How Lyudmyla leads semiotic research in a Moscow agency

Semiotics is the study of signs and sign systems (e.g., languages, music, advertising, road signs, etc.). It is an investigation into how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated through signs. You can study semiotics at the University of Tartu.  

In the beginning of 2017, Lyudmyla Zaporozhtseva moved from Kiev to Moscow. After a successful collaboration with the Enjoy Understanding marketing research agency, she accepted their invitation to work as a full-time expert in semiotics. It was a new position, created for Lyudmyla. Three years on, she leads a semiotic team in this agency.

Lyudmyla told UT Blog about how the agency works, what her daily work looks like, and how she feels about her recent PhD defense at the University of Tartu.

Image from personal archive

The role of semiotics in the agency

Enjoy Understanding uses traditional qualitative methods along with semiotic research. Having semioticians on the team in a marketing agency is rather unique. In Estonia, where the semiotic tradition thrives, few marketing agencies use a semiotic framework. Ordering semiotic research isn’t mainstream in other places either.

Lyudmyla admits that three years ago, when she started work at the Enjoy Understanding agency, it was much more difficult to convince clients to use semiotics. Now the situation is changing. Big clients with head offices in Europe already know about semiotics and want to apply it for building a cultural strategy of a brand. Clients who do it once often want to do it again.

Lyudmyla and her team are involved in the majority of the agency’s projects, even if no extensive semiotic research is needed. It is common to discuss all incoming work together and provide feedback to each other. For instance, when they start working with an insurance company, it is useful to look into the concept of safety – what safety means, how it is expressed, etc.

Lyudmyla’s work implies going through a lot of cultural evidence. Image from personal archive

Semiotics gives researchers some hypotheses, and sometimes is combined with qualitative analysis. According to Lyudmyla, the results of the semiotic research become briefs or tasks for creative agencies. The latter would then produce the needed content – ads, packaging design, etc.

“Every semiotic research is different,” says Lyudmyla. “We adjust methodology every time.” Juri Lotman’s method of the semiosphere, visual analysis, discourse analysis, semiotic square, audio semiotics – these are some methods that she and her team use. For instance, audio semiotics is applied when the concept of freshness is researched – how does freshness sound?

The Code of a Woman in Russia

Lyudmyla is presenting the results of the research on representation of women in Russia for the TV channel TLC. Image credit: TLC

Among other tools, the agency uses the RDE-model for presenting the results of research. “RDE” stands for residual, dominant, and emergent codes of culture. In spring 2019, Enjoy Understanding presented its research, conducted in collaboration with the TV channel TLC. The topic of the research was: “The Code of a Woman [in Russia]. The Mass Culture Representations.”

The researchers identified four spaces of meaning: “Appearance and Body,” “Career,” “Relationships,” and “Children”. For each space, they presented three types of codes: the residual, or codes that are losing their relevance; dominant, or codes that are currently the strongest; and emergent, or codes that are becoming relevant. All in all, the research identified 31 codes.

Ideal beauty is losing relevance with regard to the appearance of women. The words “perfect,” “ideal,” “impeccable,” as well as photoshopped pictures become outdated means in marketing communication. Image from personal archive
Natural beauty is currently a dominant code of culture. There has been a turn toward honest representation of women’s appearances, with wrinkles, imperfect hair, and no heavy makeup. Image from personal archive
Grotesque beauty is an emerging trend in the representation of women in Russian mass culture. This means we see more and more admiration of exaggerated proportions distortion, loss of taboo with regard to unshaven legs and armpits, and a trend for embracing the original self. Image from personal archive

Semiotic breakfasts

In terms of Moscow, Enjoy Understanding is a boutique agency that employs twenty people. Lyudmyla likes this format, as it allows everyone to become good friends. The size of the company is also suitable for “Semiotic Breakfasts” that Lyudmyla introduced in the agency.

While normally there is no strict time to start work, once a month she and her colleagues come together early in the morning. Everything is prepared when they come: coffee, croissants, cookies, cheese. Everyone comes in with fresh thoughts on a previously chosen topic. The breakfast starts with a discussion and lasts for two to three hours.

The participants try to find some codes and patterns that describe a topic in contemporary culture – for instance, masculinity and how it changes; visual presentation of masculinity in media. According to Lyudmyla, the format of “Semiotic breakfasts” permits analysis of a huge scope of materials very fast.

Lyudmyla and her colleagues discuss bread at the semiotic breakfast. This became an input for a theatre performance. Image from personal archive

One of the semiotic breakfasts in 2019 became a theatre performance called “Bread” by Liquid Theatre & NOL Project. Lyudmila and her colleagues decoded the contemporary representations of bread in culture. This cultural-semiotic analysis provided a basis for the scenery of the “Bread”.

The agency people found several important dimensions of bread today and their colleagues from the theatre translated these into artistic metaphors. “I was impressed to see how my report chapters were transformed to a folk tale, rap battle, messenger chat, etc. This is a perfect example how applied semiotics can be of use even for contemporary theatre,” says Lyudmyla.

Theatrical performance “Bread” looks at the modern person through the prism of what one eats, and investigates what stands behind it: saving, fantasies, or following a new religion. Image credit: Margarita Denisova / The Meyerhold Theatre Center

Apart from monthly breakfasts, Lyudmyla and her colleagues have lunches in the office together. Again, they debate, but this time discussions are not related to work. “Oftentimes you come to lunch with certain ideas, and leave with different ideas,” describes Lyudmyla.

Lyudmyla’s working day unveiled

Lyudmyla’s working days usually start with analyzing some materials. Let’s take the topic of femininity – how has it changed recently in Russia? Or packaging – how to identify the best design? She takes the materials to a big room with a big table and starts reflecting. Sometimes she brainstorms with her colleagues or joins them for brainstorming instead. Lyudmyla then systematizes the material, finds patterns, and makes a presentation for her colleagues. Then they brainstorm again. Feedback is very important.

During the day, Lyudmyla gives presentations and lectures, and goes to meetings. She participates in brainstorming and discussions of other projects that require cultural expertise.

One thing that Lyudmyla always does during the day is check the news. There are several sources where she can find some trends in culture, like Trendhunter. “This is needed to have a multidimensional point of view towards other topics,” Lyudmyla says. She advises all those interested in marketing semiotics to follow trends and engage in brainstorming events like the “Semiotic Breakfasts.”

PhD thesis on mass culture mythology

In late November 2019, Lyudmyla delivered what she calls “the most crucial presentation in her life” about her most favourite research – her PhD thesis. In the thesis, Lyudmyla researched structural units of mass culture mythology. Here she explains her PhD thesis in sixty seconds:

According to Lyudmyla, the concepts of mythologemes and mythemes are useful in understanding mass culture communication. However, it is a limited tool as far as her daily semiotic work is concerned.

After the PhD defense, Lyudmyla feels even more responsibility for her words.

Lyudmyla at the PhD defense. Image from personal archive

On the day of this interview, Lyudmyla received an invitation to join the organizing committee of a conference on contemporary mythology. “Nothing stops; it’s only the beginning,” she says optimistically. And she adds a few words of wisdom:

There are no victories forever. Once you become a winner in some competition, it does not mean that you will be the winner for the rest of your life. You are as cool as your last project. You always need to prove you have the expertise and develop.

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