Cultural insight

What is cultural insight?

People are not all the same the world over. That is the real cultural insight.  In research, the term 'cultural insight' can mean three different things:

  1. Insights into cultural groups and ethnicities, for example into the experiences, language and expectations of indigenous Australians
  2. Insights into how people use symbolism and rituals, especially (in our work) consumer rituals and symbols
  3. Insight into 'how things mean' in our own culture.

Most of our work is with the second and third of these (although we have done some work with indigenous Australians). Let me tell you more:

Insights into symbolism and ritual

Much of our qualitative research has explored the impact of rituals and symbolism on consumer behaviour. We probably know more about this than any other agency in Australia. People do not buy and use services simply for functional reasons, or even just for emotional reasons. There is more to people than that. Much of human behaviour comes about because people want to make their daily lives meaningful. So, they look for products and services that give them the sense of meaning they are looking for. 

We have looked at calendar rituals like Christmas, status symbols, food and drink and grooming rituals, and greeting rituals.

People use rituals to create meaning: large scale public rituals like Christmas create and express shared values about 'who we are as a family'. Small-scale rituals can do the same such as a practice known as 'heirloom transfer' in which people give special possessions to family members. Greeting and farewell rituals are essential for good customer service because they make the experience meaningful.

Researchers and marketers usually differentiate between a product's (or brand's) rational features and its emotional benefits. For us, the distinction should really be between rational features, emotions and  benefits. Emotions are things like joy and fear. For example, some people feel safer when they are in a large 4-wheel drive than in a smaller sedan style car. That sense of safety is an emotional benefit. When a product or brand is used partly or wholly to communicate something about that person, then the product or brand is working as a symbol.

Insights into how things mean

Let’s say that you want to know how people’s ideas of ‘freshness’ are changing or how a concept like ‘the right to privacy’ is being debated and discussed. These are cultural issues, so you need to use cultural analysis methods.  There are two of these:

  1. Semiotics:  use semiotics to analyse how concepts and ideas are expressed  visually and through sound.  Semiotics comprises a range analytical techniques which can be used on such things as advertising, websites, packaging, books, movies and TV shows.
  2. Discourse analysis: use discourse analysis to analyse spoken or written language. Use it to analyse how ideas are expressed in corporate communications and print media for example.

We have worked with semiotics and discourse analysis for several decades and were the first to use it and promote it in Australia. We innovate and use semiotics in contemporary ways.

  • Currently exploring semiotics for social policy

  • Helping brands communicate complex ideas 

  • Sensory semiotics

Rigorous theory-based methods

Both semiotics and discourse analysis are rigorous theory-based methods.

Our experience

Susan Bell has spoken at conferences and webinars on semiotics and published papers on semiotics in peer-reviewed academic journals.  We offer insight backed by rigorous analysis and knowledge.

We have conducted desk-based semiotic analysis for local and global agencies for several food and drink categories. We are across all the major theories and know how to apply them to commercial marketing issues in ways that are easy to understand. We draw on a wide range of semiotic theories and models such as narratives, myths and rituals. 


Tags: Semiotics, Rituals, Cultural insight, Narratives, Myths

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