Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

Image for Making Sense with…

Photo courtesy of Aiyana Gunjan

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.


Delhi…

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?

AIYANA GUNJAN

I remember being curious, always wondering about the world around me. I was full of questions, asking why, what, how — trying to fathom and understand things happening in my context. That’s how I learned and experienced life, first-hand; my general knowledge was not dictated by bookish rote learning.

SEMIOVOX

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

AIYANA GUNJAN

My career has been that of a true-blue planner, with more than two decades of experience in the Strategic Planning function with India’s top advertising agencies. I was at Ogilvy and JWT, and I was Head of Planning at Mudra, Bates-141, Dentsu, and Law & Kenneth. The planner is the “voice” of the consumer, so our process involved rigorous analysis using a large pool of input data — including qualitative/ quantitative consumer research, brand/market data, competitive ads, macro pop culture, secondary data, etc.

While I was working at JWT in the late ’90s, an American professor introduced semiotics to the planning team, demonstrating it through an analysis of our Horlicks campaign. This lecture was an eye-opener. The same piece of advertising material decoded using the semiotics lens revealed a whole new set of insights of which we were oblivious. Tracking the socio-cultural shifts in the liberalised India was already very much part of my job, but semiotics opened doors to a new methodology for understanding the cultural trajectory. Before semiotics, all data came in verbal, numerical, and textual form… but now I became aware of insight-mining in multi-dimensional visual data. For me, semiotics was love at first sight! 

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

AIYANA GUNJAN

Despite not having an academic background in semiotics (I’d earned a Masters in Business Economics from Delhi University), I followed my gut to pursue it alongside my strategic brand work. In India, semiotics was rather unknown; practitioners and clients alike were few and far between. During qualitative research, I had often experienced a ‘dead-end’ where the respondents were not able to articulate themselves beyond a point, and we got repetitive ‘hollow’ responses. I believed that semiotics was a viable alternative for deeper consumer understanding. 

I got the opportunity to attend a two days’ workshop given by Monty Alexander and Virginia Valentine [co-founders of the pioneering UK consultancy Semiotic Solutions] at British Council Mumbai; and meeting Seema Khanwalkar opened doors to international opportunities. Working on cross-cultural global projects with UK agencies like Space Doctors, Truth, and Visual Signo trained me in the international ‘full-fledged’ approach to semiotics intervention. Since then, there has been no looking back.

My strategic and creative side sync well with semiotics, and every immersion across global brands and markets has been fulfilling. Being part of the global community, and attending the Semiofest conference since its inception in different parts of the world, has also enriched the multicultural experience.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

AIYANA GUNJAN

  • Curiosity, a questioning mind: not taking the given as given, going below the surface
  • Logic plus creativity: 2+2 is not necessarily 4 in another context
  • Visual and sensorial sensibilities
  • Passion, perseverance and patience

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?

AIYANA GUNJAN

People are intrigued when I say I am doing ‘semiotics’ — typically, they haven’t heard of it. When I explain it, depending on the audience I’ll weave my story around the three points that set semiotics apart from other research methodologies:

  • Collective culture impacts the consumer subconscious
  • Future trending reveals new possibilities before it becomes obvious
  • Foundational framework relevance

Since culture is the bonding glue for the human fabric — impacting consumer psyche at the subconscious level — then why would a brand team depend on the tip of the iceberg (the conscious consumer response) for in-depth consumer understanding? I also point out that meaning is culturally contextualized, not universal — so cultural decoding deepens your connection to the consumer.

Developing brand strategy and communications without first developing a foundational framework via cultural analysis is like building a city without a terrain map. A brand team whose insights are rooted in an understanding of cultural codes is well-positioned to fine-tune the primary research design, and develop local brand strategy. The cultural framework also sparks the imagination and fuels creativity.

SEMIOVOX

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

AIYANA GUNJAN

Over the years, I have worked on semiotics projects across categories and global markets — including Philip Morris International, Ford Motors India, J&J, PepsiCo, Nokia, AstraZeneca, etc. More so than the brand or category, what I most enjoy is the semiotic process itself.

Deconstructing and synthesising, going beyond the obvious, the revelation in the cultural codes and their expression as visual/ sensorial stimuli cues, and above all the magic in cracking the cultural blueprint via a semiotic square… In the end, everything comes together on a single page: codes, opposition, trajectory, inter-relationship, in structure and rationale. Each project’s semiotic map is an artwork!

I also like using this incisive tool on projects outside the corporate world. For example, I’ve successfully used it to analyze art and culture, Auroville (an international township in India), and the Indian woman’s pathway to progress. Culture is all-pervasive, and semiotics allows us to perceive its underlying forces.

SEMIOVOX

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

AIYANA GUNJAN

The ‘dipstick’ approach to semiotics intervention frustrates me. In today’s instant-karma world, often the client wants everything as of yesterday. So project timelines and sample sizes are crunched in the name of we-only-want-top-line-findings. In such a scenario, semiotics is little more than a ‘frill’ decorating the market research deck. Skimming the surface does not do justice to the foundational value semiotics brings to the table; semiotics inherently involves going beneath the surface. Whenever we take on such projects it’s counterproductive for all of us.

The consumer being king, the market research agencies and the clients primarily drive consumer research. The fundamental premise of semiotics — we don’t talk to the consumer — is a perceived barrier. Another barrier is the perception that semiotics findings are one person’s subjective interpretation. So at best, semiotics is often used as add-on desk-based research analysing ‘secondary’ data — not as an ‘expert domain’ like qualitative vs. quantitative ethnography.

I’d also suggest that the ‘black box’ of semiotics methodology needs to be demystified. Clients need to be educated about the scientific rigour of our methodology — why we don’t talk to consumers, the rigour and robustness of the sample data, the objectivity of the cultural codes we surface. Semiotics is not a dipstick or desk research that any market researcher or planner can do — it’s a specialised science.

SEMIOVOX

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

AIYANA GUNJAN

Semiotics is a discovery voyage — a deep dive to make sense of what is happening beneath the surface of everyday life. You’ll ask: What does it mean, what does it symbolise in cultural context, what are the interplay and dynamics, how do all the disparate elements come together as a whole? This sort of voyage requires passion, patience, and perseverance — along with semiotic knowledge and skills.


MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | KRISTIAN BANKOV (Bulgaria) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | ANDREA BASUNTI (England) | HIBATO BEN AHMED (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MYRIAM BOUABID (Tunisia) | KISHORE BUDHA (England) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | GIULIA CERIANI (Italy) | BECKS COLLINS (England) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | PANOS DIMITROPOULOS (China) | ROB DRENT (Netherlands) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | PETER GLASSEN (Switzerland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | STEFANIA GOGNA (Italy) | EUGENE GORNY (Thailand) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | GISELA GRIMBLAT (Mexico) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | EMILY HAYES (England) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | LOUISE JOLLY (England) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | CHRISTO KAFTANDJIEV (Bulgaria) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | ELINOR LIFSHITZ (Israel) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | KATJA MAGGIO (Netherlands) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (India / Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | SERDAR PAKTIN (Turkey / England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece / Russia) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | JAMIN PELKEY (Canada) | GAËLLE PINEDA (France) | ALEXANDRA ROBERT (France) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | CARLOS SCOLARI (Spain) | COLETTE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | GIANLLUCA SIMI (Brazil) | TIM SPENCER (England) | TIM STOCK (USA) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | ADELINA VACA (Mexico) | ANTJE WEISSENBORN (Germany) | COCO WU (Singapore / China) | & more to come.

Also see these seriesCOVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX

Tags: Making Sense