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Semiotics: Recognise the signs

Tim Stock and Marie Lena Tupot

November 2012

Semiotics: Recognise the signs
Tim Stock and Marie Lena Tupot
Using semiotics can help in anticipating new concepts ahead of time, enabling a brand to track the meaning and
where it's heading.
Semiotics, simply put, is the study of signs. Simple enough. Signs are collected and examined every day to help us gain a
better understanding of meaning. In advertising, as we know it, those signs are leveraged and used by brands to better and
more succinctly convey their intent. That's nothing new. Used in this manner, semiotics has been thriving quietly as an
academic add-on to bring dimension to other more popular forms of research, such as ethnographies and focus groups.
In actuality, semiotics is better poised to be at the centre of how economies of meaning are being shaped. It is a visionary
methodology that allows us to gauge context and look forward, without losing sight of past provenance; something very
different from the ask-and-tell equation that's become customary. If we're honest with ourselves, we can accept that it's a rare
person who can express what they want and need. It's pretty typical to express only what is currently available in one's cultural
vocabulary. The burden is ours to innovate and think ahead of the culture curve.
Semiotics doesn't ask how ideas get into a person's head. The approach of semiotics is to explore all the things visual and
auditory that exist to make the climate ripe for an idea, both in vertical worlds and parallel ones. There's no time for myopathy
these days.
Digital networks are increasingly speeding up the evolution of meaning. It's critical that we see rising concepts well before they
are in our rear view mirror. Establishing a semiotic framework allows us to do exactly that. It lets a brand track from where
meaning is coming and how and where it is moving. The race for viability and relevance cannot be understated.
Semiotics works in understanding the various layers of meaning required to get underneath a trend. Once the data has been
collected, patterns can then be established to prove or disprove hypothesis or to reveal the unexpected. The robustness of our
research tools of choice is slipping away. Voices are squelched in focus groups. Intercepts are awkward. Privacy eclipses
participation online. The list goes on.
Recently, a proposed new name for a Kraft snack food slated for Russia was greeted with surprise locally as it translated to
something naughty in Russian slang. Due diligence in name-testing had been conducted through rounds of focus groups, but
no-one ever pointed out the irony. And in a Nissan focus group for NYC's Taxi of Tomorrow endeavour, New Yorkers quipped
Title: Semiotics: Recognise the signs
Author(s): Tim Stock and Marie Lena Tupot
Source: Admap
Issue: November 2012

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'why bother?' It was a good thing Nissan didn't take their negativity seriously. It won the competition to design the future taxi.
Quantitative data is not faring well either. Looking at the quant data from the political polls in the US in early 2011, it would
have been difficult to predict the possibility that the Republican nomination could boil down to a two-way race between Rick
Santorum and Mitt Romney. But a different picture is seen if you look at the development of aligning codes.
The Hunger Games movie wasn't predicted to be the success it was. One chief analytics officer predicted in Advertising Age
that the movie would come in closer to $80 million than break the expected $100 million barrier for its opening weekend. The
prediction was based on the number of views accumulating on Hunger Games trailers and related content, as well as the level
of social sharing. It actually took $152.5 million, and broke mobile ticketing records. But the success would have been
expected if the consumer narrative had been followed over time. Since the most engaged teens and young adults reading The
Hunger Games don't engage in marketing popularity contests. They do, however, talk about the book passionately online,
engage in political discourse and have avid DIY ties.
We appear to have lost our edge in being predictive. Semiotics is an iterative process. To get our edge back is to look at
meaning and signs over time. Multiple iterations come together to create a big idea. How do you know if it's the right idea if it's
not tested or quantified? Answer: when it feels right.
Semiotics calls for stepping back and letting the data tell the story without interference. It's not about coming to one agreeable
motion in a brainstorm. The goal is to gain inspired levels of depth and possibility of what you may be able to do, not right or
wrong answers. We're looking for truths and perception, what's working and what is not. Going through the exercise of
semiotics gives a full understanding of the stories to be told. Understanding lends empathy for how a trend is building and
makes the human at the heart of the story relatable. Confidence then becomes intuitive.
Consider the classic no-smoking sign: a circled and slashed smoking cigarette. Placed in the appropriate location, the sign is a
call-to-action. Today, no-smoking signs are ubiquitous. Yet, a Yale undergrad research study submitted in 2010 and entitled
'Incidental Exposure to No-Smoking Signs: An Ironic Effect of Unconscious Semantic Processing?' suggests that the opposite
might be happening. They found that incidental exposure to no-smoking signs increases automatic approach tendencies of
smokers toward smoking-related stimuli. All, in spite of an obvious sign that bluntly says NO.

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No-smoking signs: may have the opposite effect to that intended
Even choosing water has become a conundrum of not which to choose, but whether to choose at all.
It used to be that the quest for convenient hydration meant that eventually you narrowed down bottled water packaging to one
that worked for you. Now, no matter which brand of water you're holding, you're feeling some sense of guilt maybe it's the
intrinsic waste of fossil fuel, false claims of sourcing, or you might not even be sure why. In any case, both the no-smoking sign
and bottled water have become re-contextualised.
As time marches on, the meaning of what was once seemingly obvious and unchangeable evolves, morphs and ultimately
changes. The sort of things that happen during that process of evolution are the kinds of things that you can't really ask
people about directly, especially if you're looking for a straightforward answer. "How do you feel about no smoking signs?" is a
loaded question. As is: "When do you buy bottled water?" It's very easy to make assumptions about influence.
In the case of no-smoking signs, a quick Flickr search demonstrates narrative tension wrought with irony. Images range from
commemorative no-smoking tattoos to Hello Kitty no-smoking warnings and defaced no-smoking signs. These are only the
beginning of tales to unfold. There is tension too in water bottles, but a stronger drive toward behaviour change. We see
reusable bottles with vintage-tap stoppers, for example. The next step would be to understand why within the semiotic
If we can look and see the cues people are faced with through the course of their day, compare and contrast the cues with
current news and data, and look at how people are expressing their own thoughts in their own time, we begin to see an
emerging picture. Ginny Whitelaw puts it this way in her new book The Zen Leader: "Influence is not about me-in-my-skin at
all. It is about the person I want to influence perceiving that my idea is in his or her interests. That's it." And that would be what
we're striving for when using semiotics: understanding the context of another person's world so you can see how and if you fit
And what you should do next. There's an element of collective messiness when it comes to semiotics. That's no surprise.

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We're comparing disparate sources of information, some found, some provided by clients. But life itself is messy and the
breadth of sources reflects real life. That's a good thing.
Culture on its own is a layered experience. Sense and order is formed during the analysis when we begin looking for
connecting threads, patterns and polarities, watching for the intersection of culture, cognition and behaviour. Meaning is
shaped by the expression of language. Seeing the process of how it is shifting in dimension and migrating from group to group
is necessary to getting to the bottom of the matter. The semiotics of now is about synchronising with how meaning is changing.
Going forward, ideas and innovation need to synchronise with new signs and signals. Perpetuating the signs we already know
and are comfortable with is not sustainable. That's group think. It's paralysing.
Think of semiotics as the elixir for big data. It's a way to make order of the chaos coming at us. Looking for context turns the
framework of semiotics into a science more akin to epidemiology. It makes sense in some ways. We're all working toward
public interest.
About the Authors
Tim Stock is co-founder at New York-based scenarioDNA. He is an expert in research methodologies and emerging
technologies. He is also a part-time assistant professor at New School University.
Marie Lena Tupot is co-founder and managing partner at scenarioDNA, with a background in lifestyle journalism.

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