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Reserved Meaning

by | Sofia, Bulgaria

Friday, 28 September 2012

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Using different drinks glasses as a way of explaining codes and cultural meanings is a well-established routine in the discourse of commercial semiotics. Monty Alexander first introduced this at Semiotic Solutions and Australia’s Jake Pearce has more recently adapted it on a short YouTube film. Pearce introduces semiotics by using an obvious everyday example – demonstrating the differences in perception that arise between witnessing sparkling wine being drunk from a beer glass and seeing someone drinking it in a more properly ‘meaningful’ way from a champagne glass. Jake Pearce goes on to argue that the confusing sensation of seeing champagne in a tankard, like seeing a mature man wearing bright red lipstick, is an error in the continuum of meaning – of the sort that semiotics can help you avoid in actual commercial communication in any form.

"I'm in the wrong place on the semiotic expert continuum"

I enjoyed Jake Pearce’s performance since nothing in the world seemed more stable than his examples. But this impression lasted only a month or two. You may understand my surprise when in at the beginning of the winter, the season when dark beer usually comes out on the stage, the local Bulgarian brand Zagorka (owned by Heineken) launched new 360º campaign promoting its variant of stout beer but with an explicitly wine-like style message. This brand new product was called ‘Reserva’, offered in a limited edition and for a limited period (“only this winter”) – and its distinctive feature was the blueberry taste.

It should be noted that in Bulgaria people involved in food and drink industry are clear (or maybe were clear) about the taste preferences of the average consumer. Everything should have a consistent, strong taste – black strong coffee, fiery alcohol, etc.  Briefly, beer is nothing, but beer, and the perception of the local consumer was seriously challenged especially by the TV commercial. In the spot we could see beer bottles put on familiar wine shelves with date plates on them displaying years in the near future – 2015, 2016 and so on. Then a hand picked up the bottle and filled a wine glass with the beer in question.

The Reserva case was made even more complex because in previous years dark beer in the local market had been rather exception rather than the rule, although with the arrival of this different kind of taste and sensory experience a few dark beers had taken their place on the shelves. The most curious fact was that the overall message put together by different channels tended to accentuate he wine reference as an interesting tool for distinguishing such an extraordinary product from the beer category as a whole – but without positioning it as wine, since after all it was actually still a beer.

I don’t know what Jake Pearce  would say about this, but I appraised this marketing move as daring and potentially paradigm-changing.  Pearce’s argument is completely supported by the U.S. professor of malting and brewing science Charles Bamforth, who dedicates a whole book to the topic of  Grape vs. Grain (Cambridge University Press, 2008), aiming to demarcate clearly the origin and cultures of the two drinks. Bamforth even aspires to give brewers and the world at large a different perspective on beer and to underline its inherent qualities and heritage, in spite of beer’s “outrageous advertising regimes” and unequal battle with the originally French and precious derivation of wine’s image.

Returning to semiotics, we should remember the principle that meaning is fluid and that nothing is ultimately stable in culture, including the world of alcoholic beverages. Semiotics also teaches us as that if you are presenting something new you should use something close and familiar as a meaning bearer, otherwise your idea will lack some kind of skeleton or face.

That is why I found the Reserva ad semiotically provocative – it positions the product not against wine, in its taken for granted sense, but superimposed on wine (working through a sort of mimicry) and by doing so it draws on the exclusivity and higher class image of wine.

Probably, in a global context, the ad is neither totally new nor original in its attempt to stir up the beer market. In the upcoming winter season Reserva won’t even exist any more in the Bulgarian market place. But in the sprit of above and potentially taking the beer-wine crossover into new diemensions, Charles Bamforth writes: “I believe that the brewer has much to learn from the winemaker”, not least perhaps in moving the beer category forward to a point where it can begin to be associated with a wholeseome lifestyle of health and longevity.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

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