Creative Strategy Importance: Visual Or Verbal?

Al RiesSeptember 18, 20095038 min

What’s more important, the visual or the verbal?

You Need Both to Build a Powerful Brand. Advertising today is a visually oriented discipline. And we have Confucius to thank (or blame) for this state of affairs. Confucius’ famous saying, “A picture is worth 1,000 words,” has been quoted endlessly in advertising circles in America. Furthermore, most creative directors started out as art directors. First and foremost, they see their job as creating a unique and distinctive visual. The words can come later.

Art directors generally believe that pictures or visuals are more important, while copywriters generally believe that the right choice of words are more important.

Both are wrong.

It’s like asking what’s more important in building a house, a hammer or a nail? Both have to work together. The best hammer in the world is useless if the hammer misses the nail. And the best nail in the world is useless unless there’s a hammer to hammer the nail in.

The visual is the hammer. It’s difficult to build a strong, powerful worldwide brand without a strong, shocking, dynamic visual.

The success of Marlboro cigarettes demonstrates the incredible power of the right combination of visual and verbal. Introduced in the U.S. market in 1953, Marlboro eventually became the world’s largest-selling cigarette brand.

Marlboro was the brand that made Philip Morris a hugely successful company. If you had invested $1,000 in Philip Morris stock at the end of 1953, the year Marlboro was introduced, your stake would be worth $15.5 million today. (As a matter of fact, Philip Morris stock appreciated faster than any other stock on Fortune magazine’s list that year of the 500 largest companies in America.)

Wow! The Marlboro cowboy must be an exceptionally powerful visual.

That’s not necessarily true. That’s not how advertising works. The Marlboro cowboy is only a hammer.

What was the cowboy hammer trying to do? At the time of Marlboro’s introduction, virtually all cigarette brands were “unisex” brands, appealing to both men and women. Almost all cigarette advertisements featured pictures of women as well as men.

To the cigarette manufacturers, that made a lot of sense. Cigarette companies figured their future depended on their ability to create as many female smokers as male smokers. (They have almost achieved that goal. Today, 28% of adult American men smoke vs. 22% of women.)

Marlboro was conceived as a “masculine” cigarette, one of the first brands to focus entirely on men. (In 55 years, there has never been a woman in a Marlboro ad.)

It was this “masculine” verbal message that the cowboy hammer was designed to drive into the smoker’s mind. It was this combination that built the exceptionally powerful Marlboro brand.

Is a picture worth a thousand words? No. Without a verbal, a picture is essentially worthless.

Currently, the auction house Christie’s International is offering one of Andy Warhol’s large portraits of Mao Zedong for $120 million. Granted, the portrait is 14-feet tall and it was completed in 1973 just after the U.S. and China renewed their relations. But is it worth $120 million?

What makes any painting worth that kind of money? It can’t be the quality of the painting. (The portrait of Mao was actually printed on a silkscreen press.)

It’s the name of the artist. In this case, Andy Warhol.

The world of art and the world of business are alike. It’s the brand name that makes a work of art valuable. Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Dali, Mondrian. It’s the brand name that makes a product valuable. Rolex, Mercedes-Benz, Apple, Lexus, Marlboro.

Branding is a one-two process and it doesn’t start with the visual. It starts with the verbal. I could paint 1,000 pictures of Mao Zedong and none of them would be worth anything. Why? The verbal is wrong. Al Ries? What does that name mean in the art field? Nothing. On the other hand, put “Al Ries” on a book and the book will sell. (Maybe not millions of copies, but a few thousand anyway.)

So the first question a marketing manager must ask is, “What is the verbal? What is the verbal message we are trying to put into consumers’ minds?”

That’s the nail. It’s not that the nail is more important than the hammer, but the nail is the first decision a company needs to make.

Art directors in particular need to pay attention to this one-two effect. Oftentimes, an art director will focus his or her entire attention on the visual without considering whether the visual hammer will hit the right nail.

There is often a disconnect between the two. If “Marlboro” were a feminine-type name, the cowboy hammer wouldn’t have worked at all. (The first step in a Marlboro marketing program would have been to change the name to a masculine one.)

In our consulting work, we find the single most important mistake companies make is separating the hammer from the nail.

Somebody, usually in the company, decides what words should be used to describe the brand. Then these verbals are turned over to an outsider, usually an advertising agency, to visualize.

The company creates great words and the agency creates great visuals and the two never get connected.

Then, too, visuals are often evaluated by their attractiveness or beauty alone. “I love the look of this advertisement” is the reaction of a typical corporate executive. But beauty is seldom the key attribute of a powerful hammer.

One of the most effective branding programs is for a product called “Roach Motel.” The verbal is: “Roaches check in, but they don’t check out.” You can imagine what the visual is.

Marketing has a job to do and creating a work of art is not what that job is.

Nor can a marketing manager select a verbal without also considering what the visual might be. If you try to establish a verbal concept like “quality,” you’ll quickly find there is no visual that can hammer in a “quality” nail.

Quality is too abstract a concept. The same thing is true of concepts like excellent customer service, low maintenance, high resale value, etc.

A visual hammer works best with a down-to-earth specific concept expressed as simply as possible. For example, the first three-blade razor (Mach3) and the first five-blade razor (Fusion) introduced by Gillette.

Yet the “nail” decisions, or verbal decisions, are often made without consideration of potential “hammers,” or visual devices.

If you can’t find a visual device to hammer your verbal nail, then your strategy tends to fall apart.

There’s one exception to this general rule. When your brand is first in a new category, you have a golden opportunity to create a powerful visual hammer. Not only can your brand pre-empt the leadership role, as Coca-Cola did in cola, but your brand gets a rare opportunity to create an exceptionally memorable visual.

The old-fashioned Coke bottle, for example, is a visual symbol recognized around the world. When the leader brand creates a symbol associated with the category, the No. 2 and No. 3 brands are visually out of luck.

What visual symbol is associated with Pepsi-Cola? None, really.

Mercedes-Benz, perhaps the first automobile marketed as a luxury brand, created the tri-star logotype which is universally associated with “prestige.” Nobody seems to object when Mercedes uses a one-foot-high logotype in the grille of its automobiles.

Nike, one of the most successful athletic shoes, created the Swoosh, not a particularly attractive visual, as its trademark. Yet the Swoosh is a well-known logo around the world in spite of its lack of visual excitement. Why? Because Nike was one of the first mass-marketed athletic shoe and the Swoosh visual is associated with that position.

McDonald’s, the first hamburger chain, created the “Golden Arches,” another visual with an enormous recognition factor.

Rolex, one of the first luxury brands in the watch category, created a unique watchband that has since been copied by many other brands. Yet the Rolex watchband is one of the brand’s most effective visual hammers. (It doesn’t matter that other brands have copied the Rolex look. That just makes them look like “imitation Rolexes.”)

Visual hammers are particularly effective for high-end fashion products. They tell friends and relatives how smart (or how dumb) you are. The polo player for the Ralph Lauren brand, for example.

Take ultra-expensive Louis Vuitton handbags. They have a unique multiple-logotype design that anyone can recognize from 20 feet away.

In certain circles, a Louis Vuitton handbag is one of those possessions a woman has to have. In Tokyo, for example, more than 90% of women in their 20s own a Louis Vuitton handbag. If the handbag itself weren’t quite so “outlandish,” sales wouldn’t be nearly as high.

Then, too, if Louis Vuitton has captured 90% of young, urban Japanese women, the market share of the No. 2 brand (whatever it is) cannot be too great. When your brand is first in a new category and when you can also develop a striking visual hammer to accompany your brand, you can sometimes achieve a near monopoly.

That’s what happened with Rolex. The combination of the brand name (and the watchband visual hammer) has put Rolex in a very strong position.

Today, a high-end jewelry store cannot exist without also handling the Rolex watch brand. (If a jewelry store doesn’t handle Rolex, consumers believe it’s not a high-end jewelry store.)

Creating a unique visual to accompany a unique new-product development might seem like an obvious strategy, yet many companies miss the visual boat.

Take Apple’s iPod, the first high-capacity MP3 player, and perhaps the most successful new product of the 21st century. Instead of the “Apple” trademark, Apple could have created a unique “iPod” trademark that would have been incredibly useful in the long term.

Companies are too concerned about using their corporate marks instead of creating distinctive visual hammers for their new products. Should Toyota have used the Toyota trademark on its Lexus brand? I think not. Yet that’s just what Apple did with its iPod product.

The same is true of Prius, the first hybrid automobile, and Scion, the first youth-oriented vehicle. Both vehicles use ordinary, typographical trademarks when they could have created memorable visuals that would last for decades.

Being first in a new category creates enormous advantages. For one thing, you get your choice of visual. Almost every leader brand has the opportunity to dream up almost any visual and consumers will connect that visual to the brand.

Of course, a visual alone is not enough. You need to connect the visual to a powerful verbal statement. When the two work together, when you have an exceptionally powerful hammer and an exceptionally sharp nail, the results can be astounding.

One of the best-executed marketing programs of the 20th century, in my opinion, was for BMW, the “ultimate driving machine.”

BMW has become the largest-selling European import in the American market, outselling Mercedes-Benz. As a matter of fact, BMW outsells Mercedes globally.

It was the astute combination of words (“ultimate driving machine”) with the powerful visual of a BMW being driven over a series of winding roads that made the brand such as enormous success.

Over the years, there have been many, many advertising campaigns showing beautiful automobiles being driven over lush, winding roads. The hammers are terrific, but the nails are missing.

The trick is to find the right combination of a visual hammer and a verbal nail. When these two work together as they did for BMW, you have a potentially powerful brand.

Read another view on Visual and Verbal messaging here.

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Al Ries


  • JWO

    September 18, 2009 at 1:06 am

    Not a lot of copy needed to demonstrate Apple’s products.

  • Cathy Cotter

    September 18, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Visual and verbal work hand in hand. Studies show that for the majority of people, visual assimilation is first and of the highest importance. I am not sure what Art Directors you are working with but when we synthesize a concept for anything including brands, we integrate the words and the visual. We come up with the words that describe the concept we are portraying — the writer refines the words with the concept in mind, taking it to a higher level. Sometimes the words are first which is fine too. Either way, maybe you need to be working with art directors and writers who are in sync.

  • Bill Herring

    September 18, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Clever visual in the BMW example, but I believe there’s a disconnect between the image and the copy, which negates any credibility the piece may generate.

    The image, IMO, shows the effect of linear acceleration, or what happens when you let loose the 500 horsepower of an M5. You get pushed back in the seat.

    The copy line, however, refers to centrifugal force, which is what’s generated when you go hard around a corner.

    If they wanted to show the effect of centrifugal force, the puppy should be smashed up against the door panel.

    I’m surprised this got into production (assuming it did).

  • C

    September 20, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Funny, one of the very first things I thought I when I saw the ad was the old problem with centrifugal vs centripetal force… and it made me chuckle a little that they got that wrong. Especially since that is such a major issue in designing the ultimate driving machine…

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