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SEMIOFEST 2017: Conference Recap

Missed Semiofest 2017? Chloe Lee of Hotspex has the details and highlights from the event in Toronto.

As brand builders, we are constantly looking to incorporate leading edge marketing science and new thinking into our work at Hotspex, and semiotics plays an integral role in helping brands communicate, build and reinforce distinctive associations.

Last week, we had the pleasure of attending the 2017 Semiofest held in Toronto. We found ourselves amidst semioticians, academics and lead practitioners of Semiotics from around the world exploring topics ranging from politics (Trump, Modi, Trudeau), to applied semiotics, to brand creation/packaging design, to tattooing as personal and cultural anchors. It was a truly unique experience unlike other marketing or insights conferences I’ve attended before.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s infamous phrase, “The message is the medium” was used as a jumping off point to explore current issues in brand touchpoints and new media for this year’s conference theme: MEDIA, MESSAGES and MEANING: Semiotics, form, and content (coincidentally, Friday July 21st also marked McLuhan’s 106th birthday).  This topic is more relevant than ever today, as media consumption increases relentlessly and consumers are overwhelmed by thousands of pieces of information and brand messages each day.

Key Notes on Key Notes

Marcel Danesi, nicknamed the “Bill Murray of Semiotics”, kicked the conference off with a fascinating keynote talk on the need to be “semiotically fit” in the Age of McLuhan (i.e. to have the cognitive tools to interpret information in today’s electronic global village).  The compression of information, form and language is changing the way we decode texts and messages. “We are in a transitional period, a paradigm shift”, says Danesi.  His most recent book, “The Semiotics of Emoji”, explores the visual syntax of emojis and how it has become a natural language by visualizing and compressing information.

Consumers are “impaired”

Edward Wilson (Content & Brand Strategist) offered his perspective on the importance of TRUST, as attention spans decline and consumers are impaired by information (“pretend you are communicating to a nation of drunk people”).  To catch attention, information needs to:

  1. Be easy to understand (for example, memes are easy and don’t require a lot of effort to believe the message)
  2. Break patterns (information that you don’t expect, the Von Restorff Effect is the quickest way to get attention)
  3. Be real (authentic and trustworthy)

Key Highlights

As a researcher, the practical application of semiotics and case studies shared were particularly interesting to me. Here are 3 of my key highlights from the conference:

  1. Edible Alcohol Experiences
    Matthew Oliver (Space Doctors, UK) challenged the focus on the visual (images and words) with the application of sensory semiotics.  He walked us through a case study for Smith & Sinclair (edible alcoholic gummies) and how they helped the brand create meaning through experiences. A 3-step approach was used: Sensorial Decoding, Brand Equity and Workshops. Through the sensorial decode, it was discovered that the motion of squeezing the gummy emerged as a common element. As a result, the packaging was designed so that users had to squeeze the product to remove it from its pack, which is helping the brand build memorability and distinctiveness among the consumer.
  2. What is “Smooth”?
    Wei Fen Lee (Quantum, Singapore) helped a global CPG haircare brand in China to uncover new consumer articulations of “smooth” in the cluttered and undifferentiated hair care space. Lee walked us through her approach of using local ads, digital ethnography (based on social listening) and academic expertise in linguistics and philosophy to understand the metaphorical and cultural meaning of the word “smooth” in China. The output was 10 different enunciations of “smooth” with cultural resonance that the brand will use in their upcoming campaign. I’m excited to see what the campaign will be!
  3. Innovating Coffee Machines
    Ann Ménard (Nestlé Professional Beverages, Switzerland) and Lucia Laurent-Neva (Visual Signo, UK) demonstrated how semiotics was used to assess their new coffee machine design concepts for Nescafé Alegria and Nescafé Milano. Their objective was that each machine’s design should communicate “in a blink of an eye” the type of coffee it makes (or type of experience one should expect from the coffee).

The approach included:

    1. Defining the brand for each machine
    2. Coding design dimensions (visceral signs)
    3. Decoding every element on the machine designs
    4. Ranking of the elements

Closing Thoughts

Semiofest 2017 was informative, inspiring, thought provoking and a lot of fun. As a brand builder, the conference has enriched my thinking and sparked new ideas and approaches on how to help brands communicate and build distinctive associations among consumers. I’m looking forward to next year’s Semiofest conference!


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