Okay, I did not ask Chris Arning if he has become rich with his Creative Semiotics boutique consultancy in the UK. Not rich enough yet, I’d suppose, if he is still in business — but then, running a semiotics consultancy and having clients pay you for doing what you love could be a great thing too. Especially when your clients include giants like BBC, Unilever, and Pepsico.
Last week Chris ran an intensive course on commercial semiotics for students at the University of Tartu — one of the few institutions in the entire world that teaches degree programmes in semiotics. At the end of the course, we sat down to talk about using semiotics commercially, selling the semiotic approach to clients, and setting up and promoting one’s consultancy business.
To start with, commercial semiotics operates in the field of branding and marketing. Usually clients turn to Chris with strategic brand management issues. They typically want to evaluate the performance of their brand, need to reposition their brand and take it to new markets, or they want to develop new products. Semiotics helps businesses understand the context that surrounds their brand and, more importantly, make decisions on the basis of this information.
In this video, Chris takes you straight to the essence of semiotic analysis:
Chris points out that while it is not always possible to prove the commercial usefulness of semiotics in every project, the value of the semiotic approach in the decision-making process is the key. Financially, good and grounded decisions can be quantified in terms of money saved.
For Chris, semiotics is more of a perspective than a methodology. One can creatively apply different methods and theories within a semiotic perspective — the important thing is that you are looking at cultural texts with regard to how meanings are constructed.
In the same vein, Chris does not use Juri Lotman‘s theories as an instrumental tool, but builds upon Lotman’s understanding of how culture works as an integrated system with different domains that are at different stages of development, which interact and leave influences in ways that we can’t necessarily understand. An example of such an integrated system could be car advertising, with its influences from film and the gaming culture. Analysis gives us interconnected labyrinths of texts and codes that interpenetrate one another.
“For me, the biggest influence is not a tool that I apply. Knowing that someone has done something like this before gives me permission to make these interpretations. Albeit Lotman might be talking about theatricality in the 17th century Russia and I am talking about Neon Wars in the 21st century, there has been a precedent for this kind of mode of analysis.”
According to Chris, one of the main buzzwords in commercial semiotics is that of cultural codes, or systems of signs that recur together. What a client usually gets from his consultancy is a ‘menu of codes’, a sense of what underlies these codes with visual evidence, and some sort of actionable — also a buzzword in the business world — guidance into how the brand in question relates to those codes and which ones to employ while pursuing the defined goal.
In this video, Chris elaborates on the nature of cultural codes:
Another example of a local cultural code would be the architectural code with its distinct washed-out, diffused color palette in the Baltics — perhaps reflective of the reserved Estonian character. National behavioural codes is another example. Chris sees definite similarities between Estonians and Finns — both seem to be quite withdrawn upon first contact, very restrained, sometimes very difficult to read, and lacking response.
See Chris taking apart the codes behind the Volvo XC90:
Still, much of this cultural code talk might sound vague and incomprehensible to most marketing and business people. How does Chris manage to convince them that semiotics can advance their business? It turns out he doesn’t. He works for those who know it already. It sounds like a niche, but it is big enough when you think about global marketing budgets.
Chris works mostly through agencies who sell his consultancy work to clients, many of them big and multinational. His strategy is to build a reputation as a thought leader, grow awareness of his business, create educational content, do good work and get referrals. Chris runs a Semiotic Thinking Group on LinkedIn and organizes Semiofest, an annual celebration of semiotic thinking.
If you are considering getting into the semiotic consultancy business, here is what Chris would advise you. First, get some experience — ideally, working in marketing and communications. Save some money doing something else — the beginning might be difficult. Consider becoming a freelancer so you can work for other people: “If someone was based in Estonia, but they were really good, I could work with them.” According to Chris, setting up a company of your own would be a very bold move. But who knows? Fortune favors the brave.
Listen to the podcast interview with Chris Arning: