Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Andrew Basunti

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.


London…

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?

ANDREA BASUNTI

Born in Sardinia to Tuscan parents, we moved to Piedmont when I was little. As I was growing up, I tried to make sense of those regional differences (including accents, idiomatic expressions) and the way we tend to assume ‘our’ (take on) language to be the ‘right’ one — discarding, ignoring, or deriding alternative (outsider) takes. I quickly came to challenge this totalising view and developed an interest in decoding meaning in context as well as in the way we create compelling shared stories.

SEMIOVOX

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

ANDREA BASUNTI

I studied semiotics at university, a key part/module of my BSc in Media Studies in Turin, and found it both intellectually stimulating and esoteric enough to keep me on my toes. We applied semiotics to a range of real-world topics/issues, from politics to advertising… what more could I ask? I loved the intricate theoretical aspects (e.g. the mental yet shared nature of signifiers), and I’d ask endless questions of my teachers, who included Gian Paolo Caprettini and Guido Ferraro. No matter how masterful their answers, though, I’d often be not fully satisfied — which has kept me wanting to study the topic till this day. Though I now have little tolerance for obscure academic BS.  

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

ANDREA BASUNTI

I was lucky enough to be offered a job at one of the leading semiotics agencies in Milan, where I got to work with one of the pioneers of commercial semiotics in Italy, Giulia Ceriani. She taught me how to apply Greimasian semiotics to marketing — not for the faint-hearted yet incredibly rewarding. Giulia had worked with Jean-Marie Floch (who was a collaborator of Greimas’s), so I proudly feel part of that venerable lineage. 

I still remember how insightful a client found our semiotic mapping of Italian TV news outlets — and how our lively discussion around alternative (axiological) ‘moves’ on a semiotic square led the client to a new positioning for a major TV channel. The bridge from academia to the boardroom had been crossed, once and for all.

After moving to London and doing a six-year stint in brand strategy, including at Interbrand (which forever changed the way I approach any semiotics challenge), I went to work with Alex Gordon at Sign Salad. We tackled an endless range of projects, across categories, for clients all over the world. We’d challenge each other to push our recommendations towards very practical and tangible considerations, from font size to brand activations. And Alex was always pushing the boundaries of what the methodology could do; we were among the first to broaden the scope of applied semiotics into newer areas, including sensorial and experiential cues, for our clients. 

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

ANDREA BASUNTI

It all comes down to having a curious and inquisitive mindset, as well as to connecting the dots between a seemingly disparate set of cultural data points. ‘Bothering to notice,’ as Michael Wolff of Wolff Olins has articulated it, is an undervalued skill. Being exposed to different cultures is also a must.

SEMIOVOX

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

ANDREA BASUNTI

Of the books written or translated into Italian on semiotics, these two they stand out clearly in my mind.

  • Paolo Fabbri’s La Svolta Semiotica (translated into English as The Semiotic Turn) outlines the major developments of the discipline in an eye-opening fashion.
  • Jean-Marie Floch’s Semiotics, Marketing and Communication is, in my view, the best application of sophisticated Greimasian theory to today’s marketing challenges.

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?

ANDREA BASUNTI

Brands are bundles of meaning. So semiotics helps you to identify the gap between your intended positioning/values and what you are actually communicating to consumers.

SEMIOVOX

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

ANDREA BASUNTI

I tend to focus on highly strategic projects — typically about reinventing a category or repositioning a brand. I also get involved in innovation/NPD projects — helping clients like Ferrero or Pernod Ricard future-proof their strategy and launch new products, both locally and globally.

SEMIOVOX

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

ANDREA BASUNTI

I’m disappointed that only a few marketers know what semiotics is or how it can add value. But also that many self-proclaimed ‘semioticians’ have no idea about semiotics’ basic theoretical tenets and frameworks. Along with that, the lack of (analytical) rigour, starting from basic definitions, from sign to code; this doesn’t help when it comes to its image with clients. What’s more, many ‘commercial semioticians’ don’t get brands or brand strategy — which makes it challenging to add real value (back full circle).

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

ANDREA BASUNTI

Saussure, by far. I’m a fan of structuralism — though I’m aware its answers are partial and can feel dated in our postmodern world. Not too sure as to why anyone would want to apply Peirce’s dense philosophical theory to a marketing challenge.

SEMIOVOX

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

ANDREA BASUNTI

Read a couple of books on the subjects. Read many more outside of semiotics. Be conversant in the language of brands and branding. Go out there and discover connections nobody has made yet.


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.

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