Decoding culture – what are the benefits for your brand?

TRENDAFRiCA July 30, 2013

By Dr Inka Crosswaite

Decoding the signs and symbols present in culture to identify the key cultural codes at play can provide marketers and brand builders with additional insights that can keep their brands fresh and make their communication more relevant.

Consider my rationale: culture can be defined as the sum total of contemporary thought and production… everything we watch, read, eat, drink and do.

Culture is living breathing and constantly evolving. I like to call it ‘The Madonna Effect’ because Madonna as a ‘brand’ is a great example of constant refreshment – while her core ‘essence’ hasn’t changed over the years, she has continually refreshed her ‘execution’ to remain relevant and exciting.

Codes are expressions of cultural meanings. For example, we all assign various meanings to the word ‘premium’ – premium has different meanings and ‘premiumness’ can be expressed in various ways.

As culture changes so do cultural codes. Identifying a pattern of changing codes gives us valuable clues to what the future could be like for, for example, products, services, packaging and communication.

There are three main code groupings:

  • Residual codes are dated – what has been around for some time, and are often out of step with the culture around it.
  • Dominant codes are everywhere – they appear middle of the road, and they reflect the dominant mood of current day society.
  • Emergent codes are leading edge – they are evidence of a new infiltration of thinking and approach but are not always consciously identified by consumers. These codes herald the rising of an emergent trend, and are powerful and differentiating.

Tapping into these codes and in particular, their more emergent expressions, provides rich insights into how to ensure that brands remain fresh and relevant in an ever-changing culture.

At Added Value, we focus on the emerging codes that signal cultural change to spark new thinking about brands for positioning and innovation. We do this using and applying semiotics to decode the signs and symbols present in culture to identify the key cultural codes at play.

This allows us to:

  • Stretch thinking and provide a visionary perspective on where culture and communications may be leading us.
  • Provide cultural understanding to aid in the development of new insight led innovation/positioning territories.
  • Understand the most motivating and emergent meanings of a particular theme or concept,  e.g. indulgence, across different markets.
  • Provide guidance on the most appropriate communications language for your brand – verbal, visual, design cues, etc.

Let me use luxury car brands as an example: we conducted a ‘Decoder’ to reveal the communication codes used in the luxury car category in South Africa. This analysis enabled us to identify 17 communication codes which are currently used within the category. We also decided where these fit into the higher level luxury territories we have identified:

  1. Personal Preference territory: it is about fulfilling one’s  personal aspirations and personal tastes.
  2. Cultural Cool territory: cool, trendy and extravagant: achieved through appealing design and aesthetic.
  3. Social Experience territory: products that give consumers freedom and comfort to maximise their time and living life to the full.
  4. Product Integrity Territory: brands claim their intrinsic qualities of products, e.g. unique ingredients, expensive packaging materials and high quality and craftsmanship.

This allowed us to draw a number of telling conclusions. For example, we found that the luxury car communication is slowly moving away from technological perfection as a benefit. In addition, we have seen more of a focus on providing experiences, and were able to highlight that there may be elements within the BMW and Mercedes brands and marketing that communicates experiences more effectively than Audi, for example:

  • BMW is clearly ‘joy’ hence experience, Audi less clearly so.
  • Mercedes has credibility as an expert in creating elegant and sophisticated  cars – this is built into the brand and how it plays on its heritage but also expressed  through the fact that Mercedes is driven by state ministers and the presidency.
  • Both Mercedes and BMW tell a coherent story around their history and innovations and their founding  fathers (Mercedes) while Audi appears to be lacking this or at least its brand history is unclear.

Another conclusion was that both BMW and Mercedes play strongly in the ‘Social Experience’ territory, a vitally important zone in South Africa. The codes within this space relate to the need to outwardly portray, share and experience success with others.

All this clearly shows that decoding culture and tapping into the codes associated with it allows us to understand the most motivating and emergent meanings or expressions of a particular theme – for example, luxury – across different markets.

It provides valuable guidance on the appropriate communications language for your brand. It identifies for marketers and their agencies, the verbal, visual, design cues and so on to keep the brand fresh and relevant in an ever-changing cultural landscape.


Source: A South African cultural insight and semiotics specialist, Dr Inka Crosswaite has a Doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of Cape Town. She works for brand development and marketing insight consultancy, Added Value, applying her specialist skills to commercial brand challenges. Added Value is a TREND.spotter to TREND.



Leave a Comment

Login to your account

Can't remember your Password ?

Register for this site!