How three great brand tools can work together.


Approaches to branding and development change over time. However, at times, important disciplines combine with powerful results.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing when familiar techniques and technologies can be sparked by a catalyst arriving at the right moment. Not only does the timing have to be technologically right, but the intellectual and cultural environment needs to be open to opportunities.

We could be at just one of those times when great things come together.

The three disciplines I’m thinking about are semiotics, grounded theory and big data.


Semiotics provides us with an approach based upon cultural and societal meanings and the signs and signifiers that point to them. Currently there is a movement towards greater understanding of emotional significance. This is seen as more important than declarative knowledge about brands. It studies how deeper meanings are embedded in the brand narrative.

A semiotic approach to branding and brand development needs an analytic understanding of the cultural environment. The brand and its consumers inhabit that same ‘brandscape‘.

We need to discern the history, myths, metaphors and symbols that shape the consumers’ world and behaviour.

The major challenge has been the difficulty in finding our way into the data. Because much of the meaning is unconscious, traditional research using primary survey techniques isn’t effective. Asking for views and opinions is of little value. People won’t or can’t answer truthfully – this is not because they want to mislead, but they honestly can’t access those deeper meanings.

Grounded Theory

This is where grounded theory comes in. Grounded theory is a very different qualitative approach. Rather than beginning with a series of questions for which we want answers, we approach the data without a theory.

It’s an ethnographic approach collating all the data we can from the environment. This may include published information, commentary from the media surrounding the subject, observation of the environment and practices, visual images, perhaps video, film and advertising, historical data, music – in fact the whole cultural tapestry.

What the practitioner is looking for are patterns – recurrences of structures across a wide range of data. There is no pre-conceived theory but she is looking for codes and meanings that are emergent from the data.

Without pre-conceptions, the findings may be quite startling.

As you can imagine, sourcing and amassing the huge amounts of data necessary, and then applying meaningful analysis is a daunting and labour-intensive task.

This was the case in the past, but now we have the final piece in the jigsaw – big data.

Big Data

It is now possible to access amazing volumes of data from a mass of sources – textual, visual and auditory. Equally important there are now the analytical tools to process and understand the data – to look for those illusive and emergent codes and recurrences.

One of the significant advantages of ‘big-data’ is its cultural richness.

Bringing together these three threads provides us with an approach to branding which allows us access to complex emotional understanding.

We can get to grips with the deep meanings that drive the human essence of markets.

Ready to power up your brand?

Ian West
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