Semiofest Toronto

Pushing Boundaries: Semiotic Ethnography, Ethnicity, and Consumer Migration

On the occasion of the first meeting of SemioFest in North America, an international conference of commercial semioticians, I chose the theme Pushing Boundaries to propose expanding the scope of commercial semiotics beyond the usual textual analysis to include in-depth consumer research. Semiotic ethnography ties culture research with consumer knowledge and expands insights on emerging trends in consumer behavior. In the talk, I clarified semiotic ethnographic concepts and methods and reviewed the challenges associated with multi-cultural consumer research, such as lifestyle segmentation, advertising, and media planning.

In Toronto, I showed that semiotic ethnography can shed light on one of the burning issues of our time, namely the growing impact of consumer migration on markets and marketing in America (Kotkin, 2010). Simply put, semiotic ethnography examines how consumers use goods to push the cultural boundaries defined by their environments. Though some commercial semioticians already include qualitative research in their practice, in my address I invite the audience to push the boundaries of commercial semiotics by expanding focus from the meaning of cultural signs to include how consumers in multicultural households assign meanings to goods.

The symbolic function of goods in the multicultural household reflects the fluidity of ethnic consumer identity in America as consumers move from one cultural “space” to another throughout the day. As ethnic consumers adapt alternatively to local occasions and rituals on the one hand (i.e. a traditional meal), and meanings, tastes, and values associated with mainstream American culture on the other (i.e. a birthday party at McDonald’s). They also adapt their brand choices and consumer rituals as the need arises. These insights also apply to emerging markets, where local migration and the influx of Western brands destabilize the unity of brand meaning and complicate the marketing process.

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