Small Business Spotlight of the Week: Creative Semiotics

Every piece of advertising or design has a root in cultural symbolism, otherwise, nobody would understand what it’s trying to say.  For example, most people brought up in a Judeo-Christian society recognize an apple as a symbol for knowledge.  Every culture has symbols like this.  The study of cultural signs is known as semiotics.  One of the first classes I had to take as a marketing student was “Semiotics for Creators of Pop Culture” because understanding this concept is that important.

This week’s spotlight, Creative Semiotics, uses this academic theory as a driving force for marketing and brand strategy. It uses the latest ideas in digital media and design to help business owners develop innovative strategies when going through the branding process.

Founder, Chris, can definitely explain these concepts better than I can:

How would you explain what you do to somebody’s grandmother?

What I do is to help understand the meanings that appear without us knowing it in the messages that surround us. Advertising is an obvious example of this. For example you might remember advertising from your childhood in England. Where soap might be sold on the basis of its cleaning efficiency, back then it was sold on the basis of domesticity but also carried quite patriotic messages about the importance of the British empire. In this sense the advertisements were set up to symbolize the purifying and civilizing mission of Victorian empire builders overseas.

Other product categories such as chocolate (Cadbury’s) and other foodstuffs (Bovril) also used images of imperial conquests and territories in their advertising. Soap, however, through its representations of purity signified not only hygiene but also spiritual salvation and regeneration for a fast industrializing nation.

In these ads, all the elements used: colour, the language used and visual composition, even the shape of the lettering could have helped to convey these subtle messages and ultimately an ideology. Digging into the details of all forms of communication and in my job, all commercial communication, and revealing often overlooked meanings. This is the essence of semiotics. Biscuit, gran?

What made you use crowdSPRING?

In the process of establishing my corporate identity already had a logo in mind but as it was a cultural symbol (from West Africa), I was uncomfortable using it as it was and needed it re-interpreted. I had considered briefing some graphic designers I knew and then sent an e-mail out to London based design colleges like St. Martins and Goldsmith’s. But the concerns with professional designers would have been cost and with the college, timescales and quality control.

crowdSPRING was recommended to me by a trends person I had lunch with one day in late summer 2010. I got in touch to find out more, e-mailed Kevin DeLury and within a week of first contact, I had briefed in the project and was happily browsing new entries! Very quick, easy and professionally done.

What are some industry specific challenges you faced?  

One of the biggest issues I have faced is in explaining what I do to people who could benefit from my services. The word semiotics is a double edged sword. It sounds scientific, and people are intrigued about what I do but it is hard to define satisfactorily.

Another issue is that semiotics seems to be a discretionary purchase. It is difficult to know when it will be needed in a strategic planning cycle (unlike in more conventional research like tracking which is more predictable). This means that the call to pitch for a project can come out of the blue. It is however a powerful solution to brand creation, re-positioning, product innovation and any number of business challenges. I’d like for it to be built in to strategic development more formally.

Another issue I am trying to tackle is how semiotics represents itself as an industry – we do not speak with one voice which is a real hindrance to scale and credibility to those unfamiliar with the discipline. I am lobbying to change this at the moment through setting up the Semiotic Thinking Group on Linked (c. 700 members). I am also planning an inaugural commercial semiotics conference probably to take place in London I think in May 2012. I am also looking for sponsors if any of you readers are interested!

What was your biggest learning curve/experience?

My biggest learning curve is that in business no matter how many advisors and mentors you have, you are ultimately on your own. It sounds obvious when you say but it really means that you are constantly asked to make important and risky decisions with imperfect information. This is most true of investment decisions: whether to invest £5k in exhibiting at a show, whether to invest high profile networking website or the same amount on a list of leads and prospects. I just try to apply the maxim I apply on the chessboard; that after a certain amount of deliberation you just need to decide, never look back and deal with the consequences.

What’s the craziest story you have from starting your own business?

Nothing that crazy so far – try and avoid crazy and prefer stable and sane! I guess one of the weirdest things to happen was having a £60 box of chocolates stolen at the Insight Show where I was exhibiting in June this year in London. Since my colleague and I were pretty much always at the stand we figured it must have been someone who came to talk to us – stooping to conquer,I guess it shows how delicious they were – ganaches from Marc Demarquette and that London looting does not just happen at street level!

If you could go back, would you do anything differently? If so, what and why?

Well, there are always things you could do differently – hindsight being 20:20 and all that!I may have been too focused on market research, writing vision statements etc and not focused enough on expanding my network and feeding my business pipeline. I do  have a good network (especially through Linked In), it is not really big enough and I do need to augment it now through leads.

I may also have tried to generate more PR around my launch. I had a feature in Research magazine but I did not really have a PR strategy except Twitter! If I had planned how to seed it with other publications (PR web etc) I could have made a bigger impact.

How do you see your company growing in the future?

The most certain way to boost growth will be to get a roster of regular clients who appreciate the work and want to refer me to others. Also, I need to beat the seasonality issue. I was busy in Spring and am getting busy again now but summer was very quiet. My projected growth was about 40% year on year but we are still in a recession and business plans are always rather speculative.

Six words of advice to those looking to start their own company.  

Look before you leap. Good luck!

Creative Semiotic’s call for a new logo design received 42 entries and was awarded to publibox.