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Greg Rowland Director The Semiotic Alliance

Greg Rowland
The Semiotic Alliance

Brands must understand the symbolic and cultural inheritance of their consumers’ habits in order to succeed

We’re cultures of habit. After all, an unyielding attachment to a permanent presence of novelty would be pretty exhausting. We like innovation and disruption in soft spoonfuls, while our main courses are built from habitual actions. Now, while we might like to think of these as active and purposeful choices, they are instead embedded responses to cultural and ideological mores that, if they were truly laid bare, might lead one to consider consumer culture as little more than a candy-scented cesspool, from whence people gleefully imbibe their own victuals of repression.

Fortunately for consumer culture, and the wellbeing of society generally, not many people think like this, and those that do shrug their shoulders in quiet acceptance, or choose to bear the very real scars borne by the commercial


We might think that the pursuit of good health is scientific, a fundamental impetus living outside of culture, just as the Palaeolithic foodies suggested, in their brief moment of cultural ascendance a year or two back, before companies realised that it was resistant to NPD.

The pursuit of good health is, of course, 99% cultural, with at best 1% lending itself to factual prognostications of wellbeing, and based on either a reproduction or negotiation with our existing habitual attitudes.

Habits are more than behaviours – they construct our cultural attitudes and unconscious drives. These can often be traced to deep reservoirs of discourse within cultures. Indeed, we haven’t moved that far beyond the Victorian vision, stipulating that bad health is an unfortunate consequence of the voracious appetites and literal ‘poor’ choices of the working class.

Class divisions around health are demarcated even at the level of the phonetic signifier, where s/he who says ‘Keen-Wah’ rules over the indentured classes of the ‘Kwi-Noah’ vocalisation.


Let’s think about Germany and Britain and frozen food as a means to showing the cultural resonance of health habits. Britain’s attachment to the romantic pastoral inhibits our attachment to technological intervention in nature, as evidenced by our affection for made-up farm producers with Enid Blyton names. Germany also has a strong pastoral imagination, but the unbridled emotional pastoral took a seriously wrong turn in the 1930s, and so the post-war alignment saw the rise of practical measures (green movement) and sound technical interventions, as a measured and rationalist negotiation with nature. Hence, Germans like frozen food (appreciating that it’s fresher than anything else) whereas Brits just can’t get beyond the association with coldness as lifeless, as a sealed-off death industrially bagged in the freezer cabinet.

Thus, our health habits are a cultural battleground, where even righteous Vegan Health Goths lob virtual broccoli spears at each other across the digital universe. The trick for marketing is not to believe our own hype, and dissuade ourselves of the natural and commonsensical as routes to changing health habits, or indeed habits of any kind. It’s only through a strong understanding of our habits’ symbolic and cultural inheritance that we can ever hope to beneficially transform a brand’s future.