There’s an opposition and a wordplay at the heart of value. Between the price or the bottom line on one hand and, on the other, the emotional conviction that human values like love, friendship or belonging should be paramount.

This potential contradiction exists not just in English but other languages such as Spanish (‘valor’) and German (‘wert’). The imperative to calibrate value with values is global, albeit with strong local variations in culture and coding. Mastercard, over 20 years ago, saw the brand myth potential in reconciling this core opposition, which became the semiotic driver of its continuing ‘Priceless’ campaign globally. Elsewhere the price versus true value opposition remains latent and an ever-present source of opportunities for companies and brands to gain competitive advantage.

Through the 2008 financial crisis and its aftershocks, Space Doctors has helped clients come to grips with changing codes and behaviours around value as they operate in consumer culture. How value is variously configured now is one of our key areas of research and foresight generation, semiotics bringing a unique perspective on value language and culture that other forms of insight generation have difficulty decoding.

This is partly about changes at the bottom end of the market – the world of ‘value brands’, discounters, pound or dollar stores, etc. But it extends through the whole world of marketing, from online deals versus conventional retail outlets, through the changing meanings of premium, to luxury goods and services, where ideas of authenticity, uniqueness, no expense spared, and true as opposed to mere monetary value become increasingly salient. And beyond marketing – for the UK Government today the aim to introduce a happiness index to supplement GDP as a measure of national wellbeing is a case in point, as is the attempt to co-opt the spirit of networking, co-creation and social entrepreneurship to a new conservative utopia dubbed the Big Society.

Semiotic consultancy has thrived by piloting clients through challenges fraught with problems for the conventional marketing and insight discourses ill equipped to deal with them – around such areas as sustainability, ethics, social responsibility, fairness, inclusion and emerging networked models of connection and trust. These are all now increasingly prominent factors in reconfiguring value. At the emergent edge of this process we see: the ever increasing importance of intangibles like social capital and group cultures; challenges around how and where to monetise not only music but other forms of creative production; the emergence of more Linux like crowd-sourced products and services for which developers share rather than sell their expertise; the idea that challenges to IP are not so much regrettable aberrations as signs of innovation’s future; the development of new forms of currency; and the emergence from within corporate capitalism of its successor – a social/ethical economy still seeking to articulate its true form.

It’s all about value. In the sense not only of how and what you charge but of how we factor in the value we humans like to think of as the antithesis of calculation, conceptually beyond numbers and material gain, below the bottom line.