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The power of Semiotics in the practice of Marketing

Semiotics is not only an academic discipline with philosophical-linguistic roots but a discipline with  important  pragmatic implications  for a multitude of other disciplines. The use of Semiotics in Marketing and Advertising, Design and Cultural Studies (e.g. to identify emergent trends) is  representative  of the future and effectiveness of this methodology of enquiry.
Within the field of  Marketing and Market Research, our research practice has evidenced  in recent years the great power of Semiotics, for its ability, as refined analytical tool,   to identify  meanings that otherwise would be hard to discover.
Let’s also consider the similarity, in some way, between Marketing and Semiotics: both aimed at  understanding and creating  the differential value, well aware that the value of an object (product, brand, ad, text) exists always and only when compared to other similar objects.
This article scope is  to present an unconventional  methodology, particularly innovative as it combines  Semiotics with statistical tools and which finds its application  in many areas of Brand and Marketing (e.g., consumer behaviour studies, pre-post researches on advertising, brand positioning, trend / cultural studies) This is first of all, an approach that allows to identify and understand  the major themes deriving from  consumers’ thoughts on products and  brands, starting from  a corpus composed of a multitude of spontaneous conversations dialogues, produced  an environment as realistic as possible, a non-laboratory situation.
The great level of accuracy of  this methodology, deriving from the combination of   semiotics and  statistics-based quantitative analysis, lead us  to the definition of the differential gap able to establish the real Brand Identity.

Semiotics in  practice: introduction to a concrete case-study.

Last year Ferrero SPA involved us in a cross-cultural Market Research project aimed at re-establishing   the attractiveness of  their Liqueur Chocolate Brand – Mon Chéri –  through new  communication concepts. We were asked  to explore the meaning of innovative advertising ideas in order to:
–          understand if – and which of the ideas  – were able to penetrate into a younger target, while maintaining the current faithful older consumer base is  two main countries considering the relative differences in  culture and consumption habits;
–          Identify  and design – if necessary – a new ad concept able to communicate in a consistent manner within the two cultural landscapes
This exercise inevitably meant helping the Brand re-evaluate its identity   and  Positioning, in the light of  what the new ads could signify . This was in fact the area in which Semiotics fully revealed  its analytical, diagnostic and potential. As mentioned  we adopted a hybrid methodological approach, combining semiotic analysis with a lexicographical software for textual analysis.
The research has been carried out using an ad-hoc blog, where  selected individuals were free to talk about the brand / product, interacting and sharing their thoughts. Their conversations were extracted and converted into a corpus. The fact that  people were involved in a co-creation process was essential in order to  reduce the researcher’s intervention so that a spontaneous sharing of ideas could take place. Furthermore, the non-synchronic  communication was designed to stimulate  deeper thoughts and meanings, also by generating  socio-cultural levelling (participants could have time to go in-depth while  not feeling socio-cultural differences within the group).
Since the beginning of those meaningful interactions (first were days spent talking and co-creating on the product) a renewed Brand Image emerged as a significant wish: the brand would have to acquired up-to-date, innovative values, while maintaining  its invariable DNA elements (classical and traditional symbolic values). The following figures show what emerged from the co-creation work done in Italy: people developed different semiosis for Mon Chéri, preserving the centrality of the connotative tradition (fig. 2), enhancing the mythological discourse (fig. 1) and introducing the rhetorical aspect (passion-hot-fire).
A new semiotic path of signification, a pioneering IC (connotative index, chains of meanings that product is capable of  forming) to be applied to the brand: from a product linked to intimate moments and contexts (relax, personal pleasure, intimate moments) to a product  related to erotic atmospheres (something more transgressive; a pleasure inside intimacy); a renewed role beyond the limit of emotional reassurance; a new actor inside the communication process.

Semiotics in  practice: balancing the meaning of brand in different cultures.

During the construction and re-construction process(the typical semiotic way of analysing)we had to reflect, on the two different cultures and the meaning of their relative brand perception :
–          in Italy the brand was perceived as having  a full-of-charme, emotion-stimulating Personality;
–          in France as reassuring, tender, intimate brand.
Let’s consider the two paths of signification as the following opposition:

                          Italy               France
Stimulating Product(connotation: charme)               Tender Product(connotation: harmony)

Considering  this cultural gap in decoding, what would happened after submitting the two ad concepts?  As imagined: two dissimilar reactions. As  we had to balance the brand communication we needed to discover the right, coherent, path of signification, finding homogeneous connotative values.
It was clear that the use of Semiotics would help us in understanding the phenomenon in a deeper and more detailed way to guide  advertising concept planning.
People spent the remaining days watching, talking and co-creating on the ad concepts (textual and visual stimuli).  All the texts (free dialogues inside the blog) were then collected and subjected to initial thematic analysis, through the use of the lexicographical software in order to identify undiscovered   meanings, open new hypothesis and validate the semiotic axiology of signification.

Semiotics in  practice: scientific validity  of the results.

The argument for a statistics-based semiotics  as a new opportunity for brand and  Marketing, requires not only a theoretical exposition but also an additional demonstration of the processes .
In Market Research we are often asked some hard questions from our Clients, often concerning the  validity of Semiotics, like  how can you demonstrate your results? Even if the demonstrationis inherentin aformal logical system of interpretation we also  must prove that Semiotics is a highly objective discipline; in this sense  the support of lexicographical tools is of great help in demonstrating quantitative outcomes of semiotic analysis and making semiotics better understood for its unparalleled use in branding and marketing.
Going back to our case study. The following map shows the “surgical accuracy” of combining  a scientific discipline, like Semiotics,  with statistical techniques making  us ponder  what the future of semiotics in Marketing Research may  be.
Let’s remember the initial project objective: to understand the effectiveness of two advertisements aimed at  “revitalizing” the Mon Chéri Image.

Ferrero Mon Chéri Analysis

The study guided us in  understanding the  possible product image switch. By considering consumers discourses when subjected toone or the anotheradvertising campaign idea and, the thinking new needs expressed by  participants (more passion, more transgressive connotations) and the differences in cultural decoding, we were able to identify and plot  new ad concept able to  balance the desire for a stronger Image (in Italy) with the desire  not to lose the quieter and reassuring connotative elements (in France).
In conclusion dealing with brand positioning essentially means managing the Marketing Mix complexity, and the most efficient way to produce effectiveness is to transform the complexity in simplicity. The success of a Marketing Strategy is a central issue for any Market Research and effectiveness means above all production ofcongruous effects of meaning, perfectly suited to the established objectives of Marketing and Communication.
We hope that innovative Market Research methods will  be able to build guided itineraries for Marketing, that could lead  the  transition from  analytical interpretation – attribution of meaning to the results and drafting of the interpretative reports – to the productive interpretation – intended as the practice of scientific representation, of mathematical calculation, out of the dichotomous logic between Qualitative and Quantitative.

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