The Case for Cultivating More Black & Brown Semioticians

Why the Unique Experiences of Minorities are Just What the Semiotics Field Needs

Within the market research industry, cultural strategy is still a nascent concept, and semiotics is the burgeoning cool kid on the block everyone is eager to understand and get to know. As a result, the network semioticians in this category is small, but strong.

As I’ve learned more about semiotics, and the impact is has on informing the direction of culturally relevant marketing and advertising outputs, I’ve also gained an appreciation for my ethnicity and cultural background after realizing how it has placed me in a distinctly unique position in my field.

My ability to simultaneously exist across and within two cultural groups as an African American has given me the tools to understand and frame the world from a variety of perspectives. It is this capability that makes me and other Black & Brown researchers naturally skilled in mastering a field such as semiotics.

Before diving into what makes people of color great candidates for semiotics, it’s first necessary to understand what semiotics is, how it enhances traditional market research approaches, so that we can better understand how the field would benefit from having more people of color within its discipline.

In a field that has historically focused on collecting consumer insights through the use of qualitative and quantitative methods, marketers have discovered that consumers are increasing driven by emotional factors when it comes to their purchase decisions. In fact, according to Harvard Professor Gerald Zaltman, when asked, most consumers have no idea why they purchase a product or service and are often unable to coherently articulate responses that don’t contradict what they feel. Zaltman, believes that there is a need to focus on the unspoken, unconscious emotional urges consumers have, as these represent truer driver of consumer behavior.

This dynamic was also captured by Adage in a 2019 study:

Newly released research by Forrester Consulting, commissioned by FocusVision, found that how a customer thinks and feels about the brand are both statistically significant drivers of how they act. Further, how a customer feels about the brand, their emotional connection with the brand, has a 1.5x greater impact on driving positive business outcomes than what they think. In short, emotions drive business results.

Essentially, the research approaches used to capture and distill consumer insights are failing to reveal the deeper motivational drivers to purchase- a phenomenon blamed on an over-reliance on big data to tell consumer stories.

In fact, more than half researchers surveyed in the Forrester study reported fully relying on big data as a means of understanding their consumers, but when probed further, “only 38 percent strongly agree they know why one customer chooses to buy from their brand while another doesn’t. The article continues “big data is an important way to understand what your customers are doing. However, it can’t tell you why they are doing it. It can’t convey how they think and feel.”

It ends by advocating for the use of “small data” or qualitative methods to fill the void that big data fails at isolating and understanding. What the article fails to mention is that this is also where cultural strategy & semiotics come into play.

Semiotics is the practice of interpreting signified meanings from visual and verbal signs and symbols. In market research, it is the art of identifying the unconscious meanings associated with the objects, colors, names, shapes, symbols or messaging concepts that marketers push into the marketplace.

It is the identification of the invisible obviousness of a signifier‘s signified meaning. It is essentially why we know that an apple (signifier) can have signified meanings & associations that range from “health” or “ poisonous Disney object” to “Adam and Eve” or a “tech company”.

Due to how it relies on and utilizes culture to create meaningful brand strategies, semiotics is often included in larger internal Cultural Strategy departments. These departments tend to focus on a myriad of cultural insights offerings, some of which may include uncovering macro-culture influences on consumer behavior, identifying emergent category trends, and outlining the direction and impact of cultural shifts on consumer worlds to paint bigger, broader consumer stories that reach beyond static insights from big data. [Learn more about how semiotics can be applied here. ]

In societies where dominant/subordinate culture dynamics exist, it is commonly known that dominant groups are very rarely aware of the experiences of subordinate groups. This is mostly because, when you are the group that sets the rules of engagement from which other subgroups must comply, there is usually no need to be aware of their experiences. For subordinate groups however, the opposite is true, As Beverly Tatum states, “Not only is there greater opportunity for the subordinates to learn about the dominants, there is also greater need… People pay attention to those who can control their outcomes.” This means that minorities in America are often existing across two or more cultural worlds, and some even in a permanent state of double-consciousness, factors driven by their need to assimilate into dominant societal norms in order to secure survival and success.

As Black researchers and researchers of color (ROCs), because our daily existence requires that we know how to navigate between multiple contexts and cultural situations, we automatically have access to a multitude of experiences, human truths and signified meanings that can span across a variety of cultural settings and audiences. This characteristic makes us inherently qualified for the world of semiotics.

Not only can ROCs use semiotics to identify the unconscious emotional meanings that ultimately drive consumer purchases, but we can do so on a much more grand scale due to the breadth of experiences we encounter on a daily basis. Being a part of minority-culture experiences while also mastering dominant culture expectations means that when we decode an idea for our clients, we have instant access to an abundance of meanings and cultural cues that exist for both mainstream consumers and consumers from our own ethnic communities.

Because of this, our cultural vocabulary is abundant, and steeped in the richness and perspectives of unique narratives and overlooked histories; perspectives that are often coveted in the brand world but inaccessible to marketers as they often exist beyond the capabilities of mainstream interpretations.

This is a great question, for which I’m not sure I have an exact answer.

Many marketing researchers, like myself, have quite simply, found ourselves in the research space and eventually found a home in their respective specialty areas. Some semioticians however, have targeted communications and anthropological studies which may include a focus on semiotics, visual culture and cultural studies (which, while unplanned I’ve done as well). Having an appreciation for and understanding of art doesn’t hurt either.

It is critical to note, that semioticians who have made an academic career in this space sometimes find themselves unmarketable to clients and brands seeking digestible outputs from the work that we do. Essentially, there’s an additional need to ensure a dual focus and comprehension of business and marketing needs because without this, understanding how to apply a topic that has such a thick academic foundation can create an unusable asset for brand strategy teams in the future.

It is the quintessential book smarts vs. practical application dilemma. I find that while clients are attracted to the fact that I have knowledge of the space, I rarely tout the academic frameworks & theorists I use to create my deliverables because there is quite frankly, no need to do so.

Finally, a great semiotician in the market research field must have a firm grip on qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Because our field is still new, semioticians are often asked to make sense of our own roles on projects and how our work will serve as necessary inputs for strategic outputs moving forward. We are rarely directly asked to do Semiotics outright, but we discover where it’s needed based on the briefs we are brought into which requires us to think on our toes and be creative with the ways in which it can be utilized. Semioticians who are savvy enough to connect their work to the outputs of qualitative and quantitative phases will fair even greater and have monumental staying power.

When cultural strategy and semiotics unite, the result is a methodology that can more accurately pinpoint the “why” behind the data and map a stronger, futureproof vision of the future. By decoding the various meanings that can be associated with a brand or a product, it becomes the missing piece that can tell a more comprehensive and predictable story of consumer behavior.

But if this field is going to continue to grow, then there is a need to ensure that it grows in a way that addresses the needs of the greater, increasingly more diverse population. To do this correctly. the industry needs to acknowledging that there are a myriad of consumer truths and experiences, driven by diverse cultural contexts in which one’s identity, ethnic background and socio-cultural environment ultimately impacts how he/she perceives the world around them, and informs their perceptions and purchase decisions- a fact that is also true for the researchers assigned to do the work.

By creating awareness in this space and building pipelines to bring future semioticians of color along for the ride with initiatives like Insights in Color, the semiotics field will not only grow, but become a bigger, more necessary value add to brand & marketing strategies of the future.

A final note because I’ve encountered this many times in my career:

1. Culture does not happen in a vacuum. It is always vital to ensure that any semioticans have access to a diverse set of colleagues and counterparts to provide inputs from their own cultural ecospheres.

2. When conducting global semiotics or cultural insights work i it is crucial to ensure that experts from those markets are utilized to provide the necessary cultural contexts and signified meanings from their perspectives. Cutting corners by assuming the work can be done by one person in one centralized country for the entire world is not the answer.

3. Black and brown researchers are more than capable of working on mainstream projects as well as multicultural/diversity requests. Managers have a responsibility to ensure that their portfolios are as diverse as other strategists and insights professionals in our field. Finally, never assume that multicultural work is our preference or area of expertise, always ask.

There is a need to come to terms with what it really means to be a minority in research, and to bring attention to the inherent flaws in an outdated system and how it contributes to the tensions ROCs often face in their workplaces, and in the work that they do.

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler is a Cultural Strategist specializing in semiotics, culture & brand strategy. www.touchofwhit.com www.insightsincolor.com

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