Luana Candido Fleury, Marie Fournier, & Natalia Volvach. When It Is Raining, Sell Umbrellas: The semiotic landscape of a commercial area of Stockholm in times of Covid-19. (Acknowledgement: Tom Rudberg collaborated with the data collection and analysis.)
"Official messages are re-scaled and become integrated into localized signage of local and global brand semiosis used as marketing tools. Whether it is with a touch of irony or with messages of empathy, we see that by integrating the discourse of the Covid-19 pandemic into their brands’ communication, shops and restaurants attempt to soften the impacts of the restrictions imposed on their brands’ businesses by the coronavirus crisis."
Since March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 pandemic, countries have been attempting to navigate public health urgencies and economic interests. Sweden, notably, has followed a controversial path. Social distancing was only recommended around a month after it was compulsory in many other European neighbor-states. It was already November 2020 when the Scandinavian country imposed a partial lockdown on bars and restaurants for the first time. Facemasks were not recommended until the end of that year.
The sphere of consumption was among the first to respond to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic from the beginning of the health crisis. As one of the most economically impacted sectors, these enterprises had to react fast to the ongoing flow of governmental restrictions and recommendations while trying to keep their businesses afloat. Motivated to understand how official policies targeted at the Covid-19 crisis have been integrated into the urban semiotic landscape of consumption, we decided to take an ethnographic walk through the streets of Östermalm, a luxurious commercial area in the center of Stockholm.
During our ethnographic walk that took place on March 1st, 2021, we had two questions in mind. The first was to demonstrate how the local agents, namely shops and restaurants, had creatively incorporated the Swedish government regulations into the discourse of consumerism. For that, during our walk, we collected photographs of posters, advertisements, stickers, and so forth placed on shop windows. Further, we analyzed the meanings attached to these signs as conveyed through their multimodal design. Out of 30 photographs, we picked up the four most insightful instances that demonstrate different strategies businesses applied to appropriate and recontextualize the discourses surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic.
1. Humanizing the proximity with the customer
Figure 1 depicts a handwritten poster on the window of a bakery chain Fabrique with stores all over Stockholm city center. This multimodal sign communicates beyond the written word. Utilizing the medium of the kraft paper that functions otherwise in the context of this shop – the shop assistant would wrap the loaves of bread into a sustainable brown kraft paper – the poster mirrors the rustic ‘look & feel’ of the brand. The handwriting suggests closeness and proximity of the sign-producer who seems to ‘care’ about their customer’s health. The wording of the text indicates the positioning of the brand as one that listens to the recommendations and follows the safety measures of the local authorities. In a free translation, the poster says, “please keep at least a meter away, wash or spray your hands when entering; sit down for coffee and stay home if you feel sick; we at Fabrique follow the public health authority’s general advice; welcome”. In other words, the hand-crafted poster attempts to re-scale the higher scale-level of the government’s regulations into the local scale-level of the bakery shop: if you want to fika (to socialize while having a cup of coffee with pastries), you are to sit down at the table and mind the distance. In this case, you are warmly welcomed.
2. Reconceptualization of indexicality layers
In the second image (Figure 2), we see Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist who has advised the Swedish government throughout the pandemic crisis. He is well known amongst the Swedish population and is the target of vivid reactions, both positive and negative. In this poster, displayed at the restaurant entrance, the epidemiologist’s portrait is embedded within historical and global scale layers reconceptualized in a very contemporary, local design. For someone who was not following the Swedish media coverage of the pandemic, the style of this signage may only point out to Barack Obama’s poster ‘hope’, designed by Shepard Fairey and broadly distributed during the former American president 2008’s campaign. However, for those aware of the emotions aroused by Tegnell among the Swedish population, the signage might mean something else. Instead of ‘hope’, it provides instructions for further action: ‘Tvätta Händerna’, meaning ‘wash your hands’. The local layer of Tegnell’s image associated with the instructions expressed in Swedish may either be an acknowledgment of the hope and confidence that the population deposits in the authority’s work or the ironic recognition that the Western world that has before held high standards for the future (represented by Obama’s presidency), now depends on a gesture as simple as washing the hands in order to move forward.
3. The indexicality of a paradox
In a different kind of re-scaling that bridges the messages of welcoming from the local sphere of consumption with the health measures regulated by the Swedish authorities, in Figure 3, we see an example of what we have called the indexicality of a paradox. On the one hand, the use of the heart and hand gestures icons express the deliberate choice for familiar symbols that convey empathy. On the other hand, the written messages say ‘handla med omtanke’, which can be translated as ‘shop with care’, and ‘tänk på avståndet’, meaning ‘mind the distance’. The instructions for the mandatory distance come together with icons that carry meanings of compassion. This image reflects the contemporary consumerist-cultural paradox of the Covid-19 pandemic: we must stay away and take care, but not halt shopping. While the Fabrique signage in the Image 1 is carefully customized to that particular shop and its customers, the signage seen in Image 3 could have been used by almost any shop located in a Swedish-speaking area, reinforcing how the sphere of consumption can standardize the forms of locality.
4. Language choice and globalization
A different choice for communicating the restrictions was seen in the store of the global American brand Tommy Hilfiger, as seen in Figure 4. This poster could have been placed at any of their stores in the world and be recognized by the use of the brand’s three colors applied as a passepartout. The only localization token that could remind the customers that those recommendations followed specific Swedish regulations was the number of people allowed in the shop. Thus, both the global brand colors and the text in English were merged with official local recommendations, illustrating the idea that different scales of global and local messages can be set at the same signage.
Take home message: When it’s raining
From all we have seen during our walk through the streets of Östermalm, we conclude that the semiotic landscape of this neighborhood mirrors the paradox of the current socio-economic reality. Official messages are re-scaled and become integrated into localized signage of local and global brand semiosis used as marketing tools. Whether it is with a touch of irony or with messages of empathy, we see that by integrating the discourse of the Covid-19 pandemic into their brands’ communication, shops and restaurants attempt to soften the impacts of the restrictions imposed on their brands’ businesses by the coronavirus crisis. In times of uncertainty and apprehension, brands have been trying to reassure their customers through messages of safety and welcoming – as the saying goes, “when it’s raining, sell umbrellas”.
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