Myth to truth

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EVP & Group Director, Anthropology

How trends really develop.

A lot of what we do is study how “myths” get created and proliferated in culture. Myths exist everywhere. Most commonly, one can think about myths as beliefs and ideas about products, issues, topics and trends that are not scientifically sound. But myths are so much more than just about scientific adherence. Myths are in essence meanings associated with a culture that aren’t fully established yet.

For the French Anthropologist/Semiotician Roland Barthes, myths were ideas and norms in culture that when established appear as FACTS of nature.

Over the last five years, since the inception of our company, we’ve worked tirelessly to bring a model to life that can measure not just the creation of myths, but also the moment in time when it converts into a “fact of nature” as Barthes describes it.

Let us take the example of Sustainability in order to illustrate this point.

First – our topic universe organizes the dominant meanings associated with a culture. This allows us to identify the dominant ways in which consumers interpret a particular topic or trend. This is what Barthes refers to as “ideas and norms” in culture.

Second – our maturity curve calculates the amount of consensus there is among consumers about what that culture means.

When a culture is in early consensus for example, as illustrated in the example below, we know that myths aren’t yet fully formed. They exist in the form of a series of signifiers. But as is the case in the example below, these signifiers are continuing to push the culture toward myth creation.

Let’s take a slightly different example, this time looking at the culture of “sleep quality”.

Here, we see that in people’s minds, sleep quality is strongly associated with supplements, improving sleep habits, and taking the necessary measures to reduce anxiety and stress.

These are all myths today because they already sit in the “mainstream acceptance” stage of maturity and are continuing to grow. At some point these myths will eventually evolve and turn into established facts of nature – i.e. clear cut ways in which sleep quality will be interpreted by most in society.

Why does this matter?

As long as a culture holds myths or signifiers of potential myths, there’s room to shape and reshape that culture. Once a set of myths becomes established facts of nature, we (as in brands and organizations) cannot do a lot about them except follow them and build solutions that adhere rather than reconfigure.

To be clear, this does NOT mean we cannot innovate in a culture with established “facts of nature”. Of course we can. We just cannot reshape meaning in the same way. We have to compete on price, features, benefits, access and perhaps most importantly, adherence to the “fact of nature” or the established meanings in that culture.

Are there exceptions to the rule?

There are many cases where a mature culture resets because of either a single major cultural event like the current pandemic or a series of events happening over a period of time. In such cases, we do see cultures reconfigure themselves back from very mature stages to immature stages. Yogurt is one such example of a culture that has gone from having “facts of nature” associated with it (e.g. healthy, helps us be regular, helps in weight loss etc.) to suddenly having a series of net new signifiers. Putting it back into early consensus stage with a series of new meanings associated with cutting dairy from one’s diet and the perils of added sugar, to the lack of gut health benefits and much more. All mostly negative from a health perspective.

So is there a positive to this reset? Yes. There’s an immense opportunity to decode the emerging myths around Yogurt and create Yogurt 2.0. There’s always ways to solve these problems, if we examine a culture or a shifting trend through the lens of meaning and look at how new and emerging myths might affect our current and future solutions in market.

What do you want to research today?