Steven Wallis and the semiotics of taste
22 FEB 2017

Published by Samantha Jamieson


Steven Wallis and the semiotics of taste

We were delighted to have Steven Wallis in to talk to some of our clients about the ‘Semiotics of Taste’. Aside from winning Masterchef in 2007, Steven’s career has spanned fashion, design, fragrance and gastronomy, for clients across FMCG and luxury markets. Most recently as Group Head of Creative Innovation at 2 Sisters Food Group he worked with clients such as M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Co-op & Amazon. We interviewed Steven to get a more general view of what semiotics means for the creative industries and, for those budding semioticians out there, what it actually involves as a job.

Firstly, what does the ‘Semiotics of taste’ mean?

It was a broad title to encompass semiotic thinking around food culture and flavours. The notion of ‘taste' can have so many meanings, and I wanted to discuss several cultural codes that have particular resonance in today’s food culture. 

How did you become a semiotician in the first place?

Whilst working at the design agency Brown Inc. (now Brand Union), I was introduced to Malcolm Evans and Fiona McNae (co-founders of Space Doctors) who both worked at the sister agency, Added Value. Malcolm is one of the pioneers of applying semiotic practice to marketing thinking. It was a fascinating approach to decoding consumer culture, and using that insight to propagate growth and change for brands and businesses. Having worked with Malcolm on many projects at Added Value and then with Space Doctors, I developed my own critical eye for identifying cultural symbolism and decoding meanings, as well as adding a creative flair for bringing my hypotheses to life.

What makes a good semiotician?

A good semiotician will take in a very broad set of cultural references; from literature, art, film, music, politics - any medium that gives us a point of view on the cultural zeitgeist. Of course I also have to consider competitors and the category of whatever I’m analysing, but more diverse stimulus will get my thinking to more interesting spaces when defining where consumer culture is and how it’s evolving. 

'Semiotics can unlock insights (...) that result in design that is more intuitive and ergonomic'

How do consumer trends in food and drink, impact the high street and how we spend in other ways?

Food and drink trends have become hugely influential - food has become the new fashion, and being in the know with food and drink has gained a lot of social currency with consumers. Having the right ‘kit’ is critical in being food savvy - including the desire to have the latest gadgets (e.g. the Nutribullet) or an ingredient that has been endorsed by a celebrity. Chefs have pushed the cultural narratives of food from it being about function and feeding, to a much more experiential, immersive experience. Food trends are now deeply rooted in sensory escapism and have a continued influence on the high street. Consumers now want to recreate what they experience in restaurants in their homes, and invest much more in setting the scene and propping and photographing the food they cook and share with their inner circle.

How do you keep your finger on the pulse, ahead of the trends?

Reading, reading and reading! It’s imperative as a forecaster and creative semiotician to be up to speed with current affairs, as well as cultural phenomena from the worlds of art, fashion, interiors, travel, health, beauty, food and drink. If I’m working on projects I will enlarge my circle of influence to include reading material from other categories to bring in a contrasting point of view. I’m a little old school and still love buying magazines and books to enrich my research and gather inspiration. I particularly love print advertising which can be pivotal in explaining or defining a particular cultural code. Social media is also a rich source of inspiration, and I follow particular bloggers, vloggers and instagrammers to ensure I’m capturing what these style leaders are talking about and what’s on their radars. 

How do you fit this knowledge into the process of brand innovation? 

The process of joining cultural meanings to brand innovation opportunities requires strategic thinking and layering of the brand filter. By having a robust understanding of the brand and its vision, I can build a hypothesis to create new narratives for the brand, be it white space opportunities for brand and product innovation, or to create inspirational pathways for first stage design.

How does this benefit consumer branding and packaging design?

Consumers are constantly looking for ways to make life easier and more streamlined. Brands that help them on that journey or give consumers solutions that make the mundane more interesting are always going to be hugely desirable. Packaging design can really enhance these benefits, or bring kudos and humour to make a traditional brand become more relevant to younger consumers or create stand out within a tired category. Semiotics can unlock insights around branding and packaging design, and its engagement with consumers. This can result in design that is more intuitive and ergonomic, as well as uncovering new rituals or behaviours that can elevate a brand’s perception and desirability. 

What is your hot tip for food trends next year?

On a mainstream level, ‘health' is new default. Plant based foods will continue to be celebrated and fetishised as an alternative to the culinary status quo.

If you would like to get in touch with Steven - email us and we will pass on your details. And if this has got your dander up and maybe you want to move over to a more strategic role, we would be happy to chat.

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