Lenses of Interpretation: Hermeneutics in Branding

The concept of hermeneutics – introduced to me by the remarkably intelligent Rodger Nishioka – is that we all have various “lenses” through which we interpret the world around us. These may be immutable characteristics such as age and race, or changeable ones such as level of education, location, or job status. The unique way we each process information is related to the combination of lenses through which we receive it.

We recently explored the potential behind a hermeneutics-inspired approach to consumer segmentation in marketing and advertising. These lenses of interpretation are a kind of inverse of the typical approach to consumer segmentation – separating people into various demographic groups (from the outside in) and targeting them with messages that are calculated to resonate. The hermeneutic approach suggests an internal lens, allowing us to attempt to see through a consumer’s eyes by understanding the factors that influence their perception.

How might this concept help us create brands that attract a wide audience and inspire ongoing relationships?

Interpretation is the Key

On The PR Professor’s blog, the author writes that “Hermeneutics demonstrates that human behavior is much more influenced by the process of interpretation rather than rational or logical faculties.” Too often in our efforts to define consumer segments, we forget the power of interpretation and rely entirely on raw data. For instance, we can clump consumers together based on age and location, forgetting to account for the intricacies that further define members of this group. We can rely too heavily on data points that don’t tell the whole story.

When creating and building a brand, it can be tempting to fall back on assumptions about various demographic groups or to make sweeping generalizations. One of these is that consumer responses are always logical rather than emotional. Behavioral economics has emerged in response to this more nuanced understanding of consumer behavior; brand builders must build a new model as well, one that takes interpretation into account.

Brands as “Social Texts”

A study undertaken at the University of Virginia examined “The hermeneutics of branding” and came to some fascinating conclusions. Among them, that “brands are read and interpreted as texts.” The authors suggest that consumers collect brand information, including logos, advertisements, product design, social media interactions, etc… and turn it all into a monolithic “canon” for that brand. For brand builders, this means that each new product or advertising campaign adds another chapter to the brand’s established story. It also suggests that consumers will interpret each chapter in unique ways, just as any other text may provoke a variety of responses. To build a compelling brand identity requires consistency as well as sensitivity to how target audiences will interpret the “social text.”

All human understanding is informed and guided by the interpreter’s inherent biases…” which are “shaped by their personal experiences and the prevailing cultural attitudes of their socioeconomic demographic,” The PR Professor notes. While we may not be able to perfectly anticipate the lenses inherent in these demographics, we can do the imaginative work to better understand the variations within established consumer groups regarding value perception, social engagement, and more.

The hermeneutic approach challenges us to understand consumers as unique interpreters rather than static demographic members. Brand builders who approach their work with sensitivity, imagination, and humanity will be rewarded with consumer loyalty and create brand advocates who will gladly share their story.


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