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Virginia Valentine

by | Brighton, UK

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

tags: europe, experts & agencies, semiotics

Virginia Valentine, who died on 30th November 2010, was a much loved and respected member of the international community of commercial semioticians.

Ginny, as she was known to friends and colleagues, pioneered a distinctive application of commercial semiotics in UK in the late 1980s/early 90s. Inspired by a course on the analysis of folk tales at North London Polytechnic, where she completed an English degree – and by the ferment in critical theory at that time – Ginny put together a mix of techniques adapted from Barthes (cultural meanings and codes), Propp (structure of narrative) and Claude Levi-Strauss (reconciling cultural contradictions through myth) – the latter inspiring her ‘myth quadrants’, a hallmark of the Valentine approach to analysing brand communications in cultural context. Many of today’s best known commercial semioticians, inside UK and globally, learned or refined their skills under Ginny’s tutelage. The methodology she evolved at Semiotic Solutions became the basis of a commercial approach widely applied in the UK through the 1990s and now internationally.

More akin to European semiology than American (Peircean) semiotics, the approach owed its commercial success to Ginny Valentine’s great drive, analytical acumen and proactive response to three key historical and methodological opportunities:

• The rise of brand strategy and brand management in the 1990s, inspired initially by the development of a method for formally valuing brands – and, with this, a growing appreciation of the symbolic and cultural assets associated with brands and the importance to marketing of developing and nurturing these.

• The rise of the megabrand with the globalization of markets. By presenting semiotics as primarily cultural (as opposed to the psychological approach of qualitative research direct with consumers via depth interviews and focus groups) Ginny and Semiotic Solutions put in place a readily marketable set of tools in terms of application to cross-cultural projects. Thus against the drift of lowest-common-factor global advertising, semiotics offered a unique ability to formulate highest common factor international communication strategies while also contributing detailed recommendations on executional opportunities, tweaks and no-go areas in the specific local markets involved.

• Third was the introduction of something new not covered by academic semiological/semiotic thinking. This was the identification of ‘emergent codes’ in culture, advertising, packaging, retail design (any aspect of brand communication – later digital, word-of-mouth etc.) It was based on a notion adapted from British cultural critic Raymond Williams – that at any point a culture (or, in this new take on applied semiotics, any area of brand communications such as car advertising, for example) is characterised by a mix of Residual (dated, recalling the past), Dominant (today’s mainstream) and Emergent (dynamic, future-oriented) codes. By using this model to map out future trajectories of change the Semiotic Solutions approach allied itself with the trends analysis much loved by brand strategy and youth culture research (and later became a powerful tool for understanding rapid change in emerging markets), adding another ace to the hand of the new improved applied semiotics methodology.

Ask a research buyer or supplier to tell you something about semiotics and the chances, in 2010, are that one of the first things mentioned will be ‘emergent codes’. Some time someone may write a history of all this. In retrospect it's strange to have been present at the birth of a minor meme. At Semiotic Solutions we initially divided things into the ‘old paradigm’ versus the ‘new paradigm’ and used this opposition as a springboard for recommendations on where brands should be heading with their communications. But ‘paradigm’ is a risky word  – synonymous for some with jargon for its own sake, and undoubtedly tricky for a new methodology trying to persuade prospective buyers it was accessible and actionable. 

Here a short digression. Marketers are often scornful of jargon but not their own jargon – ‘actionability’, or capacity to be applied by an organization in practice, being a case in point. ‘Actionable’ is OK but the word ‘academic’, in contrast, connotes for marketing people as for football pundits ‘futile’ and ‘pointless’. Ginny whose initial career training was at UK's Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts (RADA) had no problem improvising beautifully between colloquial and technical registers, fashioning a discourse she played with verve and humour – one which colleagues and clients came to love as a kind of Ginny poetry.  At a meeting I attended last week John Cassidy (CEO of The Big Picture), unaware of her illness and the fact that it was entering its final stage, recalled spontaneously and affectionately a semiotic debrief for Ambrosia where Ginny started by talking the assembled client and agency group through what she called "the cosmic landscape of rice-puddingness".

Returning to paradigms, one day (in the process of migrating from being a Shakespeare academic to an actionable semiotician) I saw the Residual-Dominant-Emergent split in a book of essays called Political Shakespeare and suggested it at Semiotic Solutions as a tool we might use instead of old vs new paradigms. The rest is mini-meme history. Every origin myth requires a primal gang and none of this could have happened without first and supremely Ginny, her life- and business-partner Monty Alexander and our dear friend Greg Rowland, then the young master of the emergent code. Here the Supremes may indeed provide a good analogy – with Greg (Mary Wilson, moody intimations of depth) and myself (Cindy Birdsong, cute and vacuous – me, not Cindy) as the backing singers. Monty as a composite of Berry Gordy and Quincy Jones. And no dispute ever about who would be Diana Ross.

The Norfolk/Suffolk border in the East of England is covered in snow today (30th November 2010). In a garden near the village of Garboldisham there’s a memorial to Monty Alexander put up by Ginny after his death in 2008. It quotes some lines from Omar Khayam about the passing of time, appreciating the pleasures and the wonder of life. Ginny died at home at 4 a.m. this morning, peacefully, surrounded by the family she loved.  

It is fervently to be hoped – though Ginny as a deeply humanitarian materialist thinker, in the best philosophical sense, would have seriously doubted it (no gurufied luvvie New Age postmodern fantasist she) – that somewhere exists a cosmic landscape of ambrosial and sensorially transcendent aperitif-ness in which Ginny and Monty, rapt in each other's company, are enjoying again the first of the day.  With the sun just barely touching the yardarm.

© Malcolm Evans  2010

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