Reflections on Semiofest 2017

Sarah Jane Johnson

Semiotics is a well-established market method in Europe but it is North America’s loss that it is considerably less well known on this side of the pond.   As a North American practitioner of this invaluable approach, hosting this continent’s first Semiofest in Toronto this past July was a real passion project for me.

Me at Semiofest – with the all-important glass of white wine

Semiofest is the world’s only conference of applied semiotics and is a showcase for how Semiotic Analysis can help companies position brands, assist in new product development, strengthen brand communications and so much more.  In hosting North America’s first Semiofest, the hosting team’s objectives were three-fold.  1.  Use the conference to raise awareness of Semiotics amongst market researchers over here.  2.  Engage the still-nascent North American Semiotics community (and show off some of their talent).  3.  Re-create the unique conviviality that has fostered fantastic work partnerships and even friendships, all while showing off my fabulously diverse, cosmopolitan and lively city.

It was thrilling to see these objectives realized.  Market researchers from across North America came to learn about this intriguing new method and consider how it might benefit their clients.   Some of North America’s most illustrious Semioticians were keynotes including Professor Marcel Danesi, author of many influential books including Why It Sells: Decoding the Meanings of Brand Names, Logos, Ads, an

d Other Marketing and Advertising Ploys, and Laura Oswald, author of Marketing Semiotics: Signs, Strategies, and Brand Value.  And, as always, it was amazing to watch the incredibly smart and nice delegates from across the globe having great conversations and making real connections.

Professor Marcel Danesi – our opening Keynote Speaker

In homage to my hometown’s most famous public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, the conference theme was: “Media, messages, and meanings: Semiotics, form and content”.   And the conference program featured a wide-ranging set of papers exploring how Semiotics can be used in every medium from packaging to internal business processes.   Here’s just a few of the papers that stood out (I wish I had room for more):

  • In “Ways of Sensing: Challenging the Supremacy of the Visual”, Matthew Oliver of the UK’s Space Doctors discussed how Semiotic analysis can go beyond words and images to decode and help encode key sensory experiences for a product or brand.
  • Wei Fen Lee of Quantum Singapore demonstrated how Semiotics can help insure local cultural relevance with her paper “The Semiotics of Smooth in China:
Dr. Laura Oswald – our closing Keynote Speaker

Where the Digital Meets the Cultural Unconscious”

  • In “Coffee Machines Innovation”, Lucia Laurent-Neva of Visual Signo and Ann Ménard of Nestlé discussed how they used design semiotics within the Nestlé organization to help marketing teams identify design challenges, cement their brand attributes, and support product innovation.
  • Tim Stock, Charles Leech and Sraboni Bhaduri presented a trio of papers demonstrating how world leaders Trump, Modi and Trudeau are all masters of Semiotic communication
  • And Brazil’s Mariane Cara presented “The Semiotic Layers of Instagram” which discussed how this digital medium deploys a plurality of visual imagery (photos and videos), themes, captions, locations, texts, hashtags, likes, emojis to create meaning.

As pragmatic North Americans, we also featured a triangulation workshop led by

Triangulation Workshop

ABM’s Charles Leech where Semiotic analysis was compared with the reactions of actual consumers to demonstrate the need for real world relevance, and a panel of clients who shared their thoughts on how to make Semiotics invaluable to corporations.

Semiofest Client Panel

And, last but not least, we had a fabulous party featuring Marcel Danesi’s Semiotones,  the world’s only Semiotically-inspired band, and, my pride and joy, a King Kong meets Godzilla CN Tower cake, to celebrate the birthday of the legendary Gabriela Pedranti of Semiotica Studio!

The Semiotones

Cake for Gabriela Pedranti

If you haven’t been to a Semiofest conference… you should go!  Check out this video for more inspiration!