FEATURE9 December 2010

‘A life lived without hierarchy, a truly passionate researcher’


Virginia Valentine, who died on 30 November, was a much loved and respected member of the international community of commercial semioticians. Her friends and colleagues Malcolm Evans and Greg Rowland pay tribute.

Malcolm Evans writes:

Ginny, as she was known to friends and colleagues, pioneered a distinctive application of commercial semiotics in the UK in the late 1980s and early 90s. Inspired by a course on the analysis of folk tales at North London Polytechnic, where she completed an English degree – and by the ferment in critical theory at that time – Ginny put together a mix of techniques adapted from Roland Barthes (cultural meanings and codes), Vladimir Propp (structure of narrative) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (reconciling cultural contradictions through myth) – the latter inspiring her ‘myth quadrants’, a hallmark of the Valentine approach to analysing brand communications in their cultural context. 

Many of today’s best-known commercial semioticians, in the UK and globally, learned or refined their skills under Ginny’s tutelage. The methodology she evolved at Semiotic Solutions became the basis of a commercial approach widely applied in the UK through the 1990s and now internationally.

More akin to European semiology than American (Peircean) semiotics, the approach owed its commercial success to Ginny’s great drive, analytical acumen and active response to three key historical and methodological opportunities:

  • The rise of brand strategy and brand management in the 1990s along with a growing appreciation of a marketing need to nurture brands’ symbolic and cultural assets.
  • The rise of the megabrand with the globalisation of markets. By presenting semiotics as primarily cultural (as opposed to the psychological approach of qualitative research direct with consumers via depth interviews and focus groups) Ginny and Semiotic Solutions put in place a readily marketable set of tools in terms of application to cross-cultural projects. Against the drift of lowest-common-factor global advertising, semiotics offered a unique ability to formulate highest-common-factor international communication strategies while also contributing detailed recommendations on executional opportunities, tweaks and no-go areas in specific local markets.
  • The introduction of something new not covered by academic semiological/semiotic thinking. 

This was the identification of ‘emergent codes’ in culture, advertising, packaging, retail design etc. It was based on a notion, adapted from the British cultural critic Raymond Williams, that at any point a culture (or, in this new take on applied semiotics, any area of brand communications such as car advertising, for example) is characterised by a mix of residual (dated, recalling the past), dominant (today’s mainstream) and emergent (dynamic, future-oriented) codes. By using this model to map out future trajectories of change the Semiotic Solutions approach allied itself with the trends analysis much loved by brand strategy and youth culture research (and later became a powerful tool for understanding rapid change in emerging markets), adding another ace to the hand of the new improved applied semiotics methodology.

“Many of today’s best-known commercial semioticians, in the UK and globally, learned or refined their skills under Ginny’s tutelage”

Ask a research buyer or supplier to tell you something about semiotics and the chances, in 2010, are that one of the first things mentioned will be ‘emergent codes’. In retrospect it’s strange to have been present at the birth of a minor meme. At Semiotic Solutions we initially divided things into the ‘old paradigm’ versus the ‘new paradigm’ and used this opposition as a springboard for recommendations on where brands should be heading with their communications. But ‘paradigm’ is a risky word – synonymous for some with jargon for its own sake, and undoubtedly tricky for a new methodology trying to persuade prospective buyers it was accessible and actionable. 

One day (in the process of migrating from being a Shakespeare academic to an actionable semiotician) I saw the residual-dominant-emergent split in a book of essays called Political Shakespeare and suggested it at Semiotic Solutions as a tool we might use instead of old versus new paradigms. The rest is mini-meme history. 

Every origin myth requires a primal gang and none of this could have happened without first and supremely Ginny, her life- and business-partner Monty Alexander and our colleague Greg Rowland, then the young master of the emergent code. 

In a garden near the village of Garboldisham on the Norfolk/Suffolk border there’s a memorial to Monty Alexander put up by Ginny after his death in 2008. It quotes some lines from Omar Khayam about the passing of time, appreciating the pleasures and the wonder of life. Ginny died at home, peacefully, surrounded by the family she loved.  

Greg Rowland writes:

Let me echo all the sentiments above, but attempt, in a very short space, to express some personal thoughts on Ginny’s intellectual contribution to market research.

Ginny originally wanted to be an actress, and her initial career training at the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts – and the associated flamboyance – never left her. Julie Christie’s knockout intensity, Fenella Fielding’s mock seductress and Maureen Lipman’s wise Jewish mother were just some of the roles that Ginny could perform in front of audiences. Sometimes they were in thrall, sometimes they were scared, or occasionally they were defensive and dismissive in the face of such overwhelming intellectual power. But nobody ever forgot Ginny Valentine.

“Ginny was fixated on the idea of market research becoming a verifiable discipline in its own right – a project which was always going to come up against the vested interests of the big players”

I believe that if Ginny had entered the academic world, at an earlier stage of her career, her name would have been synonymous with other great minds of her generation. This is meant as no insult to this industry, as it applies to many, but we could contend that Ginny was a lot bigger than market research.

Yet I can hear Ginny chastising me for saying this. Her unique fusion of philosophy, creativity and, at times, an almost cabbalistic ability for emotional divination meant that she saw no distinction between the mundane and the profound. For Ginny, they were part of one huge continuum. Dog food, Lacan, toilet roll, Barthes, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, Derrida, a tube of Smarties and Vladimir Propp.

This leads me to dispel the occasional academic criticism that that was aimed at Ginny – that her methodological principles were rigid, positivist and out-dated. This was a blunt and inaccurate caricature of some of her earliest experimental work. It was certainly the case, by the time I joined her in the early 1990s, that Ginny’s methodology encompassed not just semiotics, but advanced psychoanalytic thinking, Marxist cultural theory and sociology, feminism, identity politics, Russian formalism and more theoretical diversity than you could shake a phallocentric object at. Ginny, to use Bakhtin’s formulation, was a master of polyphonic thinking.

It was this life lived without hierarchy that made Ginny a truly passionate market researcher, as devoted to her most junior clients as to her senior ones. Ginny was fixated on the idea of market research becoming a verifiable discipline in its own right – a project which was always going to come up against the vested interests of the big players in the industry who, try as they might, could not package up the essence of Ginny in a Fordist industrial model.

However many awards she won, and however much her talent was recognised by her fellows, those who followed in her wake could never quite match that irreducible spark of intellectual curiosity and passion. But we’ll keep on trying. Ginny’s material signifier may have vanished into the realms of the metaphysical, but her signified will continue to inspire future generations, some yet unborn, to uncover the mysteries of the cultures that pervade us.