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Visuals Speak Louder than Words (based on the book ‘Visual Hammer’)

By Al Ries (Based on the book ‘Visual Hammer’ by Laura Ries)

Back in the 1970s, Jack Trout and I pioneered a new approach to branding called “Positioning.” Our book on the subject was published in 1981 and a 20th anniversary edition in 2001. So far, Positioning has sold more than 1.4 million copies, including 400,000 in China alone.

What is Positioning? To position a brand, you need to own a word in the mind. BMW owns “driving.” Mercedes owns “prestige.” Porsche owns “sports car.” Volvo owns “safety.”

Recently however, I have been rethinking my approach to Positioning, thanks to a book written by my daughter and partner, Laura Ries. Called “Visual Hammer,” the book points out that the best way to put a word in the mind is not with words, but with a visual. (Positioning might be the nail, but the hammer is even more important.)

Visual hammers have built brands like Aflac (the duck), Marlboro (the cowboy), and Susan G. Komen for the Cure (the pink ribbon).

Why are simple visuals like a duck, a cowboy, and a pink ribbon so effective in building brands? To understand why, you have to look inside the mind of a consumer.

Instead of one “generalized” brain, a consumer has two “specialized” brains. A left brain and a right brain. Among other things, the left brain deals primarily with words and logic, while the right brain deals primarily with visuals. Furthermore, the right brain is site of all emotions.

And emotion is the glue that holds some concepts in a person’s memory for years, even decades.

Think about your past. What events do you remember the most? Those events that raised your pulse rate and your blood pressure. Those events that were emotional. The day you got married. The day you had your car accident. The day you attended the Super Bowl.

Visuals have an emotional power that words or aural sounds do not. Observe people at a theater watching a movie. They’ll laugh out loud, sometimes even cry.

Now observe a person reading a novel, perhaps the same novel the motion picture was based on. Seldom will you see any outward signs of emotional involvement.

Yet most people treat words and visuals as if they were equivalent. Even worse, they think in words, they communicate in words, they live in a verbal world where visuals are what you use to “decorate” text, much like a medieval book.

Compare the word “baby” with a visual of a baby. There’s a big difference between how a mind absorbs these two different ways of communicating the same idea. A visual of a baby is perceived almost instantly in a person’s right brain. Not so with the word, “baby.”

Visuals Speak Louder Than Words

The word “baby” is actually a visual that first must be perceived in the right brain and then that perception is sent to the left brain, where the word is translated into a sound.

That takes time and effort, which many people don’t bother to do.

Walk down a street with many retail shops along with signs spelling out their names. How many of these verbal signs do you bother to read? Not many. What you tend to see and recognize are the visual hammers owned by some of these retail chains. The “Golden Arches” of McDonald’s. The “target” of Target. “Colonel Sanders” of KFC.

In spite of the obvious advantage of using a visual that is instantly recognized (as opposed to words which take time and effort to understand), very few retail chains have developed visual hammers. Most retail chains depend on words for their signs.

Many retail chains, as well as many brands, have trademarks, of course. But a trademark is not necessarily the same as a visual hammer. How many consumers would recognize these two trademarks? Not too many; although they belong to the world’s largest retailer. (These two trademarks are used by Walmart and Sam’s Club, which together had sales of $447 billion last year).

In general, a trademark is not a visual hammer, although it can become one, especially if it is used by the leading brand in a category.

Why is this so? Because the trademark of a leading brand like Nike doesn’t just say Nike. It also says “leadership.”

But what do the trademarks of brands like Reebok and Adidas say? If you recognize them at all, these trademarks just say Reebok and Adidas, nothing else.

As a general principle, almost all brands have trademarks, but few brands have visual hammers. How do you develop a visual hammer for your brand? The first thing to ask yourself is, What do I want my brand to stand for? In 1974, for example, BMW was a small brand on the global market. In America that year, BMW sold only 15,007 vehicles, making it the 28th largest-selling auto brand.

Here is the headline of a typical BMW advertisement from that year. If that’s what BMW wanted to say, then developing a visual hammer would be impossible.

So for most brands, the first thing to do is to “narrow the focus.” Only a narrow, specific idea can be visualized.

The following year, BMW introduced an advertising campaign with the slogan, “The ultimate driving machine.” That was the brand’s verbal nail. And the visual hammer that drove the “driving” idea into prospects’ minds was a series of television commercials showing happy owners driving their BMWs over winding roads. Today, BMW still uses the same “driving” idea and as a result, BMW has become a very successful global brand. Last year, BMW sold 1,222,800 vehicles on the global market, making it the world’s largest-selling luxury-vehicle brand, ahead of Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and Lexus. But how many automobile brands have visual hammers like BMW? The only other one is Mercedes-Benz and it’s purely by accident.

Many people consider Mercedes-Benz to be the most prestigious motor vehicle. Hence its Tri-Star trademark is a visual symbol that says “leadership in prestigious automobiles.”

As more and more businesses go global, you will see a greater emphasis on a visual approach to marketing rather than a verbal approach. A visual can cross borders without translations, a useful advantage in a world with hundreds of different languages.

Consider KFC, now the leading fast-food restaurant chain in China with more than 3,800 units in 800 cities. To most Chinese people, the letters “K F C” mean nothing, but Colonel Sanders is known as a famous American and the leading fried-chicken brand.

And consider Coca-Cola, the world’s most valuable brand, worth $70.5 billion, according to Interbrand, a global consultancy.

One reason Coke has been able to conquer the world, is its visual hammer, its old-fashioned “contour bottle.” They don’t sell many of these bottles, but the visual communicates the authenticity of the brand. It’s the original cola, the real thing.

Coca-Cola has been using its visual hammer on cans, cups, trucks, advertising, billboards, calling cards, you name it. Very successfully too. Recently, Diet Coke passed regular Pepsi to become the second largest cola brand in the U.S. market.

Meanwhile over at PepsiCo, they are frantically trying to turn things around, starting with new management for its Pepsi-Cola brand, Brad Jakeman from Australia. Earlier this year, Mr. Jakeman invited Advertising Age to visit its Beverage Lab. Here is how the publication described its visit.

“For nearly two hours, Mr. Jakeman screened internal presentations, detailed months of consumer research and candidly discussed where the brand has excelled and where it has fallen short. He laid out a road map for returning Pepsi to pop-culture relevance, growing sales, creating a cohesive design system, and invigorating employees. And he explained precisely what makes Pepsi different from Coke.”

I wonder if Mr. Jakeman realizes the real reason Coca-Cola is different from Pepsi-Cola.

Coke has a visual hammer and Pepsi doesn’t.





Al Ries is chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing consulting firm he runs with his daughter and partner Laura Ries. Their website is: Laura’s book, Visual Hammer, is available as a digital book from Amazon or Apple’s iTunes.


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