Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Hamsini Shivakumar

What makes a semiotician tick? SEMIOVOX’s Josh Glenn has invited his fellow practitioners in the field of commercial semiotics, from around the world, to answer a few revealing questions.


Gurugram, Haryana, India…

SEMIOVOX

When you were a child/teen, how did your future fascination with symbols, cultural patterns, interpreting “texts,” and getting beneath the surface of daily life manifest itself?

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR

I grew up in Chennai, India in the 1970s–’80s. This was the era of socialist India, when the government considered shampoo to be a luxury product… and taxed it accordingly! All through school and college I had tremendous curiosity about the wider world — how different communities, countries, and cultures were different from my own. Colour television didn’t come to India until 1982, and we didn’t have a TV at home anyway. So all through my school years, apart from playing with friends my main leisure activity was reading. My neighbours had a vast library of books and a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica; I used to read sections of the encyclopedia out of curiosity. I’m still a voracious reader.

When I completed my MBA in 1987 and joined P&G India as a management trainee, I was tasked with going through all of P&G’s research manuals to help the head of research create a training workshop for brand managers. That’s when I fell in love with research, and knew I wanted to be a career researcher.

SEMIOVOX

Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR

I came to semiotics late in my career — after spending seven years doing quantitative and qualitative research and fourteen years working in the communications industry, in advertising and brand strategy planning. I didn’t know anything at all about semiotics until I was head of planning in JWT Mumbai, and participated in a two-day workshop led by Monty Alexander & Virginia Valentine [joint founders of Semiotic Solutions, a London-based consultancy that pioneered the use of commercial semiotics in the UK]; it was offered by the Ad Club of Mumbai. I remember learning about binary oppositions, and a case study on a Scottish insurance/finance company’s campaign. This was in 2004 or so.

In 2008, I cofounded Leapfrog Strategy Consulting with my ex-boss and my best friend-colleague. The following year, I met Malcolm Evans [cofounder of the UK semiotics agency Space Doctors]. He was in Delhi on holiday, and had been given my contact info by a former colleague of mine who knew Fiona McNae [cofounder of Space Doctors]. Later that year, when Leapfrog got an opportunity to pitch for a very prestigious brand strategy project for Raymond, one of the biggest men’s fashion brands in India, we knew that we needed to offer a differentiated proposal. I reached out to Malcolm and we proposed a module — within the larger study — on decoding masculinity in India. We won the project, and Space Doctors instructed us on how to conduct the analysis. Malcolm came to India to help present the final results to the client, and we introduced him around to other clients — which led to more semio projects.

I was interested in semiotics, at that stage, because it offered a unique type of cultural-research methodology for which I’d been prepared by my past experiences — as a researcher, a communications planner, and from working in an ad agency. I found it interesting enough to want to learn more about it.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR

In 2010 or ’11, I subscribed to the Semiotic Thinking Group [a LinkedIn listserv hosted by UK commercial semiotician Chris Arning] and started reading all the posts and discussions. When Chris posted a request asking for volunteers to organize a meet-up for folks working in applied semiotics, I volunteered. Five of us convened — first in London, then online — and worked together to make the first Semiofest [the ongoing global commercial-semiotics conference series] happen in the spring of 2012. The presentations at Semiofest gave me a better understanding of applied semiotics, and I did some reading on the subject as well — see below. However, because my business partners were only interested in mainstream brand strategy, it wasn’t until they exited the business in 2015 that I focused on semiotics.

In the summer of 2016, I attended an intensive 10-day summer program on cultural semiotics at the University of Tartu [the national university of Estonia]. I was encouraged to discover that I’d already worked out most of the important concepts — if only at a rudimentary level — through my own reading. Since then, I’ve developed my own method of doing semiotics — one that responds to the needs of clients, and which addresses the misperception that semiotics is just a matter of expert opinion. I’ve introduced principles of sampling into my methodology — first doing a large-scale scan, then down-selecting a sample to be analyzed from the scan, while ensuring that the sample is not heavily skewed in one direction or another. Semiotic decoding, when done properly, is a rigorous and evidence-based analysis, not merely creative thinking, blue-sky gazing, or one person’s idiosyncratic point of view.

Rasika Batra joined Leapfrog in 2015, and we have worked to push the boundaries of the discipline. In recent years, I’ve even mustered up the courage to participate in scholarly discussions of semiotics.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR

The attributes of a good semiotician overlap with those of a good social sciences/theory researcher: an open mind, endless curiosity, and a desire to solve problems and move situations forward. (However, the social sciences — as used in consumer insights by brands — are mostly based on instrumental reasoning, they aren’t reflective or philosophical. Semiotics takes a much bigger-picture view, and therefore provides more foundational insights into social phenomena or concepts.) A semiotician must also be a good writer — one who can define concepts precisely and persuasively. In our practice, a semiotician blends cultural analysis, linguistics/language, and philosophy into a single interpretive lens that provides otherwise unobtainable insights into consumers and their world.

SEMIOVOX

What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR

The first book I read was [University of Toronto professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology] Marcel Danesi’s The Quest for Meaning (2007). It’s a very well-written and accessible introduction to the basic concepts of semiotics.

Creating Value: The Theory and Practice of Marketing Semiotics Research (2015), by Laura Oswald [who teaches at The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign] is a bit academic, but nevertheless it sets out the details of applied semiotic practice in some depth.

The Forms of Meaning: Modeling Systems Theory and Semiotic Analysis (2012) by Marcel Danesi and Thomas Sebeok [one of the founders of the biosemiotics field] is a more advanced text, but it gives deeper insight into different types of semiotic phenomena and their properties.

Semiotics theory textbooks are written for the academic market, and have only limited usefulness for applied marketing practice. Much of what we do in the day-to-day uses tools and frameworks that are not necessarily highlighted in academic semiotics.

SEMIOVOX

When someone asks you to describe what you do, what is your “elevator pitch”? How do you persuade a skeptical client to take a chance on using this tool?

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR

I begin by asking the client team to articulate the business problem or target that they are seeking to solve/resolve. Then I ask them if asking questions of the consumer will help them solve the issue — can the consumer alone reveal the insights and answers that they are seeking? I then suggest that going beyond what consumers say to an analysis of what consumers see/hear can offer deeper insights. Through semiotic analysis of “texts” — from the category, or culture, or a combination of both — we can provide insights which they can then use for packaging, communication, or other design/interventions.

Recently, after revisiting every brief on which Leapfrog has worked on, I’ve identified the three conditions under which clients here in India will typically call in a “domain expert” or semiotician. These are:

  1. The problem is an organizational priority
  2. The problem is strategic in nature
  3. They must win; they cannot lose

As is the case in most markets, there are only a few clients in India who are familiar with applied semiotics and use it on a regular basis. However, given the conditions listed above, clients will often come to understand that their usual methods of research / ways of working with their partner agencies may not be adequate. They need to think outside of the familiar and habituated ways of working.

SEMIOVOX

What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR

In over fifty projects that Leapfrog has taken on, no two projects have been very similar — which is fun. We have done projects on packaging, on category codes, on brands, on audiences, on culture, on culture x design. The categories and brands have varied from motorcycles and whisky to skincare and makeup, to life insurance and more. The contexts of the problem have been different, too — new category entry, revamping an established brand, taking on a competitor, etc. As a result, we never get bored. We also push ourselves to try new approaches and frameworks apart from the tried and true ones.

Some of the most interesting projects that we have done involved understanding rural audiences in different parts of India — and how to connect with them. We’ve decoded large samples of commercial and social communication aimed at rural audiences in five different states/languages. Currently we are working on a visual decoding of Indian social media influencer content — another multi-state/language study — in order to provide inspiration to a media company’s design team.

SEMIOVOX

What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR

In India, “semiotics” is often understood to mean the study of culture. But semiotics is deeper than that — it’s the study of conceptual architecture, the shared imaginary of a group, as revealed by signs, symbols, narratives and all other meaning-making tools that people use. Although we certainly do study culture, we also study packaging, brands, categories, communication, and audiences and culture.

Also, many researchers and agency planners claim that they do semiotics . Unfortunately, most CMOs and CMI managers aren’t sophisticated enough when it comes to semiotics to recognize that their work lacks rigor, and their methodology is primitive at best, perhaps something they learned years ago in school. The worst offenders are those who claim to do semiotic decoding via consumer focus groups.

I wish that brand stakeholders and their agency partners had a better understanding of what applied semiotics is, and its potential usefulness in tackling the business challenges with which they are grappling. I also wish that they were more willing to experiment with semiotic analysis — either on its own, or in conjunction with qual research/ethnography — instead of always relying on consumer insights.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR

I love Peirce — but practically, I find the tools and frameworks based on Saussure-derived structural semiotics to be more useful for diagnosis and problem-solving. Code identification, diagnosing problems or gaps by comparing the client’s brand / communication / packaging / product to category and/or cultural codes, and revealing the values that underpin a category and/or culture are the best ways to reveal insights useful to solving a client’s problems. I do think that Peircean applied semiotics is useful in packaging semiotics — when we consider each of the major signs in terms of how they are constructed for semiosis and whether the semiosis is happening or not. Perhaps in UI design work, too.

SEMIOVOX

What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR

Do you love studying the sociocultural world around you? Are you a compulsive people watcher? Are you sufficiently curious to look beyond the obvious and apparent to what lies beneath and beyond? Then semiotics may be the field for you. Although it is difficult mental work, and sometimes your mind and eyes will be fried from seeing and decoding, the thrill when it all comes together is incomparable.


MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MALEX SALAMANQUES AMIEL (England) | MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | MYRIAM DILMI (France) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | NICK GADSBY (England) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | AYA KANDA (Japan) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | SERDAR PAKTIN (England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | COLLETE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | & more to come. Also see the international series COVID CODES and SEMIO OBJECTS.

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