Kreators Series - Episode 4: Hamsini Shivakumar's Author Journey
Pravin: Our guest today is Hamsini Shivakumar, a person whom I've had the privilege of knowing for over a decade. We have a common bond called the wider world of market research and consumer insights. Hamsini is a co-founder of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, one of India's premier brand consulting companies. She's also the co-founder of semiofest and unconference for applied semiotics practitioners. She will tell you what semiotics is, so hold your horses there. Prior to starting Leapfrog, Hamsini was the strategy head at JWT Mumbai and the regional planning director for Asia at Unilever. A 25 year career spans consumer insights, brand strategy, communication, planning and innovation. She's a prolific writer on consumer and brand issues and international and Indian publications. Hamsini, welcome, welcome, welcome.
Hamsini: Hi, Pravin, thank you. What a lovely show. And I'm privileged to be part of the show.
Pravin: Oh, the privilege is all mine when I got your book Signs, Symbols and Marketing Effectiveness: A Beginner's Guide to Semiotics for Marketing. Hamsini, I fell in love with it from the cover through to the images and the way it's been conveyed. Lovely, lovely, lovely. And thank you very much for coming out with a book like this.
Hamsini: Well, it was the first effort and actually all credit for the design should go to my design partner, Pranab Bobo Dutta, who was also featured at the back because I had a thought, but it is his design capability that translated it into this finished version, which has really hooked to you.
Pravin: It is, having been a part of the research world, I'm familiar with what Semiotics is, but for our viewers and listeners, Hamsini, could you tell us a bit more about Semiotics and the connection with marketing?
Hamsini: Okay, think of it this way. Suppose in front of you, there were three cups, okay? One was a Bone China teacup, one was a Coolant Chai cup, and the third was a paper cup. Right? Now the way you perceive and use these three cups for drinking tea would be totally different. Right, you will sip gently and very pub, you know, very polished manner from the China cup and place it very daintily and you will have it with sliced, you know, cake and scones. Whereas with that paper cup, you might just plug it down, crush it and throw it and the Coolant Chai you might you know, drink it differently, you might slurp it while you drink the Coolant Chai, which you might not do definitely you won't slurp if you're drinking with the Bone China cup. So why is it that we respond differently with these three products? They don't come with instruction manual, they're not teaching you how to use it, none of it, right? When you see it, it immediately communicates to you via signs, you are interpreting the signs so each product is embedded or encoded with signs you are interpreting the signs and then you're making meaning out of those signs. And from that you're drawing the inferences on what is the right way to use it, the right way to keep it, how to drink from it etc, etc. And then each product because of the way the signs are constructed, they also pull you into a certain collective imaginary and an imagined world, actually, could be a real world too. But the Coolant Chai you connected with India, you know, railway journeys in North India and railway stations and you know the boys who might come and sell you chai etc,. The paper cup is just a necessity. It could be anywhere and you can have it whereas the Bone China teacup goes along with the English of booty and schools and their cultural ritual of tea etc. So the point is the product is not just a product, right? It's encoded. It comes encoded with signs that we interpret and then it is placed, let's say into a larger collective imaginary and the world of which it is one representation that can be many such and it is one such representation.
Hamsini: So this is just to give you, tell you what semiotics as a discipline study, it actually studies how we make meaning in the world around us, the world in which we live, which semioticians would called as semiosphere. Like there's that was fear and ecosphere and all of that, so it's a semiosphere. So, the social and cultural world actually even the natural world is actually comprised of signs, symbols, narratives, you know, so there are verbal signs, visual signs, there are stories, there are stories in infinite number of formats. So, we are constantly interpreting them to make meaning and make sense of the world around us. And that is because of the learning that we are put through. So we are constantly learning and unlearning the meaning of signs and concepts that we are taught. And we are relearning new things and new concepts are also being created through a natural collective effort. Let's put it that way. Because we are all members of that culture, we are all constantly contributing to that, through our conversations, through our ideas, through our creativity, etc, etc. So the semiosphere isn't vast. It's not tamed and controlled. And it cannot be tamed and controlled and it's constantly in flux and change and we are all participating in it we are producing, we are contributing, we are doing everything with it. So semiotics is a discipline that says okay, how do we beyond common sense that everybody has, if we were to try and decode and understand the semiosphere, in much, you know, in different ways, how would we go about doing that? What are the theoretical concepts? What are the tools, what are the frameworks, etc. So a semiotician basically thinks more deeply about meaning, meaning production interpretation, what actually happens? So how do we make sense of the world in which we live? That's why I personally love it, because it's sort of it sits at the intersection of many different disciplines, right? So it overlaps with philosophy, because philosophy asked questions about what is the nature of things? How do we know some, right? It also intersects with language because language is the largest and most powerful symbolic creation, if you compare homosapiens with all other animals, the greatest creation of homosapiens is language, correct? So that language allows enable symbolic expression. Without language, it's very difficult to engage in symbolic integration. Overlaps with linguistics. It also overlaps with anthropology because it is connected to culture. So it's sort of, you know, sits at the intersection of multiple disciplines. So and it's endlessly fascinating because culture is endlessly fascinating.
Pravin: It's absolutely fascinating. But Hamsini from there to consulting for your clients and brands to this book? How did that happen?
Hamsini: Well, I've been working in semiotics for a long time and trying to explain to people what it is, etc, etc. Then I thought, okay, if applications in marketing I should write something, which is very simple, and there were three ideas in my mind, when I sat down to create this book along with Bobo. First I said, Okay, the marketer is bombarded with so much information, they don't have time to process it, or you know, inclination to sit and process it in great depth. They might, if the writer is some, you know, very well known American big name, then they might put the effort but otherwise they wouldn't. The second thing, so therefore, I said, Okay, that's one thing to keep in mind. Secondly, I said, Okay, I must write something which of a marketer is on a flight. And you know, he's got 40 minutes and says, Okay, I want to spend my 40 minutes learning something but not without too much hard work, what you know, so I wanted to make something that's enjoyable to browse, etc, etc. And the third thing I had in mind was that it must be visual because a lot of semiotics textbooks or writing is very dry and very, you know, abstract and abstruse and it just sort of makes very everyday common sensical things unnecessarily complex. So it's sort of, you know, immediately marketing people are at the end of the day are people of action, right? There a final question is okay, after all this "gyan badhav karna kya he?" I can do these three things or four things not telling me which out of these four I should do? And karke what result aayega? This is
Pravin: Absolutely, absolutely.
Hamsini: The rest of it is, okay, nice intellectual conversation, good for corridor conversation, time pass jo bhi hai, but it's not really material to the actual doing of the marketing. So that's also a reason why I felt that I should simplify it, I should remove all the jargon, I should make it as visual as possible. And design it in a way in which it kind of lines for you when you look through it. And then make you kind of draw some connections in your mind by asking these questions, provocations. And said, okay, now reflect for yourself. So I pointed this one thing out to you. Now, it's up to you, if you find it interesting, extend it into other realms and figure some things out for yourself. That's how this book was born. And that's how it was created.
Pravin: And it is a success. It is a success, because I read and re-read it not to understand but just to enjoy even more. And I sent across a copy to my designer as well. Like you have Bobo, I have Arun Ramkumar from MojoCanvas, who does a lot of work for my books. And I said, Hey, listen, I love this. Have a look at it. And I love the way you have put, “wearing a marketer’s hat and seeing with the semiotician’s eye”, I would invite you to dwell a little bit more on this. This is beautiful. And you've carried that thread all through a marketer’s hat with the semiotician’s eye.
Hamsini: Yeah, well, why I kind of put it in that simple ways to say, actually semioticians not only see, but they also sense and hear and so all the senses could be involved, but largely speaking, you know, meaning making is the strongest metaphor or analogy is with seeing and insight and all of that. So that's why I wrote semioticians' eye. ‘Cause once you have a trained semiotician eye, you always see beyond what is on the surface, you look beyond and beneath what is on the surface, because you look for each of the signs, and what are they telling you? And why is it put together like this? And how do they come together? How do they link into culture, so you're always joining the dots in different ways to see what comes out. So that's why the semiotician’s eye, but since this is not a parlor game from the being done for the fun of it, and it actually has to be effective in marketing terms. That's why saying, okay, you marketer, I know you're wearing your marketer’s hat.
Hamsini: But if you were to put on the semiotician’s eye along with your marketer’s hat, then this is what you would see. And this is how then you would be able to make more sense of what you do and what is around you.
Pravin: Good. Now, the next question, which I'm very curious about, Hamsini is about the writing process. I published seven books. So if you asked me to write, I'll sit and write. But in your case, you have captured the essence, which means you would have had to cut out and leave out a whole lot to transfer. I'm very curious to know about your writing process for this particular book. And the final product, I keep telling you, I love it, Hamsini. But I'd love to know your writing process here.
Hamsini: Oh, well, I, it was just like this I wrote, then I rewrote then I edited then I always kept in mind that less is more. So it was actually a lot of process of writing, rewriting, editing. Then after Bobo laid it out in the book format, then when you see it in that format, you have to do another round of editing because you know what it looks like on your Word document or on the slide, you know, in the document form, but then when translated into this visual form, does it read quite the same way? Does it need some more fine tuning and editing? So it did go through a couple of rounds of I would say editing and fine tuning.
Pravin: Good, good, good. Now, you talk about signs and symbols. And you've also given a lot of examples to enable people like me, marketers like me and entrepreneurs to understand that. Now if we have to as a marketer, can I understand the book, but I am having a problem that I have to work with the team always whether it is a brand team or a management team or a go-to market, whichever we look at, how do I translate your book for the other people? Do I just give a copy of the book? Or how do I translate it? Because if I get it, how do I ensure they get it as well.
Hamsini: Give them a copy of the book because or otherwise, I have to do a one and a half hour, you know, kind of a workshop, which takes the content of the book and puts it across to them. So either they read it themselves, or they're put to a one hour or one and a half hour session, where they are taken through the main ideas which are there. There isn't any other way.
Hamsini: A discussion with an American professor that I had met of semiotics last, not last year 2019 and gone to be honest iris for the Global Academic Semiotics Congress. So one American professor there, he saw me and because I went, I was having an Indian lady sitting there, he said, Hey, why don't we make an app. So he sort of assumed and because I'm Indian, software is, you know, plugged or in my DNA or something. So it was so he said, how cool it would be to putting it in an app. So I said, Yeah, so I guess that mediums wandering a little off the point here, but also, I think, today, as an author sometimes because you know, at the end of the day, when you write a book, or when you put your ideas down, it's finally you are having a conversation with the reader. And the reader is having a conversation with you in taking into you know, or grappling with or thinking about the ideas that are insights that you want to convey and put across to the reader. So it is a book. In the end, according to me, it's a conversation, it's a dialogue. It's a dialogue. It's not like a dialogue, like we are having, but in a way, if a reader has taking ideas that you have proposed and plays with it in his or her own mind, then the dialogue has happened, that has not happened, then the dialogue hasn't happened.
Hamsini: Right. But in this case, when I picked it
Hamsini: Author, you actually have a wide range of tools in which you can put across your ideas. So it doesn't have to be a book. Is it an app? Is it uh, you know, some other format? So those are questions actually that come up repeatedly. I think now, compared to earlier, it was just very simple and clear that okay, you wrote a book.
Pravin: I absolutely agree with you, Hamsini, because right now, it is the age of knowledge disseminators which takes up various forms. This particular interview discussion that we are having Hamsini is also one of that where I didn't learn, but so also those connected into me. So, when I am a marketer, therefore, the book jumped at me from the title. Therefore, I assumed it has been written for the likes of me, which is the marketing department. But it is like the washing machine used for Lassie case, Hamsini your book, the more and more I read and talk about it. Anybody involved in the creative space, entrepreneurs, those who are influencers, and therefore need to be aware of the signs and the symbology associated and then taking it through? And of course, my most favorite part also, thanks to my teenage daughter who's a lot into mythology and the symbols associated there's so much meaning that is there, some explicit and some rather implicit or has to be explained. But long minded question to ask you whom did you write the book for?
Hamsini: Yeah, well, my primary audience was a marketing person, anybody who works in marketing and who's involved in marketing and marketing, communication in the larger sense of design people, creative people, journalists, content writers. So the larger marketing ecosystem was my primary audience. It's not so much written for the researcher or the consumer insights audience because then you know, I would have had to write it for more aligned to the frameworks of research, right? Then I would have to had written a lot more contrasting it with qual research, contrasting it with quant research, you know, putting the three comparing it, etc, etc, which I didn't do. So the researcher, consumer insights researcher might find the book relevant, when they are wearing their marketer’s hat rather than if they're wearing their researcher hat.
Pravin: I'm a big believer that all of us are marketers, we’re just hiding ourselves into something else. But I'm going to relate to an answer you gave earlier for the marketer or the entrepreneur who's got a 40 minute flight and wants to get some gyan in that which is spot on, especially in today's attention deficit audience that we are looking at. Beautiful. Now that leads me to two questions. One is how was it collaborating with Bobo to come out with the book? What was your experience like?
Hamsini: See, Pranab and I have worked together for many years before this, we have worked on client projects, we have worked on other projects. So we have a very good rapport, I understand his way of working and he trusts me as well. So we have a good collaboration. And so the process was very easy and smooth. Second thing is Pranab himself started his design career as a design person doing magazines. So when he started he worked in India today, he worked at Outlook, he worked at the Helga even now he does Swarajya, he did till recently, etc. Therefore, his experience in doing books, magazines, and that format is very high. So therefore, it was a very easy collaboration, like, I couldn't have thought of creating this with anybody else. Because if you don't have that sort of complete mental math, you can't co-create. So I would say like this book went beyond just collaboration, it actually was a co-creation. So in that co-creation, it requires a different level of understanding between the two people, you know.
Pravin: Good. What next? Is there a sequel in the works? What's going on?
Hamsini: Well, I have half of a sequel written. Six chapters, and then I haven't completed it. So it's high time I got off my and finished it and got it out.
Pravin: I'm putting my hand up to be a part of your advanced reading tribe.
Hamsini: Super. Thank you. So I think I guess one of the challenges also is that I would love some input from you on this, since you have done seven, then your own theory etc., is, you know, each time the question of Okay, who am I writing for, you know, and how will it help them? And, you know, it's how are they to use it? How will it help me in my larger agenda of popularizing semiotics? So each time you can think about it. And then sometimes I also feel daunted because so much, you know, in the world already, you know, so is what I have to say, you know, how relevant is it kind of a thing. So, you do some writing when you're in, at least that's what happens to me, I write do the writing when I'm in that sort of charged mood. I feel low, I have a lot to say, and I must say it and get it down. And then that charge kind of receives a bit. And then some of these questions come back. So how did you deal with this question on.
Pravin: Oh, I have built a small tribe. And that is my primary audience, Hamsini. So I've got about 250-300 people who consume everything I write. And therefore I focus a lot more on writing specifically to this, which is startups who have grown significantly, and are in that cusp of leaving startup and getting into the growth model. So I write for such growth stage CEOs, CXOs and marketers and bulk of my books and writing and communication is towards that. So if somebody asked me is it a bestseller on Wall Street Journal, I said, I'm not writing for those guys. I'm writing for a different set. And their feedback is immediate. It is also a string of pearls that each of the book, five of the seven are marketing books and they are interconnected. So each one goes straight through. So I write for a very small focus tribe who then become my super promoters and spread the word. So.
Hamsini: No, okay, that's actually given me a very good idea. Because the thing is, if you know your audience, and you know, they care about what you have to say, that's the greatest motivator.
Pravin: And for me, when people ask me how many books have been sold, I turn the question and ask me how much money revenue I have made off the book. Because the bulk of it when they resonate, it comes back as consulting assignments. It comes back for coaching or audits and the likes come to me. So that old model of selling the book as the only metric is gone.
Hamsini: Yeah, correct. Anyway for people like us I mean, the book, as I said, that's why I said, the book is a dialogue with another, with the reader. Yeah. So it's a way to get across your thoughts to a reader who could find it engaging and interesting. So then it is really about finding your audience and then writing for them. And then if they like your ideas, they'll come back to you in some other form, in some other way. They want to continue the conversation. Right? So that's, I guess, especially since we are not writing fiction, which is a completely different ball game altogether. Maybe you have written a fiction book, and I haven't read it yet.
Pravin: I have written one under a pen name, so it doesn't mess with...
Pravin: Now, I'm gonna ask you a completely different question. On the concept of micro market, where, if you are aware, or have you consulted or worked with any client, who's worked on a very small niche local market, which is geo-fenced for a smaller tribe, rather than somebody bigger? Do you have any examples or thoughts on micro marketing?
Hamsini: And well, not well, only in a very limited way, because like most of my official clients who commission semiotics work are very large corporates. So they don't really kind of fit into this. I mentor ome organizations, actually two organizations in the social entrepreneurship space. So one is called Karma healthcare and they do telemedicine. When they were doing telemedicine much before now, because of COVID telemedicine, it really kind of, you know, got much more credibility than it had earlier. So for he, therefore has, because each center, you know, it's the center and then you know, it is that there is a nurse, and it's an assisted telemedicine model. So each center then has its own catchment. And hence, actually, I have worked very closely with him in that marketing and trying to figure out what works, what doesn't and these are all rural context, villages, which are within let's say, a 25 to 50 kilometer radius from a city. So, you know, Rajasthan centers were because he's based out of Udaipur. So, you know, within a radius of Udaipur, here also he has centers which are within a certain radius of Gurgaon. So, that's been his model. So, there we have tried or done, you know, micro marketing, which is really within that kind of radius. I would have to say micro marketing is much tougher than high level macro marketing because, you know, to get the mix, right, and which ones do we use? And how will it, you know, go into the their purchase funnel and how will you calculate ROI of your marketing efforts, so all of that in fact, you almost think of it from zero base and work and try it out. So there is actually it's very much in learning processes what I figured with him. The other is an education NGO, which works with, you know, government school children in Delhi, but who are in this 10th, 11th, 12th and beyond. So, how to help them transition to careers or jobs and careers that are more aligned to their own strengths and capabilities. So, how do you equip them to think beyond daily wage work or you know, very small kind of work which is their backgrounds are some very often from that kind of a context, but they had to their, you know, young generation who are trying to transition from that very everyday casual labor small work, you know, father is a gardener, mother is a home you know, somebody who works cleaning houses that sort of slightly better etc. And then but who can actually become something else. So he, their NGO is set up to help these kind of children and made the transition and all that. They now are trying to do through social media, you know, communication that connects with these children above and beyond their classroom or their program lead engagement with that. So, they've just hired this young girl and I'm in fact just starting to work with her on using social media to do this sort of marketing, Micro Marketing, you could call it with their.
Hamsini: I would say. So for me micro marketing actually has been a complete learning experience. I've sort of had to keep aside all the general yarn and sort of work from first principles of marketing ahead of communication to see, figure out what works, what doesn't. How do you track it etc, etc.
Pravin: Beautiful, Hamsini. Thanks a lot. Thanks a lot for spending this much time with us. For all the viewers and listeners, well, this is the book. Go check out Leapfrogstrategy.com. Google, Hamsini Shivakumar, to check out her books and to ask her loads of questions about semiotics. But read the book before and I'm in love with the book and I'm happy to recommend it. All of you, thank you very much. And thank you once again, Hamsini.
Hamsini: Thanks a lot Pravin. I'm so delighted that you loved the effort. That's a very, very gratifying. So it just tells me Okay, onward and forward to the next. All right, super. Thank you so much.