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An in-depth analysis of Immersive Cultural Psychogeography: building insights from unfamiliar market contexts

  • In 2015, our Flamingo Semiotics team were challenged with delivering an immersive introduction to the cultural and business context of key emerging market cities in Africa for a premium spirits brand, with a limited budget.

    Despite being a truly global brand, with reach expanding into many emerging markets across the world, many of its global marketing and brand teams were based in the UK. This put them at a disadvantage when making global brand decisions, since many of them had never visited many of the emerging markets affected by these decisions, and therefore they had limited knowledge of the specific business environments that their brands were entering into. This was particularly true for Africa. However, budgets would not allow for everyone involved in these decisions to embark on market visits. What was needed, then, was a research methodology that would deliver two things:

    • (i)An immersive impression of the lived experience of key emerging African cities that gets beyond negative prejudices and misconceptions on the one hand, and white-washed Western tourist accounts on the other
    • (ii)An understanding of the business environment on the ground – the opportunities and the barriers, with a specific focus on premium spirits

    What is more, all of this would have to be achieved on a budget of around £50,000.

    The need for a new methodology

    It was clear that the client was open to more experimental suggestions on how best to tackle the brief – not least because the brief came via our Semiotics practice rather than our consumer team. Eventually, we settled on an approach which was rooted in an enhanced version of one of our core semiotics products (Object Ethnography), but which brought in methodologies that are used by the broader Flamingo practice (particularly expert interviews and depths).

    ‘Object Ethnography’, as practised by Flamingo Semiotics, ordinarily involves the analysis of a selection of artefacts drawn from a particular cultural context, in order to uncover some key cultural discourses which are inscribed or embedded in these objects. Typically, the objects can include anything ranging from consumer goods, music videos, books, films, artworks - to cultural events and retail spaces. This version of what you might call ‘Semiotic Ethnography’ has the benefit of being able to provide a snapshot of a cultural environment at low cost.

    What we realised was that an adapted version of this approach could be used to deliver an analysis of the cultural narratives which flow through particular cities. We would take our analytical methods for analysing objects and spaces, and extend them to take into account the key spaces which define the cultural life of the target cities: art galleries, music venues, museums, markets, shopping malls, restaurants – the aim would be to analyse as many of these sites as possible and capture the first-hand, subjective experience of what it means to interact with them. In this sense, as well as developing our own methodology of Semiotic Ethnography, we would take cues from the literary and cultural theoretical approach known as ‘psychogeography’. Building on the work of writers like Iain Sinclair, Walter Benjamin, and Guy Debord, we would seek out the points of intersection between urban space and the cultural imagination.

    To add context and granularity to our investigation, we proposed conducting a number of interviews with local cultural influencers in order to get an insider’s local perspective on what the city’s culture is all about. This combination of first-hand ethnography (or psychogeography) and expert interviews would enable us to work towards a cultural analysis of the target cities. Choosing these cities wisely was also key: in order to work towards a rich, regional perspective, we chose three hubs of sub-Saharan Africa: Lagos in the west, Nairobi in the East, and Johannesburg in the South.

    In addition to analysing cultural spaces, we would also visit the most significant on-trade and off-trade drinking environments, with a focus on a premium spirits audience – bars, nightclubs, off-licenses, specialist stores. Applying the same analytical principles which we adopted for the cultural spaces, we would then analyse these key premium spirits business contexts – what kind of visual language do they make use of? What kind of atmosphere are they trying to create? How are we invited to behave? And, of course, what kind of drinks are being served? Where possible, we would also gain access to any of the client’s local distributors to get an expert, local angle on the mechanics of the local business context.

    The key to our proposed methodology was that we would bring together the analysis of the cultural life of the city with the analysis of the premium spirits business context to develop an over-arching ‘theory’ of how the city works – a key with which to unlock it. Crucially, this key would provide a way of thinking about the city, a logic of the city which could be applied when making business decisions about it. In this sense, the methodology would reinforce the Flamingo brand positioning: ‘Through culture to big ideas’ - accessing the cultural heart of a city in order help make business decisions within it.

    Though this approach seemed like an exciting way to develop an analytical technique that could deliver exciting, culturally-informed insights for our client, the demand for an ‘immersive’ account of the target cities suggested that a written report or a PowerPoint presentation might not deliver what the client was after – or at least not on its own. It was early on in the development of the methodology, therefore, that we decided that a visual output would be required to deliver against the need for immersiveness, and that film – with its capacity to combine written text, sound, and imagery in a single medium – would serve our purposes best. We proposed a 10-minute film for each of the three cities visited. The decision to output in film rounded off what was already an inter-disciplinary methodology, combining object ethnography, expert interviews, stakeholder interviews, and film production.

    Assembling a team

    Though the methodology made sense on paper, the next challenge was to make it work in practice, and within the proposed budget. On the latter point, we devised an approach around the rule of three: we proposed to visit three cities, spending three days in each, and assembling a core team of three people. The team consisted of a semiotician, a filmmaker, and a local expert. Much of the preparatory work for the project involved choosing the right local experts. It was vital that we could feel assured that we would be exposed to aspects of the cities that might not be covered by mainstream tourist guides.

    We also needed to identify experts who were able to introduce us to the rich, multifarious aspects of a city’s culture, rather than experts who might be too narrow in focus. Indeed, the brief for the local expert was effectively to lead us on a three-day cultural safari, to be a constant companion with whom we could discuss our impressions of the city, and to establish whether they tallied with the real experience of the local inhabitants. The three experts we worked with were indubitably the lynchpins in ensuring the methodology’s success.

    Making things work in-market

    After all the preparatory work, making things work in-market depended on both having a busy and tightly organised itinerary, whilst also having the space to improvise when things didn’t go to plan – a common occurrence in more unusual market contexts, where infrastructural deficiencies (especially in a city like Lagos) can be a massive obstacle. As well as the pre-arranged expert interviews, we also conducted a number of intercept interviews with relevant cultural influencers, bartenders, and premium spirits enthusiasts, which we encountered. Taking our cue from Malinowksi’s anthropological principle to ‘write everything down’, we attempted to get as much as possible on film. Indeed, we ended up with about 4 hours of footage for each city.

    Developing output

    The first stage of the output involved writing up our analysis of each city in a word document. Having received sign-off on these from our client, the more arduous process of developing the analysis into films began. Working closely with our immediate clients, and after working through a number of drafts, we settled on three 10-minute films, which attempted to recreate the atmosphere of each of the target cities, and to weave together cultural insights and strategic business advice.

    Impact

    These films have since been viewed by over 700 people in our client’s organisation and their agency networks. We ran workshops with 50+ members of the global brand teams and their agencies in two key cities in the UK and Ireland.

    Feedback has been incredibly positive both from our immediate clients and the regional marketing directors within their organisation, as well as distributors and brand directors / teams.

    In addition to insight sharing, the films have been used for new starters to the client’s business and agencies, impacted asset development in the on-trade team for two of the client’s most important brands, and been used to inspire and educate employees beyond the brand teams (e.g. logistics, forecasting, customer service, QC teams, legal) in the three markets featured in the films.

    Perhaps the best endorsement of the methodology, however, is that we have just been given the green light to embark on phase two of the project, which will bring Immersive Cultural Psychogeography to three more emerging market cities in 2016.

    Image source: Alison Cheng