19 Oct 2016 / brandedcities

The importance and power of Out-of-Home: A semiotic perspective

This month U.K. -based semiotician and cultural analyst Tim Spencer spoke to the Canadian Out-Of-Home Industry about the vital role of Out-Of-Home for brands. Tim presented his findings at OMAC’s Activez 2016 conference in Montreal and at an OMAC-sponsored breakfast presentation in Toronto.  Below, Tim examines the cultural shift from an era of “digital enchantment” to the “re-enchantment with the real” and its importance to marketers.

As a semiotician, I look at the world through consumers’ eyes, consciously observing effects and interactions normally relegated to subconscious processing.

A long enough period of observation reveals the world is not a fixed, stable environment but one that is constantly evolving in small iterative ways that endlessly reformat the cultural space. There are many areas from which change springs: innovation and technology have brought profound shifts to society and culture since the advent of printing. Every time a new technology becomes consumable, we enter a new chapter and embrace a cultural shift.

One recent shift was towards digital enchantment. When everything connected up to become smart and mobile, we were transfixed by new possibilities. Smart technologies offered so much, so quickly, we found ourselves living in two worlds: the real (less able to excite us) and the digital (full of clever apps and infinite possibilities). For a while, we did almost everything online.

The effect of a few disruptive innovations set the benchmark for all brands to aspire to. Non-digital procedures increasingly felt archaic, slow, and unreasonably complex. After some resistance, even bureaucracy stalwarts like banking and insurance stepped up to the new digital standard.

But the age of digital enchantment couldn’t last indefinitely. We eventually filtered the genuinely useful from the generally useless, normalized digital processes that work, eliminating the rest. Once digital possibility was normalized as routine, the enchantment ended.

What follows digital disenchantment is vital knowledge for brands hoping to connect to consumers. Following a decade of intense digital enchantment, we are now experiencing the age of ‘Re-enchantment with the real’. The real world is still enhanced by technology but it is the vehicle, not the destination. We don’t visit the internet and marvel at websites anymore. The internet is a pipeline to fulfillment – a utility that transports us to a tangible outcome.

In the last decade, brands shifted advertising budgets online, spending more where the promise of a captive audience promised good returns. But the returns weren’t as fruitful as we might have hoped. The desire to advertise via the internet – increasingly pocket-sized and utilitarian – runs contrary to the way consumers use the technology. We skip past or dodge branded content, seeking only to push the button that provides instant fulfillment.

The era of re-enchantment means we once again engage with the real and tangible world around us. In this space, outdoor advertising once more asserts its status as the most fertile means of connecting brands to consumers via functionally unobtrusive messages that charm, amuse, challenge and delight in a split second, broadcasting at large scale over shorter distances to millions of consumers every day.

The new era of Outdoor advertising provides opportunities to utilize and exploit digital capabilities bringing our environments to life. Technology upgrades the real space as a dynamic, constantly refreshing experience that stimulates, informs, inspires and places brands directly within the sensory channels we naturally absorb. Crucially, OOH stands as the primary portal for consumers to begin their journey to fulfillment.

In the next chapter, Out Of Home has an essential role to play as the creatively stimulating shop window for brands. It is the constant presence in the cultural landscape that ensures familiarization and affinity with products and services pointing people to choices, aspirations and opportunities in vivid and unmissable ways.

In the new era, it is imperative that brands are present in our real landscapes, offering epic split-second shots of dramatic inspiration. In the era of re-enchantment it seems perilously counter-productive to become an invisible brand in the landscapes of our real lives.

Tim Spencer is the founder of Cognitif. A semiotician and cultural analyst, Tim has decoded communication materials and urban environments with particular interest in Out-of-Home for the last ten years, charting the evolution and challenges of advertising from a cultural perspective. 

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