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  • Writer's pictureMatt Arnold

Symbolic Realities: Symbographic Research for More Effective Experience Design

If you’re going to design brand experiences that are meaningful for your constituents and effective for your business, you need to be able to understand symbolic realities.

People are storytelling animals and we live in symbolic realities. We share information, as symbols, best through stories. The stories and symbols we use can convey complex and important information over generations. The symbols we use can have a tremendous informational and emotional payload, as entire sagas can be be evoked by one symbol - a religious symbol, a political icon, a country’s flag, etc. These symbolic realities form the foundation of where individuals derive meaning, motive, identity, and emotion in our lives.

All symbols have the potential to resonate positively or negatively — think about the last bumper sticker you saw in your most recent travels. Did you identify with it positively? Negatively? Or, did you wonder what it meant? From stickers to words, to colors, to sounds, to images, to memes we continue to shape and be shaped by symbolic realities.

The implication for business owners is that you have to be able to recognize and understand the symbolic realities your constituents are participating in if you’re to convey value and resonate with their world view across their experience and touchpoint with your product or service. This work is based on Symbolic Convergence Theory, originated by Ernie Bormann and furthered by Don Shields and John Cragan. As a disclaimer, John is my uncle and was my professor and mentor in grad school. Some of my earliest brand research work was for John’s consulting company.

"Symbolic Convergence Theory explains the creation of a community consciousness in the past and anticipates them in the future... How a particular group approaches and shares a particular story or event will be replicated when a similar story comes into the group consciousness at a later date. The theory accounts for the building of cultures in organizations, tribes, families, communities, geographical areas, and so on, both in the past and in the present." -Ernest Bormann

Getting Graphic

Just as we have, for better or worse, segmented by demographics, sociographics, or psychographics, we can segment though symbographics.

What's Symbographic?

Part of the Spark Consulting Group’s experience design process is Symbographic research. Symbographics are a key component in determining the symbolic identity of a community or constituency. If you understand a constituent's symbolic reality, you can more efficiently and effectively communicate in ways that they understand and value. You can design the experience touchpoint that align and reinforce the experience you’re trying to deliver.

Let’s quickly look at some other "graphic" research terms and that they address:

  • Demographic - Where do your customers live? What do they look like? These are things that they can not easily change, and should rarely be used unless that attribute is truly meaningful in designing and experience for that segment.

  • Sociographic - What do your customers do? How do they spend their time?

  • Psychographic - What are your customers attitudes and beliefs?

  • Symbographic- What symbolic visions or dramas are your customers participating in? Where do they derive, meaning motive, emotion and identity in their lives?

By looking at the dramas and symbolic structures that provide meaning in your customers' (internal and external) world, you can more effectively communicate with them. I like to use Symbographic research to determine the prevailing dramas or visions, and then use the other "graphics" to look for the breaker variable that will tell provide more valuable insight on a particular customer segment's community.

Righteous, Social and Pragmatic Dramas

We live in symbolically created world -- sometimes these symbolic realities overlap and sometimes they don’t. Our symbol systems and world views can be segmented into three primary dramas. This is the foundation for symbographic research. These dramas provide a lens through which we can see the way communities, tribes, organizations, customers segment and organize, make sense of the world, and determine value. The visions are:

  • righteous

  • social

  • pragmatic

Righteous -

Righteous visions are those that deal with issues of quality and excellence and may have a religious fervor. Examples of a righteous drama may be statements like"if you want it done right, you do it yourself"or "there's a right way and a wrong way to do this."

Social -

Social visions are those that deal with issues of people, service, humane ways of doing things, or peer group influence. "It's not what you know, it's who you know," or "will this be good for the team."

Pragmatic -

Pragmatic visions are those that deal with issues of price and emotional detachment. Pragmatic heroes want things done that are cheap and easy. "I just need the fastest, cheapest option available" or "it has the best bang for the buck," or "set it and forget it."

These visions can change from product to product, or service, or issue. They are tied to deeper identity and emotional needs of your constituents. You may purchase your gas for righteous reasons (only the highest octane is good enough for my vehicle) and, yet, are pragmatic when it comes to your choice of beer (free is for me, or it's all the same, I'm not going to spend that much on it).

So, value is created not by price, but by symbolic perception. The brand equity may be for social reasons or righteous reasons. Even pragmatics will pay a bit more for something they won't have to worry about. As one loyal John Deere customer told me "buy once, cry once." While Deere is known for its quality machines (nothing runs like a Deere), that customer was participating in a pragmatic drama. Extending the ag examples from other farm related research:

  • Righeous - farmers with row crops of test plots working to see which performs best. They'll be the judge of what works.

  • Social - buying equipment from a trusted dealer in the community.

  • Pragmatic - as one pork producer told me, he was looking for the cheapest feed - "for the right price, my hogs will learn to eat anything."

My uncle, mentor, and former professor, John Cragan, uses two quick reference points, bananas and oil, to help drive these concepts home.

This is bananas!

If you've ever participated in a road race or fun run, you're familiar with the fruit and water tents at the end of the race. Now thinking about the people coming to the tent after the race:

The righteous runner says "Potassium. That's what I need to avoid cramping." The social runner says "Look at all of my fellow runners gathering, seems like a great chance to hang out and talk." The pragmatic runner says "Hey, free fruit."

When it comes to motor oil:

The righteous car owner says ""I'll do it myself" (strangely, they might even enjoy this task).

The social owner would say: "I'm having my trusted auto mechanic do it for me" or "we've always taken our cars there -- I've known them for years."

The pragmatic hero would say: "I'm going to Rapid Cheap Lube Express because it's quick, cheap, and easy."

Think about symbographics from a market segmentation perspective. Look at the communities forming around brands, products, services, politics, etc. Rather than a demographic view of markets, think about a market with these questions in mind:

  • What's the shared problem (or need)?

  • What symbolic realities are guiding how my constituents see the world and themselves?

By understanding symbolic realites, you can get a much clearer picture of your personas, or customers archetypes. Do your symbographic research and then look for the breaker variables when it comes to the demographics and sociographics of the communities you're trying to reach.

As Marshall McLuhan said, the world is re-tribalizing. Our tribes are now forming around (mass) media and identity and are not bound to simple geography. Utilizing a symbographic lens, you can better understand where your constituents derive meaning, motive, emotion, and identity in their lives. You might be trying to sell social benefits to somebody that is looking a pragmatic solution. Your solution may work for them, but they will have a hard time seeing the value in what you're presenting... or worse, feel you don't understand them and reject your brand.

Symbographic Visions in Action: Doggie Daycare

When we lived in Minneapolis, my wife and I used to take our dog to a fabulous doggie daycare owned by a friend. Sadly, when we moved from the area we were no longer able to send our dog there. We knew the owner, we trusted the owner, and our dog received a good workout on days that we can't walk her - we could even watch her in action via the web cams.

When you're in the parking lot of this particular doggie daycare, you'd be hard pressed to provide a pure demographic segment, or sociographic segment, that is meaningful. You can't segment by cars, as there are BMWs, Land Rovers, Camrys, an old Civic, or Escort. Sociographic would also be difficult, as the only common bond is that the customers most likely work in or live near downtown Minneapolis. However, from a Symbographic perspective we see more of social-righteous drama guiding the customers' view of dog care.

Understanding the Symbographic nature of a community is key to understanding the ways in which you can engage in more meaningful and relevant communication with your constituents -- in ways that convey the potential of value. When you deliver on that promise, you ground the reality for your customer, keep a brand promise, and have the opportunity to capture value for your business. Understanding symbolic realities are critical if you’re going to compete and succeed in the age of experience.

Let Spark Help You Design an Effective Brand Experience

While the world is complex, effective research and proven frameworks can reduce the chaos and provide a path forward. If you're struggling with ways to understand your symbolic reality, improving your positioning, or how to best make and keep and effective brand promise, contact Spark Consulting Group at


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