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The Radical Potential of Semiotics & Cultural Strategy
Originally published via WARC
There is no doubt that we’re living in an era of intense, complex cultural dynamics.
Not only does culture seem to be accelerating faster and faster, but so much of it is now spawned and remixed in online spaces, convoluting dynamics further. Additionally, with heated socio-political issues ranging from mental health and DEI to the climate crisis and war, wading into these territories requires sensitivity, which many would rather overlook entirely. However, as we know, companies do not operate in vacuums. They read, and write, culture. And there’s now harsh pressure, if not a responsibility, to actively participate in and help build shared preferable futures.
The cataclysmic 2017 Pepsi & Kendall Jenner moment led to a scarring realization: leaning into culture is not enough. You must do it right. Regardless of intention, when the high stakes of the BLM movement are simulated through a low brow, celebrity soda ad, visceral reactions are to be expected.
With increasing skepticism among consumers compounded by heightened sensibilities to distinguish genuineness vs. pandering (e.g., greenwashing, “blackfishing”), the offering to decode culture and derive strategies for clients is increasing in need as well as value.
But it’s not just about providing a mere map of culture – it’s collaborating on guardrails, a compass and climate report to navigate culture intelligently.
All these offerings can be seen as tools to maneuver cultural risk, like retroactive reputational or crisis management, but also tools to activate upon opportunities proactively: how can you react to emerging shifts, or even manifest your own?
For example, as a TV producer, when viewers ritually produce their own memes, fanfiction, and content, how do you embrace their willingness to participate in world building and give them a starring role or collective director’s chair? Or, as a brand, when higher education is questioned and new forms of teaching are found in social media feeds, how do you step into a professorial role as an expert in a niche domain which people want to learn about?
Organizations often don’t have the time nor resources dedicated to these types of analyses and forecasts, or don't have their antennae tuned precisely to separate signal from noise. Clients are also biased. They work with their own truths. Cultural strategists and semioticians provide both external insight and foresight. While there are no such things as purely objective observations, with fresh eyes and no vested interest in any particular finding, they provide a will, skillset, and art to speak the unspoken.
With a global focus on a deeper and more sensitive understanding of consumers comes the prerequisite to also understand the structures in which they operate. For example, understanding how spaces are designed, the significance of images people are exposed to, or how objects communicate meaning through design. This is the operating system which all else is built upon.
No organization can successfully build a product or package and take it to market without acknowledging the environment or cultural context in which it exists.
In business, there’s a scarcity of empathetic comprehension and communication, which semiotics can ultimately help solve.
And while cultural strategy and semiotics read like an invaluable service, they continue to be difficult constructs to “sell in”.
When it comes to these services, some clients have a perception that while the work will be interesting, it may not necessarily be useful – a mere coffee table book to spark conversations. For these semiotic insights to succeed and inspire action, we must go beyond just the research and into the realm of application.
It’s not enough to paint a picture of the zeitgeist. Analysts, consultants, and service providers must help clients co- author/own it, and then creatively and strategically work from it.
Another hesitation is the need for quantification and “proof” for data-hungry corporations. When culture and the subjects studied are inherently messy, esoteric, and subjective, it’s challenging to quantify and clearly tie financial value to cultural concepts and their relevance. While endlessly attractive and provocative, the philosophical nature of cultural analysis is futile unless it’s developed and delivered with a problem-solving mindset, and in concert with actual business goals. Developing ways to translate findings into not just strategies, but also prioritized opportunities (or threats) that address real business and societal problems are essential focal points for the potential of this work.
A related hesitation is the use of intuition. Semioticians rely on a certain amount of gut and leaps of faith beyond obvious logic. An advertised balance of science and art, and a recognition of a uniquely trained “sense” helps showcase rigor and justify the role this work can provide.
Trends are a dime a dozen. But immediately identifying them, accurately explaining them, mapping them back to a question at hand, and strategically acting upon them is the rarer, more difficult expertise and is also a much harder internal “sell”.
This is a system.
Consistently placing business questions at the core of research helps anchor efforts, grounding clients and enabling them to see the applicability of this work.
This shouldn’t be difficult, as cultural analysis and semiotics answer a full range of business problems and can seamlessly plug into teams, which enables cross-functional alignment and innovation. Who is in an organizations’ competitor set which may not be traditionally considered, or which organizations are worthy of a collaboration considering a fair trade of cultural currency? It takes a proficiency in the zeitgeist to adequately answer these questions.
From C-Suite industry overviews for M&A plays, and research for marketing teams, to product innovation, and strategic communications, culture is a critical alignment tool.
It ensures organizations are operating from a shared perspective, using consistent language, and serving a variety of stakeholders who all operate within the same cultural context. This is all so they can calibrate efforts accordingly. Culture is not reserved for just one team.
Increasingly, the C-Suite is recognizing the role and importance of cultural insight at the highest levels of strategy. As practitioners have always known, the latest social trend applies beyond a brand’s social media presence.
Cultural strategy works top-down too.
With this, we collide again with the problem of data. No C-Suite today will make business-altering decisions without hard data. With a requirement for validation, intuition doesn’t cut it. However, ironically, we also live in an age where many organizations are swimming in seas of data yet struggle to connect the dots into a coherent, human story. Further, all conventional data is human, messy, historical, and subjective, shaped by the blind spots of humans just as much as qualitative insight.
Considering the planning cycles of many large organizations, if they were to react to what’s showing up in data now, they’d be behind by the time they reach the market. Semiotics, combined smartly with other disciplines, is a superpower. Cross-hybridization is key – the layering of various data sources and approaches to the problem at hand.
Semiotics is not a battle against existing, more traditional, qualitative, or quantitative research, but a unique additive approach to iterate upon.
It’s an opportunity to allow consumers’ thoughts and behaviors to guide and enrich market understanding. It’s a lens to make sense of existing clues and create a bridge for the Say-Do gap (the dilemma of reported concern or intentions not being followed up with action).
Meanwhile, with advancements in AI and emerging software tools, cultural analysis is reaching a new frontier. With abilities to remove bias, parse millions of headlines or conversations in seconds, and track shifts in near real-time, always-on understanding is opening the doors to more powerful work. Rather than semiotics being something completed once and updated on an ad-hoc basis, it is now fluid and foundational to business. But with this, it takes a human to best understand humans. AI is not a substitute, but another augmentation.
We must recognize this work is all a matter of balance and integration. This is not a question of man vs. machine, or intuition vs. AI, but rather a choreographed dance between all. It is this solution that unlocks radical potential.
For clients looking for smooth answers in an irrational, messy and contradictory world, semiotics and cultural strategy will not offer black and white binary solutions, but rather deep understanding, foresight, and the ability to successfully navigate the gray.