Marian St Laurent
Founder, Heavy Symbols LLC
in conversation with
Pandora Mather-Lees, Director, IORMA Luxury
The subject of cultural insight and semiotics applied to brands and Omni-channel retailing is undoubtedly one of the most important in what is now deemed the age of Consumer Commerce.
The ability to understand wider cultural issues impacting consumer perception and public opinion is paramount to effective brand communications.
As technological change transforms traditional approaches to branding across all sectors, commercial semiotics is fast becoming the Holy Grail. As a highly specialized field focused on helping brands resonate with consumers more effectively in new regions and through new mediums, consultants with the ability to decode and recode brand communications are in high demand in global markets – both East and West.
I spoke to Marian St Laurent, founder of Heavy Symbols LLC, one such semiotics specialist and cultural brand strategist about how she helps prestige brands to achieve Nirvana. For these entities, it is the deep insight into what makes the customer tick and how to talk to them to build loyalty, longevity, and indeed the longing – which is the essence of luxury aspiration.
PML: Can you explain in a nutshell what a commercial semiotician does?
MSL: Commercial semiotics is a specialized discipline that is utilized by client-side creative departments, brand management and research teams, but also by branding, advertising, design and innovation consultancies.
Strategists apply semiotic approaches to brand development by identifying shifts in culture and storytelling trends. They then distill this big picture insight into specific tactical recommendations for innovation and brand messaging so as to help clients resonate with certain target audiences.
To put it another way, semioticians specialize in tracking changing technology metaphors, media aesthetics, design and visual culture to inform new brand narratives for media, technology, luxury and consumer goods clients.
Semiotics-based methodologies are part of a culture-first, or “outside-in” approach to brand strategy. Semioticians look at everything and anything in culture and what might be impacting brand perception instead of focusing on consumer psychology and focus group results. Traditional qualitative and quantitative research can often inform objectives of a commissioned study, but they are not the starting point.
PML: What luxury brands has Heavy Symbols helped and what is the scope?
MSL: Work in this sector has included Bergdorf Goodman, John Derian, Boucheron, Levis Premium Denim, Clinique, Dolce & Gabbana, Reuters, Davidoff, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Airlines and LandRover, among others.
Extensive work on luxury sector topics has involved luxury retail in the US, EU and GCC, the Future of Premium Content in television and news media, digital Content trends in fashion and luxury sectors. We also analyse prestige vs value (mass market) brand communications for cosmetics and personal care sectors.
PML: What is different about this sector for you?
MSL: The luxury sector is so much about creating the perception of exclusivity and mystique. It is a sector where semiotic analysis thrives, mostly because symbols and metaphors have to work the hardest to create experiences that cultivate and support perceptions that justify very high price points.
PML: How do luxury brands benefit from applied semiotics?
MSL: A brand can benefit pretty much immediately from short-term tactical recommendations for brand optimization and then there is also a longer term approach. This provides exploratory solutions for future-facing content and product innovation, sometimes as far out as ten years – in sectors like transport where design strategy tracks have to have longevity.
What we find in the luxury sector is that the communications programme is often led by an individual, typically the creative director with their own (creative) instincts that are future facing. However, because these brands must engage clients through new technologies and in new and unexpected markets, when you are dealing with a brand such as Prada, the semiotician helps the client understand critical factors. These are: i) how to preserve and cultivate unique brand equities across distinctive cultural contexts and technologies ii) how to tap into rooted cultural expectations and iii) how to put product and media aesthetics into the context of larger socio-economic developments.
The application of commercial semiotics helps clients create premium experiences that anticipate evolving consumer expectations and tastes in different regions and across new technologies. Specifically, we show clients how symbolic messaging, narrative conventions, archetypes, sensorial cues and media aesthetics are changing so as to better communicate premium brand equities. This can be through retail design, materials and lighting selection for retail or product innovation, model selection, product naming and digital content.
PML: To turn this on its head, how do luxury brands fall down or suffer from not approaching their customers in the right way?
MSL: Clients make the mistake of looking too closely at consumer psychology without understanding the role that cultural and technological shifts have on how consumers understand ‘premium-ness’ in different regions right now.
There is an expectation that we all know what luxury is – that it has something to do with exclusivity, ostentation and artisanship. In both luxury and industrial design, there is a lot of boring fluff and over-focus on aesthetics and quality when these alone are no longer sufficient – especially in more developed or declining markets like Europe and the US.
While exclusivity, high design and high production values are rooted conventions of ‘premium-ness’ and luxury, socio-economic factors in different regions lead to divergent luxury narratives and to differing aesthetic and experiential expectations.
Current events, political rhetoric and evolving technological metaphors link to branding conventions and aesthetics more closely than most clients and retailers think. As tangential as clients think gender, political or socioeconomic issues are, they have everything to do with how different consumer segmentations use luxury brands and experiences to define or refine class identity. When these aren’t looked at carefully or through a cultural lens, vital opportunities to resonate with the consumer are missed.
PML: You keep mentioning Storytelling and we are hearing it everywhere around us. Is this just a new fad that marketers are using to create an aura around what they do?
MSL: Technological developments are increasingly transforming consumer expectations of premium service and luxury. What is going on is that everything is becoming ‘content’. So much so that the words “storytelling” and “content” have become ubiquitous.
The unavoidable reality is that now the story has to be told with integrity across infinite and undifferentiated content via the Internet and digitalization. Even if you are a retailer, you must address the online world through apps, e-retail, websites and social media because luxury brands now live in a converged and connected world.
As brand experiences migrate into a converged digital space, 20th century advertising models are fading out and older models such as the brand experiences in bricks & mortar retail or in customer service have become reframed against this new digital culture.
PML: Can you illustrate this idea of the reconciliation of the traditional retail with the digital a little more?
MSL: Bricks and mortar retail is about intimacy, interiors and material reality, yet meaningful associations are no longer happening in a bubble. Rather, luxury perception is connected to ‘eventized’ media across streaming television and film festival content, gaming, social and new media. A poor example of this luxury-entertainment-retail convergence was the way in which Tiffany’s tried to cross brand with the Great Gatsby release a few years ago.
For more recent examples of the merging of the luxury arena with premium content, you can just look at the last round of fashion shows in NY and Milan for 2014. There was Miranda July for Miu Miu and James Franco for Gucci, among many others. There has also been an increase of feature length narrative fashion films, with documentaries and biopics like Dior and ‘I Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s’. If this wasn’t enough, high fashion aesthetics and brand campaigns are getting incorporated into traditionally low-brow television content like American Horror Story, Bates Motel (J Crew), New Girl (Tommy Hilfiger). The list goes on and on!
The semiotician’s challenge is to make this paradigm shift useful for brand managers and help them understand how to leverage content and aesthetic developments in media by tracking the trends in that space. There is so much going on and not many people know how to model this change strategically.
Semiotics-based methodologies are the superstar in this converged brand arena.
PML: Who else do you tend to work with as part of the process?
MSL: It is very important for semioticians to stay in touch with reality versus the world of ‘brandspeak’. Thus we often work with people with cultural expertise who lead culture from the margins. Depending on the project at hand, we sometimes collaborate with cultural anthropologists, media scholars, cinephiles, artists, journalists, and gaming experts who can tell us where things are heading. Anyone in fact, who has commercial or academic training in analyzing genres and sensorial cues in cultural context are useful to our approach.
On the client end, we work directly with brands across the sectors I mentioned as well as collaborating with a range of different image wrangling specializations from market research, branding, media & PR, innovation to design consultancies.
PML: I understand you are also leading an analysis on retail interiors and displays in the US. How is the American market different in your view?
MSL: America is an efficiency and results based culture with very different cultural constructs informing luxury ‘look and feel’ right now. So when you are trying to evolve brand experiences in the US market, it is important to understand the impact and cultural meaning of technology in America and to keep these in mind with a few other big picture influences. These include:
- Economic polarization
- A sense of national decline or identity crisis
- The rise of technocrati (social media founders)
- Post-digital gender representation
- New storytelling aesthetics targeting millennial audiences/ consumers
PML: Can you mention a couple of big trends affecting the aesthetics of luxury in America?
MSL: Indeed, this is a fascinating area and here are some examples:
- Low-brow/high-brow mash-ups
This is a US led trend. Everyone understands the polarization between the poor and rich so expressions of luxury are mixed with low-brow culture and ‘normcore’ trends whereby casual clothes, sportswear for instance, play alongside high-brow cultural references. High-brow/ low-brow mash-ups in wider pop culture and, increasingly, casual business attire has introduced down-market and low-fi/normcore aesthetics to the American luxury sector. It is an evolution of the ‘Masspirational’ trends we saw in the early 00’s. This has been around for a while and is dominant across many sectors.
- Cultural Preservation
In the area of cultural and environmental preservation, cities like Detroit or Brooklyn are increasingly used to convey provenance stories. While the brand or product does not communicate exclusivity or ostentation visually, it does so through narratives around local manufacture, sourcing and production. It is about the inside story of the production, the process, the materials and their sourcing tapping into larger cultural ideals and fears around cultural preservation, economic inequality and the loss of manufacturing jobs.This is being fetishised now in America. It is rooted in artisanal production and prestige stories, but takes on a heightened meaning in an economy which is now No.2 behind China and which is seeing the rise of a tech economy and collapse of a manufacturing economy. For this reason therefore USA manufacturing has a heightened meaning across the states. This trend exists elsewhere, but takes on different look and feel depending on the region.
Another area is the rise of the technocrati class of social media founders who are a kind of emergent elite. They are changing the look and feel of luxury – not to mention real estate prices and development projects in San Francisco and New York seemingly overnight.Alongside these larger trends, ‘ephemerality’ and ‘unrepeatability’ are new ways in which luxury stories are told.
PML: Can you explain what you mean by Ephemerality for our readers?
MSL: By ephemerality we mean “Unrepeatability” or an emergent trend we have identified as “The Power of Presence”. This looks and feels different if we are working on a television or media brand versus luxury retail versus a premium travel experience.
The height of luxury in advanced markets is what money can’t buy; time, love or experiences that remind us we’re human in an elevated way. To capture some of the essence of this trend, I would suggest a closer look closer at the preparation, production and success of Marina Abramovic’s piece “The Artist Is Present” which changed paradigms in storytelling in communication across culture from fashion to hip- hop.
Ephemerality is something that I see as a US led trend, but relevant globally in premium digital content, particularly in the entertainment and luxury sectors. Because technology is impacting luxury this is an important and ever present aspect of how perceptions of ‘premium-ness’ are maintained. Much of our work now is about tracking trends in storytelling conventions and media aesthetics online. Luxury today is connected to TV, print, cinema and all new media in more complex ways. They heighten the perception of exclusivity through creating a sense of ‘ephemerality’.
PML: What is semiotics exactly in relation to the work you do in advertising and marketing?
MSL: The semiotician’s focus is to look at how brand meaning and perception are built in sectors and cultural contexts. When we are hired in any sector, we look at what the storytelling conventions are, where they are coming from and how the brand is fitting in with that. Importantly we also look at what is going on within wider culture and an increasingly digitalized and globalized competitor landscape.
Semiotic models help track the paradigm shifts which impact brand messaging and design. Our insights are used to develop more resonant brand touch points across all media whether we are dealing with the development of a product, campaign or evolving content for media.
It is a fascinating discipline that deals in the building blocks of meaning. It has been used as the foundation for creating meaningful brand experiences and communications. This is why the same methodology can inform so many outputs.
PML: Can you give me an example?
MSL: For example, the output from Heavy Symbols’ CultureScan™ reports can help clients track trends and measure the cultural relevance of anything ranging from new flavor and fragrance innovation, retail and transport interiors, logo and packaging design, to television programming. After conducting in-depth analysis of a brand, sector and culture, we present the connections between recent events and public opinion to help clients better understand the cultural drivers and sensorial messages that are impacting brand perception in a given region or sector. In this way companies can leverage these cleverly and strategically in sensorial coding or product development.
PML: Speaking of China, I am interested in the work you are doing there – it is so culturally different and so even more vital for western brands to understand the vast consumer power. How are you helping exporters in cracking this market?
MSL: The changing power dynamics between East & West and North & South are leading to new materials and cultural references in luxury product innovation and apparel. This is also happening in the media aesthetics used to build premium brand messaging.
While some trends cross over cultural divides, the socio-economic situation is very different in each region. This leads to different implications for brand management and creative teams.
Because we work globally, we are often commissioned to analyse trends so as to help brands with cross-cultural brand expansion and have had the opportunity to work across a wide range of cultural contexts, China being one.
As we know, China is beginning to supersede America as a superpower. You could not get further away from how luxury narratives are evolving in the USA compared to China. Although there is certainly continued focus on imported Western or European brands, China and GCC are both focused on developing regional luxury brands that celebrate and showcase regional tradition and talent. It has been happening for a while. The image making and the culture industry is maturing in these regions. Increasingly they are poised to export their own vision of luxury.
Other regions also have an evolving sophisticated regional creative class that is reverse-inspiring luxury trends. In the broadest sense, inspiration is flowing in reverse direction from East to West and from South to North.
PML: What can a client take away from this and how can they leverage distinctions and resonances across these widely varying markets?
MSL: In highly developed markets, luxury conventions are changing because the markets are declining in power. As luxury markets evolve and other regions advance their own sophisticated approaches to branding, we are noticing that tastes shift away from mass luxury brands and ostentatious bling, toward more nuanced, personalized and interiorized experiences.
If you look at how luxury is expressed in Doha compared to New York, Milan or Singapore, you end up with varying sets of aesthetic expectations. It’s increasingly important to get specialists who understand how these global shifts in brand aesthetics and messaging are working. This is because companies need to maximize their marketing budgets so as to have a contextualized and resonant communications strategy no matter what the medium or sector.
For instance I have had clients who needed to understand why their experience isn’t becoming luxury or premium enough in a given region or market. Here, semiotic or cultural insight can often be the answer to understanding distinctions and resonances across these markets.
PML: Can you clarify what sort of questions they are commissioning you to answer?
MSL: These have included the following:
- The Future of Premium Travel: How to address the in-seat travel experience for First and Business Class brand experiences
- Tracking global luxury developments to inform materials selection and lighting, and in-seat travel experience
- Translation of European luxury brand equities into US retail experience, model selection for print, product naming and metaphors
- Global studies of premium flavor and fragrance innovation
- Premium content innovation for news and media in the US
- Photographic and online aesthetics for premium goods
PML: Finally, please give me a fascinating fact about semiotics as it relates to the luxury sector?
MSL: It is fascinating to compare luxury or prestige versus mass market or ‘value’ brands in terms of their print ads. Take for instance, the cosmetics industry. The approach is so different in terms of the luxury brand’s depiction, the lighting and product obscurity. The higher contrasts in photographic lighting create more abstraction. Also the luxury environment displaces the viewer away from a more full frontal, low contrast lighting. With value brands, by contrast you see more up-front imagery and language.
PML: The luxury brand positioning is less obvious and more enigmatic?
MSL: Yes, obscurity and indeterminancy forces consumers to think and develop a story inside their own minds. This is the basic foundation on which luxury rests. The more that is explained, the more that value decreases and the mystery is dispelled. The more that is left to the imagination, the more prestigious it is.
Premium and luxury aesthetics in product photography and print advertising also require more knowledge of the back-story behind the models, the campaign the season and so on. In other words, a fashion house has a kind of canon and a heritage that is being referenced in each campaign.
PML: This is indeed fascinating, it seems to be the crux of the advertiser’s mission: Can you elaborate?
MSL: For example imagine a coupon for $5 off for a product. Inside the ad it lists all the elements and the photograph’s lighting presents this explicitly. All is obvious. However when you create an ‘open text’ in which products are photographed more creatively with complex visual aesthetics, high contrast studio lighting and broken makeup powder, the consumers contemplate the product for themselves; it requires them to fill in the gaps to create their own story.
You can see this just about across every expression of luxury and prestige in branding; media, coffee, cosmetics and so on. Hiding and blocking, the semiotic principal is about not giving too much away or not being verbally explicit. This is one key way in which luxury creates surprise and engagement with the user because it demands more interpretation and expects audiences to know or want to know more about the back-story.
Actually the crux of semiotic practice is to enable the brand message to be better expressed so as to hit that vital nerve and trigger positive emotion, brand engagement and ultimately sales.