barker, who professes to be “humbled” by the skill-set commanded by semioticians. “It’s a very valuable technique. But it may be better for MR agencies to collaborate with, rather than to employ, semioticians as the skill-set is so different from traditional MR techniques.”

Seeking acceptance

Whatever the outcome of this debate, it seems likely, given the renewed interest in the interplay between culture and brands, that semiotics will gain ground in brand-related research – following the path from niche to mainstream taken by ethnographics. But will this development necessarily be to the benefit of clients?

As market researchers often freely admit, the hunt for new and improved techniques has become something of an obsession in MR. Where once there were only groups and in-depths to consider, clients now have many possibilities from which to choose – from socialising with their target market on a night out, to viewing video diaries, or consulting an ever-expanding body of expert opinion, ranging from “cool hunters” to creative consumers, opinion leaders and practising psychologists.

The advantage of this explosion of research options is that marketers are no longer dependent on any one source or methodology. But there may be a downside to this pick-and-mix approach to MR. As Lury points out: “If you want to improve your performance there are two ways to go – better techniques or better analysis.”

Over the past decade there has been a furious scramble among agencies to find better techniques, but far less emphasis on honing the interpretative skills of researchers to get the most out of their findings. It may be an unfashionable view, but perhaps the time has finally come for the industry to ease up on innovation, and focus instead on making its critical faculties work harder.

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