The human mind is visual. Millennia before we posted images on each other’s Facebook walls, our ancestors posted illustrations on the walls of the Caves of Lascaux. As both consumers and brands increasingly shift from a vocabulary of words to a vocabulary of images — videos, emoji, and infographics (which we substitute for words), brands should understand how this new visual language creates meaning in the minds of consumers.
We know the brain does not “see” the outside world as it actually is. There is too much information to process. Our eyes capture images and pass them along via the visual cortex to as many as 30 different systems. The process helps the brain construct a three-dimensional model of the outside world. As information is passed through these systems, which describe everything from what we label something to how we feel about it, there are multiple moments of discovery that also help us define and refine what that something means. Meaning is just another part of the model.
Tom Wujec and the folks at TED created a project called Big Viz, the goal of which was to capture the essence of 650 TED talks graphically. He asked the question, “What is it about animation, graphics, illustrations, that create meaning?” and gleaned three important insights: “Making images meaningful has three components. The first is making ideas clear by visualizing them. Secondly, making them interactive. And then thirdly, making them persistent.”
This has implications beyond idea visualization and relates directly to brands from the largest scale of storytelling to the transfer of meaning at the most granular and personal level.
Recently, in a thought-provoking post on why the PR industry, advertising and the mainstream and hybrid media need to work in a much more integrated way, Richard Edelman made this deceptively simple observation, “Ads are inherently more effective when you have something to say.”
And therein lies the crux. In a world where it’s never been harder to get people’s attention, too many brands have nothing in their DNA and in their messages that brings a smile to the faces of consumers. They exist. But there is no Long Idea. There is nothing iconic. There are no delicious insights. As a result, their marketing is often just information and, hard as it is for many brand managers to hear this, pure-play marketing information is flatline from an excitement point of view.
Presence, top of mind, awareness – whatever you want to call it – is a far cry from being interesting. Impressions mean nothing if brands fail to impress.
Before anyone says it, this is not about budget. It’s really about having the imagination and the tenacity to develop brands that are fascinating. And so many brands aren’t. It’s about knowing what Brian Clark refers to as “your particular future”. And so many brands don’t. They’re built on an also-ran premise, designed to a mediocre aesthetic and delivered in an also-ran way. As David Ogilvy himself said in Confessions of An Advertising Man, “You cannot bore people into buying”.
Hugh MacLeod has gone further, quoting this statement that he attributes to Andy Sernovitz: “Advertising is the cost of being boring”. In other words, MacLeod explains, advertising is what happens when you have to pay to interrupt people with messages that no-one would volunteer to listen to. It’s what you have to do when you have no other way of trying to catch consumers’ eyes.
It’s easy to fall in love with your product, to believe that the thing you’ve worked on so hard for so long is the best thing going. From there, it’s a very small step to believing that everyone must know what you’re doing and, in this age of increasing content marketing, that everything you’re doing is worth talking about. And from there, it’s a very small step again to believing that everyone will admire your brand for every action it takes.
However, recent research by McKinsey reveals there is a marked divergence between the information that companies judge as important and the messages that business customers value most, and also between the intensity with which brands talk about those subjects and how much customers perceive those talking points as contributing to the brand’s overall strength.
So while global B2B brands want to talk most about:
• How they role-model corporate social responsibility in their work
• How they promote and practice sustainability
• Their global reach
• How they are shaping the direction of the market
• How they are drivers of innovation
What customers most want to hear about is:
• How much the brand cares about honest, open dialogue
• How responsibly it acts across its supply chain
• Whether it has a high level of specialist expertise
• Whether there is good fit in terms of values and beliefs
• Whether and how the brand is a leader in its field
The findings confirm something I’ve thought for some time: that B2B brands feel an obligation to disclose the good they are doing in the world and the differences they are making, whereas customers, B2B customers anyway, are much more concerned with how the actions companies take positively affect them and align with their own belief systems.