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When marketing common sense has reached its limits, call a Semiotician | Perceptual Maps tell you very little. Meaning Maps reveal far more.

Marketing 101 teaches about positioning; that the term was first coined by Al Ries and Jack Trout, and popularised by their books. And also that it is a key first step to defining brands and brand building.

At its core, positioning is about framing a product or service in comparison to its alternatives or substitutes (frame of reference) and highlighting its distinctiveness (point of difference). Positioning is also about “representation”, or equating one’s brand to a higher order thought or promise.

So Coca-Cola sells us bottled happiness, that we wish to spread and share. HDFC Retirement Plans are about living with self-respect and dignity, not just prudent retirement planning. Apple represents creativity and the daring to be different from the collective. And Honda represents the unique human quality of imagination and dreaming.

Positioning aims to shape and reshape consumers’ perceptions or understanding and inferences about the world they live in. And as communication experts explain: perception is reality, and what people perceive determines how they navigate the world.

With its pivotal role more than apparent, what research tools do marketers and researchers use to study and understand consumer perception, especially around their category? What is the basis on which they develop the distinctiveness needed to build their brand image?

That brings us to Perceptual Maps: the only formal research tool used by marketers for gaining insight into consumer perceptions. They have been around since the 1960s or 70s (so for 50-60 years) without having undergone much alteration.

When drawn qualitatively, Perceptual Maps are a simple 2×2 grid, in which (often only slightly) opposing attributes sit at the ends of the two intersecting axes.

The aim is to show the interaction between two different attributes that determine consumer choice; and also to reveal the position of products/brands within the 4 quadrants opened up by the 2 primary attributes in interaction. However, the insightfulness of this map remains limited, since it works with only 2 characteristics at a given time. Whereas consumer’s image and narratives about brands are based on more complex interactions between multiple attributes.

Perceptual Maps are also drawn using quantitative data, based on the correlation or distance between various attributes.

A map of this kind plots brand attributes according to how they are generally grouped together by consumers. For instance, ‘popular’ and ‘affordable’ may be placed close together. The ‘weaker’ the association of two attributes, the farther they will be placed from each other. Therefore, some may place ‘new age’ furthest away from ‘reasonably priced’.

With all relevant attributes plotted, the map then places brands closer to or further away from these attributes to indicate their positioning as perceived by consumers.

This type of map too comes with its limitations; it assumes that clusters of co-related attributes and brands help accurately represent consumer perception. The map oversimplifies how consumers interpret and make sense of the world around them.

In addition to their individual limitations, both qualitative and quantitative Perceptual Maps share another significant shortcoming. Whether through a 2×2 grid or through clusters, both only deal with product/brand attributes, and not with the product/brand’s significance in the lives of consumers.

For instance, chocolates fall under the category of sweets, but come richly encoded with their own meanings. They could represent romance via the sharing of chocolate, or they could represent the negative side of attachment when the eater refuses to share their chocolate.

Normally, professionals from the ad agency or communication team, who are responsible for brand communication, dig deep into their own life and experiences to articulate concepts for the brand.

Therefore, there usually exists an unexplored chasm of consumer understanding between the perceptual maps that researchers draw up and the discussions that marketers have with their agency teams on what their product category stands for. After much debate, the matter typically rests between inadequate research and conference room discussions.

In what other sphere of knowledge and functioning would we, first, continue to use tools that are 50+ years old, and come with known, significant limitations, and then second, fill in the gaps with our common sense, all while not asking for more?

Semiotics has found more sophisticated methods of mapping category perceptions – not by talking to consumers and putting together a reductive analysis; but by analysing the texts through which consumers form impressions and come to their conclusions (perceptions) about the product/brand category. Semiotic analysis can provide Meaning Maps of the category, a richer, more complete map of potential perceptions of the category.

The texts analysed could be products, packs, advertising as well as social media campaigns and websites. They encompass the full set of stimuli through which consumers form impressions of the category, and the various concepts or meanings that it potentially represents, as intended by the image makers of the category. Each text can hold a world of meaning within itself.

Meaning Maps can be visualized like mind maps. At the centre can lie a product category (such as coconut hair oil) or a concept (such as identity). And each meaning that emerges at the end of a branch is a humanised quality or experience.

These aren’t mind maps of spontaneous associations as would be elicited through consumer probing. They are a result of decoding category communication and/or pop culture texts, taken as a whole, to understand where products or brands fit in.

Meaning Maps highlight all concepts or meanings relevant to the category. They describe the surface level signs that consumers process perceptually to arrive at their interpretations and meanings of what the category stands for. They also identify the key narrative structures or storytelling codes that are used to establish meanings in the category. Finally, they explain how concepts or meanings are codified culturally by identifying the values that underpin the concepts.

Therefore, Meaning Maps take the guess work out of identifying or understanding category representations. They inform the ad agency or communication team on what is codified, and hence, hard to shake or alter; and what is not yet codified, and hence, emergent.

They also help ensure that new positioning concepts are innovative in altering meaning in some significant way. Or at least point out, a priori, that the concepts are not innovative enough and merely restate the familiar in different words.

So, the next time you wish to understand consumer perceptions about your category, skip the redundancy of Perceptual Maps and call a Semiotician to construct a Meaning Map for you. Because you can do much better in your positioning efforts by skipping the obvious and mapping the big picture in its completeness.