I met Lucia Trezova on the Internet, more precisely on Slideshare. Searching for papers from the 12th World Congress of Semiotics, I stumbled upon a bunch of awesome slides which she had put together on branding.
Lucia is a Semiotician, Market and Culture Researcher, Trends and Innovation Explorer. She is curious about meaning and the processes of how meanings are created and applied. Holding a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Social Psychology from Charles University in Prague, what she does for living is basically advising brands about their place in the Semiosphere.
Brave, isn’t it?
Combining a wide range of research methods to explore the underlying structures and patterns of thoughts and behaviour that influence the way we give meanings to the world and brands, Lucia explores Brandscapes.
In her own words, Lucia’s thing is to
“scrutinize how we conceptualize, categorize, appraise and choose brands.”
Throughout this Dialogue, Lucia happily accompanies us into the world of semiotics for marketing, deciphering how brands are part of our culture and how ads and marketing are tools for meaning transfer.
After reading her interview I was left with a magical feeling. Not an introduction, not an explanation, just a magical feeling that sounded pretty much like this:
Decoding is magic. Codes, languages, systems for transferring information, they all are mythical beings (i.e. forms of existence) helping us understand anew, translate ourselves into otherness and in a way accept that nothing starts and ends with us.
I hope you will find your magical moments within this Dialogue too.
Enjoy the signs.
Lucia, what makes metaphors louder than words?
Metaphors are processed differently by our brains than the literal speech. Cognitive scientists proved by fMRI, that when describing images of motion our motor cortex is being highlighted, thus active. While listening to sentences containing textural metaphors, they found activity in the part of the brain that’s involved when we feel surfaces. When the metaphor alludes on the smell, the olfactory area of the brain is being activated, and so on.
The more parts of the brain are engaged with a given content, the higher number of neuronal associations is made, and thus metaphors increase information retention and enhance its future recall. The object presented metaphorically is simply better remembered. This is the view of the neuropsychology.
Let’s scrutinize it from the point of psychology. Metaphors are shortcuts to our sub-consciousness, because emotions that metaphors generate often tackle our inner, primary, yet fundamental feelings, linked to our basic human desires and needs.
These feelings are often hardly accessible by our conscious mind, thus beyond our rational consideration. Their targeting via metaphors has, therefore, an extremely strong persuasive power. Metaphor also often triggers dense net of connotations, which are partly beyond our individual control. Why? Because this net is created by the sediments of the history, by the culture layers, by references to other texts – so, they talk to our archetypal, to our cultural parts of us. This often enables sending the message across without risking its rejection caused by our individual analytical judgment and our critical ego.
People see more things than they can describe in words, so metaphor provides holistic, complete, instant and intuitive definition of the object. One insightful metaphor is able to explain the object in the full complexity, in its wholeness. Metaphors also spark creativity, imagination, enable us to understand and apply relations via analogy to new contexts to new situations, therefore metaphors are so often used nowadays during innovation processes in solving new complex problems.
And there is one more yet crucial view on metaphors. While in rhetoric metaphor is consider to be a figure of speech making our presentation more interesting, more enjoyable, more persuasive, more poetic and engaging, so metaphor is understood as a form, Lakoff and Johnson (2003) insist that metaphors are rather the fundamental content.
Metaphors are our basal constructs, our crucial mental concepts, through which we experience and perceive the world. Metaphors therefore function as our implicit models of reality, thus they determine how we organize the reality, how we understand the reality, how we talk about reality and consequently – how we act in reality. If we accept the metaphor that “life is a battle”, then we will act differently as if we think about the world (and life) as a great, safe place to live in. Important is that these metaphors we interiorized often remain implicit, we never externalized them. This is another point in which psychology can come into play in individual psychotherapy. The aim of a psychotherapeutic process would be to make those models explicit, to explore them, to scrutinize their impact on our lives and if it is negative, try to change them. Or another example: if we accept the metaphor that people at work are “resources” we would treat them as resources. And so, on…
Whence your love for Semiotics?
Social Construction Paradigm as a base for semiotics
I was introduced into the different paradigm of how to look at the whole world during the last year of my university study of Social Psychology when I encountered a book written by L. Berger and T.Luckmann: Social Construction of Reality. The book was recommended to me by my professor of Social Psychology Mrs. Plichtová, who just returned from her study stay in France where she had a chance to work with the famous social psychologist – Moscovici and his concept of “social representations” (which epitomized a stock of values, ideas, metaphors, beliefs, and practices shared among the members of groups and communities and through which they perceive and interpret the world).
After reading Berger’s and Luckmann’s book the world has never been the same for me. The other theory, which I run into, and which I also used as a base concept in my final Thesis was George Herbert Mead’ theory of “symbolic interactions”. These authors, along with Foucault literally changed my life.
Why did these authors change your life?
Contrary to widely distributed and accepted knowledge valid in those times drawn from positivism and objectivism, they claimed the opposite. They insisted that the whole social reality is not “given” and “objective”, but rather that reality is being created, constructed. They explained how the social reality is being constructed in everyday interactions, in everyday communication. They insisted that social reality including all institutions, as well as valid knowledge, is just a pure “product” designed by people who possess power in society and by all others who participate in it by their everyday acting by which they affirm it and perpetuate it.
The way how we perceive the world, how we conceptualize is thus the result of our everyday acting, of our everyday and never ending conversations. Together with H. Mead they suggested that the “reality” is being “negotiated”. This is in line with all Foucault great books explaining how in certain society in a certain era the hegemonic knowledge becomes “The True” and the only respected and valid way of a reality. Herbert Mead also already in 30-ties of the last century introduced the concept of a “symbolic universe” – discursive space, in which shared knowledge of members of certain culture enables symbolic exchanges, in which symbolic exchanges are being realized, which is very close, if not the same, what we now call a Semiosphere.
Why is semiotics so important?
Semiotics explores how meanings are being created by the means of signs (symbols) in a given code system.
Code systems are rules or conventions which govern using signs. To understand equations, the math code must be learnt; to program web applications e.g. C++ code must be learnt, etc. A company corporate “newspeak” containing expressions like: “lets’ brainstorm, write me minutes, what about outsource it” also requires knowledge of the special code to understand what is meant. SMS text-communication has its own code – its own “language” full of abbreviations. Body language is another example of a code system which in order to be understood must be learnt, mostly, intuitively.
Codes thus function as „dictionaries“, as rules how to translate and organize signs, and signs are „bricks, which we combine together to create meanings within the chosen code, within the applied sign system.
Codes are simply frameworks used by both: by producers as well as by interpreters of communication. Without knowing a code, convincing, effective communication cannot be performed; plausible, correct understanding cannot be assured. We would simply get lost. (And we still sometime do, calling it “lost in translation”). Using the code system and consequently using the proper signs to communicate the indented message – meaning – is what marketers do. It is their job.
What is culture? Culture is a widely distributed, widely shared and widely accepted macro-code. Culture is like lenses through which we see and interpret the world. Thus, each brand manager or marketing manager should pay attention to culture in which his or her brand operates. Why? Because, no brand is an island. Brands exist in a certain culture in a certain society with its specific norms, values, beliefs, with its history, issues, problems… Brands exist in societies consisting of people with their desires, plans, aspirations, grievances, life styles, etc.
Brands exist in these broad contexts which constitute “symbolic environments” called in these days Semiosphere, and some time ago Brandscapes, a term introduced some years ago by a great academic, anthropologist and marketing practitioner – Grant McCracken. But we still talk the same. We still talk culture; we still talk symbolic universe, or a discoursive space. As you will.
These contexts affect how we perceive and consequently buy and use the certain brands. If we assume that brands are systems of meanings and people use brands not purely because of their functional benefits, but also due to their symbolic values, then we can appreciate fully the importance of semiotics. Semiotics enables us understand fully symbolic value of brands and their roles in satisfaction our individual emotional, symbolic needs in the given context, in the given culture, in the given society.
How is semiotics enabling the understanding of brands’ symbolic value?
Laura Oswald explains it clearly:
„Consumer Brandscape forms a network of meanings derived from multiple cultural contexts. For consumers to integrate these cultural contexts at all, they merge meanings from one context to another by means of symbols“
(cit. Laura Oswald, 2012).
Culture is what shapes people‘s attitudes toward brands, it is what shapes our relationships toward products, toward companies. How specifically? Brands engage us, consumers in an imagery, symbolic process of a dialogue which leads into gratifying our, consumers’ symbolic needs, as goods communicate social and emotional benefits, such as need for status, self-image, love, safety, etc.
To be very specific, we as consumers use brands:
- To create personal identities
- To identify with groups or to distance from them
- To mark transition from one life stage to the next one
- By symbolic consumption we, as consumers project our personal meanings into goods and use brand meanings as a tool to satisfy our individual symbolic needs.
When did you marry Semiotics to Branding?
When I finished my university study I found a job in a market research agency and for the next decade I was working with standard quantitative and qualitative methods of exploring markets, brands, advertising and my passion for meaning and processes of how meanings are created and applied, I used either in academic research projects I cooperated on, or in my psychotherapy approach.
In academic projects I learned to perform a critical discourse analysis and in my several year long psychotherapy trainings – based on the same social constructionist paradigm (narrative approach and systemic approach) I had to chance experienced in reality how meanings are created, shifted and changed in conversations.
All today modern psychotherapeutic schools are based on a “language turn” and thus on the same assumption – that individual reality (as well as wider social one) is created, constructed via symbols, mainly language, and thus can be through language also modified and changed. This change of understanding and interpreting of reality includes also our “self-understanding” and our “identity”, which is the main goal of each psychotherapeutic process.
From this point there was just a small step to applying all this knowledge, concepts and ideas to brands and marketing communication.
It’s funny how we now build bridges between disciplines that once were one. What do you think about that transdisciplinary approach?
We shouldn’t forget that this kind of specialization in sciences, division in scientific disciplines is the invention of modern times. I believe, it came in 19-century along with Industrial revolution. It happened as a result of the transition to new kind of manufacturing processes which become automatized, specialized and fractured.
Sciences simply answered demands of business, they answered requirements of manufacturing – sciences provided solutions how to improve production efficiency. The best example of this is the Taylor’s theory of motivation with the goal to improve management of workers – to increase their production efficiency. This was the beginning of applied psychology which we call today “Human Resource Management. “ Defying people as „resources“, thus treating them as „resources“, which are supposed to be 100% used, exploited and consequently replaced by the new ones, would be a topic for an another and long article. It could be a great topic of a semiotic analysis.
Anyway, this specialization and division of scientific disciplines is not only the matter of the Modern times, since once all sciences used to be „arts“, and belonged under the roof of philosophy as you suggest, but is limited to our Anglo-American tradition. Eastern approach to science remained much more holistic and thus “transdisciplinary” till today. What we experience now in our Anglo-American civilization is just an inevitable countermove as an answer to extremely fragmented and thus isolated knowledge we gathered. It is partly rational and partly intuitive comprehension that in order to solve complex (world) issues, we have to take a holistic view, to see things in their relationships, to see them interrelated.
Thus, I truly believe in a transdisciplinary approach, in the idea that only transcending the scientific realms, integrating different views, seeing one thing from multiple angles can deliver the unique perspective and uncover new insights and more authentic comprehension. I believe it is the only way how to overcome “blind spots”, bridge “gaps in knowledge” no matter whether in “pure” science or in applied science such as marketing and culture research are.
Only transdisciplinary approach that crosses disciplinary boundaries can create a holistic understanding. I believe, it is even more crucial today, when world has become permeable and interconnected (because of the fast, boundaryless dissemination of information due to internet and “globalization”).
Information about one certain event happening in one side of the globe is within minutes accessible and known to people on the other side of the planet. People absorb it, react to it adapting their decisions to new pieces of information, sometimes consciously, often without being rationally aware of it. Everything is today simply connected to everything. This is what a system theory says – the change of one element affects and changes all elements in a given system.
And, as for the Intertextuality: Busy reading each other, what do you think we often miss?
Let me reformulate it a bit – to something like: Too busy to read each other, what do you think we often miss?
I think this is a problem, exceptionally in academia, but in business too. Simply too many texts, too much information, one cannot absorb all of them, but what is even worse, is refusing to face information from the different realms. In other words, the issue is – limiting ourselves strictly to the area which we defined as “our topic”. Many exceptional scientists remain closed to their narrowly defined problem to which they dedicate their time and energy, forgetting that their topic or area of interest relates to other topics, they forget and miss context. This takes us back to interdisciplinary issue I already mentioned.
What do we miss by neglecting others’ work? Except for the fun evolving from a dialogue (as I think by any reading of any text we become engaged in a dialogue with its author), we miss inspiration. We miss the opportunity to build on someone else’s ideas, opinions. We miss the inter-subjectivity. We miss a chance to create something truly “New” and original, which has a higher chance to be invented in cooperation with others. Thus, fostering dialogue, connecting people, sharing ideas, opinions is what I am up to.
What role plays advertising, or marketing communication generally in the process of creating and experiencing a culture?
Marketing communication is a mediator enabling dialogue between: consumers, their culture and offered and accessible brands.
Cultural meanings are transferred from the culture to the products and then, through brands (their image, value and meanings) to the consumers. This is the task of marketing communication. Marketing communication works as an agent transferring meanings from culture to goods. To manage this process effectively is the job of marketing specialists, the job of marketing managers and the job of creative directors in communication agencies. Thus, what marketers sell are not products or services, but rather brand meanings stored in consumers’ heads.
What does that mean? It means simply, that brands are successful or simply relevant to the extent to which they can connect properly themselves to meanings of cultural or social categories. They are successful to the degree to which they can offer something which is attractive and which fit to consumers’ lives. If they cannot, they become simply irrelevant and are going to be excluded from the market.
Ads or marketing communication generally are successful only to the extent to which they can manage this meaning transfer. If they cannot, they will not work for the brand. Let me quote Grant McCracken in this moment:
“Advertising and brand communication mediate this transfer of meanings between cultural categories and attach them to brands.
…Over time such meaning transfer (might) become embedded in popular culture, so that icons as Marlboro Man transcend the brand per se and become symbols for cultural ideals and myths”
(cit.Grant McCracken, 1986).
Brand meaning includes cultural and personal associations connected to the brand. Brand meaning is reflected in Brand Value. Brand Value is measured as Brand Equity expressed in $. Thus brand meaning is not an academic issue; it is the key indicator of the brand success.
Surviving the questions of a semiotician :)
As all my guests in the Dialogue section, Lucia was kind enough to ask me a few. Here’s what happened.
Lucia: Teodora, what fascinates you about semiotics?
Teodora: Our ability to delude ourselves and to create symbols that are not signals or meaning transfer units but rather variations of understandings that exist only in the Noosphere. What fascinates me is that these variations are always equally connected and at the same time disconnected from the physical world.
Lucia: You pay a lot of your attention and work to writing about social nets, and communication via those “new tools”. Do you think, there is some substantial difference in semiotic processes specific to these electronic instruments? I always remember the words of Marshal McLuhan, that “medium is the message”. (What is their message?)
Teodora: :) Thanks for this wonderful, interconnected question. Let me first say that I know very little about the semiotic processes and what I can share is just layman’s thoughts.
That said, I think the message is we are all connected, we are all one. An image pops up in my mind: a mirror and with endless reflections of self.
Lucia: Can you elaborate on “We are all connected, we are all one, a little bit?”
Teodora: Well, I will try, although I think there are expressions and thoughts that if further explained only get more confused. And these above are of this kind. But let me try.
If before it was really hard (at least for the majority of us) to see and then focus on the similarities between us (rather than on the differences), today’s interconnectedness allows for more transparency, more open doors, more open systems. It’s like the feeling you get when you go to a concert, or listen to music. Nationalities, races, ages … none of these really matter. The only thing that matters is that transcendental experience. The joy of being and experiencing together. The joy of co-existence and co-creation.
We are all one does not mean each of us is not unique, it just means our idea of uniqueness laid on false grounds. We are one means we are a legion :)
And yes, I think there is a substantial difference in the semiotic processes. It might be because of the scale on which everything is represented, then the representation is represented etc. etc. Social presence is a living intertextuality, stories, universes, shrunk into a 4.5-inch screen.
Lucia: Semiotics is nowadays a very esoteric discipline, meaning, many really educated and wise people have no awareness what the semiotics is. What do you think, how can be semiotics introduced into the wider people’s knowledge?
Teodora: I think everybody who seeks finds. What I am trying to share with as many people as I can is the idea that everything can be everything and that the meaning is in the algorithms (mindset) of the interpreter.
Lucia’s Quick Favourites
Your favorite contradictio in adjecto and and your favorite metaphor?
Both are borrowed from a psychotherapy approach called: Brief Solution-focused therapy, which I use. Both represent the key assumptions on which this therapy is based, however the first one is known for ages.
“Change is the only constant in life.”
And the author of the metaphor is the founder of this therapeutic school: Steve de Shazer:
„If you want to open the door, you need the key, not the analysis of the lock“
(Steve de Shazer).
Therefore, this therapeutic approach neglects and literally refuses the analysis of the problematic situation and – what is crucial – the causes of it (contrary to e.g. psychoanalysis) saying that it cannot be done reliably anyway, since the things are usually multifactory determined. This school assumes that talking about problems, about our fails and our inadequacy, will get us stuck in our problematic situation, except of decreasing and ruining further our self-esteem, self-confidence. This school focuses on solutions.
Simply: talking about problems brings problems, talking about solution brings solution. And finding and elaborating the proper solution, is what is the aim and the goal of Brief Solution-focused therapy.
Your favourite symbol?
You may laugh…It is a character of Patrick Jane from the Mentalist show. Why? Because, he represents for me free thinking, freedom and independence. He has little regard for figures of authority; he does the things by his own way. He is great observer, he is witty and in the same time he has an empathy and generosity. He is going through great sorrows and great pain, but he does not bather other people by his suffering, and is still able to enjoy little things in life. At least he tries. We all should, in spite of everything. ☺
Instead of a conclusion: The wondrous worlds of Semiotics and Semantics
Before I let Lucia embark on another branding project, I couldn’t help but asking here about the difference between semiotics and semantics.
The general definition of semantics says: it is s the study of the relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent.
What is the difference from semiotics then?
There is still an ongoing debate over those two terms and when studying it, you will encounter several notions. In history of semiotics the term semantics can be found as a synonymous precursor of the term semiotics. In Morris classical definition – syntax, semantics and pragmatics are the three dimensions of a semiotic study. Syntax – rule based operations between signs within the sign system, semantics – relationship between signs and the world external to the sign system, and pragmatics – evaluation of the sign system regarding the goals of their users (Morris, 1946). In this view semantics is a subordinate term to semiotics, it is the one element we take into consideration while performing semiotic analysis.
But there is another notion of how to distinguish or look at the semiotics and semantics, saying that words have their permanent meanings by which they designate some referents and not the others. It is semanticist who contends that the word has hard core (meaning) that contexts do not modify (Paul Ricoeur,1981). This hard core or “denotation” is the object of the study of semantics. Semiotics, contrary, is concerned with “connotation” and thus dealing with contexts, while semantics focuses on denotations – on lexical meanings. In addition to this, Benveniste formulates this distinction: “The sign is the unit of semiotics, while the sentence is the unit of semantics.” According to him they are two separate domains each of which requires its own conceptual apparatus (Benveniste, 1969). However, Benveniste’ distinction has not been adopted generally.
To sum it up, let me quote the blog post of Gianluca Fiorelli:
“Semiotics goes further than Semantics does, into implying how every single person (or different group of persons) may relate to signs”.
So, semiotics is broader, it is not concerned just with “given text”, but going beyond text, taking into account psychology, neuroscience, culture and their impact and influence of the readers’ interpretation and understanding of the text. And by the “text” I mean all human products embodying meanings: pieces of written texts, pieces of oral texts, visual materials, like pictures or films, fashion, even practices and pieces of behaviour.
By using semiotics as a method we enter the field of psychology and neuroscience, cultural study, rhetoric and anthropology, they all complement semiotics. They all can help explain why storytelling, for instance, or metaphors are so impactful and effective way of communication.