Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Dimitar Trendafilov

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.


Sofia, Bulgaria…

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?

DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV

I was a teenager in the 1990s, a decade during which my country — and all of Eastern Europe — passed through a difficult period of significant transition: political and economic but also social and cultural. Rapid developments in technology — the Internet, cellphones, and global television (MTV was a particularly powerful influence for my generational cohort) — made us feel as though we were living in the past, but simultaneously as though the future was very close at hand. It was an identity crisis, a total worldview reset, since we needed to shift from one set of cultural texts, myths, and everyday practices to another. It was painful at times, yet in some spheres — commercial communications and branding, in particular — it’s amazing how quickly we adapted. The transition to capitalism didn’t begun until the Communist Party gave up power in 1990, and then overnight we were actively watching TV commercials (previously unknown in Bulgaria), standing in long lines outside McDonald’s restaurants, and eager to be seen driving particular car makes and models. Bulgarians wanted to adopt the lifestyle of the West… and brands seemed to offer a shortcut.

From my personal point of view, I first became interested in the dynamic nature of culture, and the ways in which people communicate and create their “possible worlds,” when attending a high school that specialized in Humanities and the Social Sciences. However, I didn’t continue to study this sort of thing at university — so it wasn’t until a decade later, when I went back to school, that I rediscovered the study of culture.

SEMIOVOX

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

DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV

 I hadn’t heard of semiotics before I attended an MBA program at New Bulgarian University — where I now work. A fellow student mentioned a Center for Semiotic Studies, so I gave them a call. That’s how I met Kristian Bankov, now a major international figure in Semiotics, and my colleague and friend. At first the discipline sounded overly complicated, but after attending a few seminars and reading a few books on the subject, I realized that it was my cup of tea — and that it fit perfectly with my interest in marketing and brand management.

Although several popular business books at the time made a persuasive case for the utility to brands of meaning-management — Mark Sherrington’s Added Value, Mark Batey’s Brand Meaning, Michel Chevalier and Gérald Mazzalovo’s Pro Logo, and Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron’s Cultural Strategy come to mind — there was no straightforward way to study commercial semiotics at the time. It required a lot of dedication and extra effort; and many university courses on semiotics were too broad — they didn’t teach you how to use it for branding. However, I persevered until I was able to gain some hands-on practical experience.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV

As a discipline, Semiotics is like the “Matrix” — it has its own plans for you, no matter what you may have intended. At the precise moment in my career when I was looking to bridge my early interest in cultural studies with the emerging field of meaning-management in branding and commercial communications, and hoping to work in an interdisciplinary manner, I met the right people. Great projects came along, and continue to come along — most recently, I’ve been applying semiotics in the space of intellectual property management, where branding practices meet legislation. Semiotics has opened new horizons for me, and connected me with some very interesting and knowledgeable people… it has made my life “meaningful” in many ways.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV

Curiosity, but also professionalism — by which I mean a results-driven attitude and an ability to master myriad details. Applied semiotics is like a sport: You need to practice constantly, to stay in shape.

SEMIOVOX

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

DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV

I’ve already mentioned a few books that I’ve found useful, and there are many others, from textbooks to scholarly articles. But here are three books offering a bird’s-eye view of how culture works — and what sorts of things a cultural analyst should be studying.

  • Laura R. Oswald’s Marketing Semiotics: Signs, Strategies, and Brand Value is a valuable combination of case studies, theoretical models, and applied-semiotics strategies; two years ago she followed it up with Doing Semiotics: A Research Guide for Marketers at the Edge of Culture.
  • Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? is an amazing overview of how cultures around the globe have developed. Diamond is a geographer and historian, not an anthropologist or cultural studies scholar, yet he’s crucial to read about how culture actually works.
  • Geert Hofstede’s Cultures & Organizations: Software of the Mind uses a rigorous structure derived from factor analysis to demonstrate the effects of any society’s culture on the values of its members, and how these values relate to behavior.

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?

DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV

I try to avoid jargon and clarify what we mean when we say that Semiotics is a “theory of culture.” Culture isn’t just opera music and Picasso paintings — it’s the way all of us have been taught to comprehend the world around us and to interact with one another. It involves everything from religious notions to the way we perceive foreigners, our stereotypes, and the “gaps” between generations. Most importantly, I remind potential clients that people are emotional creatures, members of various groups and subcultures, afraid and frustrated at times, excited and engaged at other times — and what connects the dots between all of this is culture. Semiotics takes a scientific approach to culture that helps reveal some of the “laws” or “rules” driving consumer perception and behavior.

SEMIOVOX

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

DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV

There’s no such thing as an un-rewarding semiotics project, because you will learn something new every time — even about topics you may think you know really well. I will mention, though, a project from a decade ago where a Bulgarian cosmetics manufacturer wanted to export a successful local brand to international markets. After studying the relevance of the brand’s elements for Western European and Middle Eastern markets, we concluded that it wouldn’t work — and we persuaded the company to develop a new brand for the purpose of exportation… which turned out very well! Another memorable project that comes to mind involved studying the relevance of a Bulgarian tobacco brand’s elements for Asian markets. I worked with local cultural experts across several Asian countries to gather an enormous amount of data… but what most impressed the client was a friend of mine from Taiwan, who just happened to be in Bulgaria and whom I invited to join me when I presented the study’s results. It’s a funny business, sometimes — every commercial semiotician could tell similar stories.

SEMIOVOX

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

DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV

As someone with one foot in the academic world, I often hear complaints that commercial semiotics isn’t “real” semiotics — that it’s even a kind of quackery. And there are also rivalries between camps of semioticians loyal to one “school” or theorist as opposed to various others. But arguments over disciplinary boundaries [i.e., the extent to which the tacit assumptions, attitudes, conceptualizations, epistemologies, and values of an academic discipline give it and its community identity and internal cohesion, and which also distinguish it from adjacent disciplines] are largely irrelevant to commercial semioticians. Outside academe, “Semiotics” is simply a toolbox — from which pragmatic practitioners can select particular “tools” as each project requires.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV

Though I’m not a diehard Saussure fan, my approach has been Saussurean ever since my MBA program. Certainly in my encounters with marketers and brand managers I’ve discovered that the “semiotic square” with its Saussurean binaries is highly helpful. On the other hand, “living culture” cannot be reduced to some main oppositions — which is why I also employ Juri Lotman’s notion of the “semiosphere,” and the notion of cultural codes. In combination, these approaches help us not only comprehend the discourse of everyday life in the present but also potential future scenarios.

SEMIOVOX

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

DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV

You need to be open-minded — I don’t mean that as a cliché. It’s common to assume that you fully comprehend some aspect of culture, or a brand category, so it takes real discipline and effort to question one’s assumptions and to remain “sharp.” Analyzing culture properly requires systematic, constant work — it’s not all fun and games.

And you need to be curious. This might sound like I’m repeating the same advice, but what I mean here is reading a lot, investigating and testing new practices and models, and attending conferences — like Semiofest, as well as regional and international conferences not only for Semiotics, but Anthropology, Cognitive Science, and more. Humankind’s beliefs, values, and activities are endlessly fascinating to study, and being part of the global knowledge-sharing around these topics is richly rewarding.


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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