Good Symbol Systems Means Profit

The sign is the central term in semiotics. The sign is made up of the signified and the signifier. The two always go together, they are like the two sides of a coin. The signifier is the physical form of an object; what we see, touch and smell in the objective and shared reality. The signified is the content, the meaning of the object; what we experience, think and feel when we interact with the artifact, be it a billboard, a banner ad or a toaster. All old hat to anyone interested in the use of symbols, whether as a designer, marketer or academic. But what is often overlooked is the medium in which the sign manifests itself – and the medium has a dramatic impact on the interpretation of the sign. The medium is anything but neutral.

Television, radio, journals, and particular texts derive meaning from the media that is used. As Marshall McLuhan famously exclaimed “The medium is the message”. What this means is that when developing a marketing strategy, brand identity or anything else, it isn’t enough to understand individual signs, you have to understand how the signs work together as a systematic whole. Waxing jargony for just a moment, it means understanding what a syntagm is (for anyone of a less geeky inclination, the next paragraph should be avoided).

A syntagm is the combination of interacting signifiers, which form a meaningful whole within a symbol system. In language a sentence is a syntagm of word, so too are paragraphs and chapters. A larger syntagm is composed of smaller syntagms with interdependence between both. Syntagmatic relations are the various ways in which elements within the same text may be related to each other. In other words, syntagems are made up of symbolic elements, each independent in meaning but transformed when combined into a whole.

So what? It’s all very interesting, but how does this play out in a business context? It plays out when we think about context and how messages and products are consumed. Products that belong to the same paradigm perform the same function in a given context. So, for example, if we are thirsty we can choose to drink juice, water, cola, beer, wine etc. Which product we choose is shaped by socially defined, shared classification systems – we wouldn’t think twice about drinking a beer at a bar, but we probably wouldn’t have one for breakfast, though that was exactly the norm until the last few centuries. This is the symbolic side, rather than the functional.

Now, consider how people consume your brand and your messaging. How we promote goods in one location may not always make sense. For example, how we understand the Hallmark cards section in a Wal-Mart is different than how we understand it in a Gold Crown store because of context. Messages that make sense in one may be lost in another. In simpler terms, it would make sense to see a print ad for lingerie in a fashion magazine, but not in the church flier. Granted, this is an extreme example, but it speaks to the underlying need to think about the symbol systems we use to promote products and services, which means understanding the relationships between elements in the system. If you plan to market a toaster, you need to think about the various symbolic triggers to which people will respond negatively and positively. What does a retro design mean vs. another design? What does making something as simple as toast say about being a good parent? Will the same ad be interpreted the same way in a print campaign as it is when viewed on an iPad?  When we consume marketing messages, whether through advertising, promotions, etc., we are interpreting them through a syntagmatic lens, subconsciously filtering out those symbol systems that don’t “make sense”. Selecting the right symbolic elements means little if they don’t work as a unified whole, and that means lost revenue. Get the combinations right and you will convert shoppers into buyers and consumers into advocates.

In an age of cutting research budgets, I would argue that going down the cheap = good is a tremendous mistake. The more you know about the customer that goes beyond the standard metrics and segmentation study, the better positioned you are to win their hearts. And their dollars.




Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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