Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Elinor Lifshitz

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.


Shanghai…

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?

ELINOR LIFSHITZ

It started with an infatuation with culture, especially the remote and unfamiliar. Foreign language and practices intrigued me. I was drawn to accessible cultural forms like cinema and cuisine — I watched international movies in the local cinematheque, turned my parents’ kitchen into a (messy) culinary lab, and at 15 landed a cooking internship at a high-end French restaurant in Jerusalem.

I later traveled extensively, experiencing otherness first hand, and completed a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology & Anthropology — with a specialization in Asia. After graduating at 25, I moved to China and have been studying cultural dynamics and expressions (mostly) in Asia since. 

SEMIOVOX

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

ELINOR LIFSHITZ

Coming from anthropology, I try to remain aware of my own cultural biases, and view unspoken elements as keys to deciphering human perception and behavior. However, when I started using applied semiotics, I realized its Marie-Kondo-like power to process rich swathes of cultural data in a systematic, clear and tidy way. I began decoding selected linguistic and aesthetic spheres, and revealed deeper, hidden truths. Semiotics is a prism that makes visible the underlying nuts & bolts that construct and represent meaning in people’s lives. 

Semiotics is not merely a science, but an art — and I enjoy the art part more. Putting the pieces together in a compelling, holistic, strategic marketing puzzle. That’s why in recent years I have been collaborating with a team of talented and experienced semioticians, who support the rigorous analysis process. 

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

ELINOR LIFSHITZ

I lived and worked in China for a decade. After completing a China-specific MBA program (at CEIBS Shanghai), I pivoted from business development to market research — a new and fascinating arena, fusing human understanding with business strategy. I was hired as an applied anthropologist by Added Value (now Kantar Consulting) and joined their Cultural Insight division. There, I had the pleasure of working alongside several brilliant practitioners, who introduced me to the merits of the semiotic method. After a few intense years in the Shanghai office, I founded my own independent cultural intelligence practice. Together with a curated team of trusted, in-market cultural analysts in Asia and EMEA, we address strategic marketing challenges from a complementary culture- and design-oriented perspective. Semiotics is an integral part of our offer. 

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

ELINOR LIFSHITZ

Applied semiotics can be an insightful, future-scented way to explore and interpret culture. But for findings to be impactful and ring true, they must be well-anchored in the local context. We all carry engrained perception and personal experience in and/or about various parts of the world. That’s why a good semiotician must be aware of his/her own perspective’s limitations, and work to identify and interpret cultural nuance from a local perspective.

It’s equally important for a semiotician to be understandable. Given the academic origin and complex, detail-oriented nature of the methodology, it’s easy to get drawn into semiotic theory while losing sight of the bigger picture — which in my world involves telling an inspiring, strategic marketing story. We must make an effort to develop and present semiotic data so it’s easy to understand, integrate with other insight streams, and leverage towards a single story. If we fail to do so, the methodology’s power will be lost on the client.

SEMIOVOX

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

ELINOR LIFSHITZ

  • Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics: The Basics. My go-to book when trying to explain to people what it is I do for a living. It’s a straightforward, jargon-free guide (including examples) of the method’s core principles.
  • Laura R. Oswald’s Creating Value: The Theory and Practice of Marketing Semiotics Research. A brilliant articulation of pragmatic ways to use academic semiotic theories to address marketing questions.
  • Marcel Danesi’s Signs of Crime: Introducing Forensic Semiotics. A cool, inspiring illustration of the ways in which semiotic methods can be used to make sense of crimes and criminality. Using semiotics as a forensic tool to interpret consumer culture can lead to some unexpected inspirations!

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?

ELINOR LIFSHITZ

I don’t often use the term “semiotics” in a pitch. I tend to describe myself as a business anthropologist — and as the founder of an Asia-specialized cultural intelligence practice. Trust and pragmatism are crucial in Asia, so when I’m promoting a culturally driven approach, I start by discussing what deliverables will emerge from our methodology, and how these can be used strategically both within and outside the organization. You can never give enough examples of deliverables — case studies depicting in an attractive way how you have conducted studies pertaining to similar markets, categories, or questions.

SEMIOVOX

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

ELINOR LIFSHITZ

Enjoyable: Projects that pose a new challenge in terms of the concept and/or the research design. I love cross-method collabs, opportunities to dive into less-familiar questions or markets, and openminded clients who allow for this kind of magic to unfold.

Rewarding: Projects that feel more meaningful. A lot of what we do is towards optimization of existing marketing strategies, whether conceptual or design-oriented. However, once in a while we get a brief that touches on social or sustainable agendas. That’s the kind of stuff that really feels worthwhile.

SEMIOVOX

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

ELINOR LIFSHITZ

One of the most powerful aspects of cultural intelligence is its modularity. I take pride in tailoring both our research approach and our team composition for each and every study — in order to best address the research questions. So I find cookie-cutter semiotic offers very simplistic and frustrating.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

ELINOR LIFSHITZ

While the Peircean signification system is quite popular as an analysis model in applied semiotics, I’m more of a Saussure fan. I find the abstract-actual linguistic framework and Lévi-Strauss’s later myth-related structuralism very helpful, and often draw upon their logic as a source of reference.

SEMIOVOX

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

ELINOR LIFSHITZ

Again, think about the deliverables and work backward from there. If you want to develop a certain skill set, get a job at the kind of organization where you can get paid to do so. If you want to live in a particular way, and work on particular issues, make decisions that will lead you in these directions.

At the same time, regardless of the direction you end up choosing, get yourself a horizon-expanding education. Study mathematics, art, architecture, film — whatever intrigues and excites. Read and travel. Find the platform that will take you to wherever your curiosity leads. I’m grateful for feeling this way about the work I do. ☺


MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | 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) | INKA CROSSWAITE (South Africa) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | PANOS DIMITROPOULOS (China) | ROB DRENT (Netherlands) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | JOËL LIM DU BOIS (Malaysia) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | NICK GADSBY (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) | FRANCISCO HAUSS (China) | EMILY HAYES (England) | YOGI HENDLIN (Netherlands / USA) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | KATRIN HORN (Austria) | 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 (China) | 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) | RAHUL MURDESHWAAR (India) | 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) | KARIN SANDELIN (Sweden) | 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) | JENNIFER VASILACHE (Switzerland) | ANTJE WEISSENBORN (Germany) | COCO WU (Singapore / China) | & more to come.

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