Winning the Brand Wars through Visual Assets
“Something is happening. We are becoming a visually mediated society. For many, understanding of the world is being accomplished, not through words, but by reading images.” — Paul Martin Lester, “Syntactic Theory of Visual Communication”
While marketing researchers have recently been discussing the power of visual cues in regard to social media, this isn’t new. If anything, it corroborates what psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University found in studies: People recall 10 percent of what they hear, 20 percent of what they read, and 80 percent of what they see. To add even more weight to this: Educational researchers suggested in 2001 that 83 percent of human learning is visual in nature.1 Additionally, researchers at the Wharton School of Business found the combination of visual and verbal communication was most effective; 67 percent of people in an audience confirmed this when attending a conference of presentations.
What has changed is a world in which consumers have increasing demands placed on them; they are bombarded with stimuli almost 24/7, making them tune a great deal out. Added to that, consumers have less time and even less inclination to read. That’s why the power of visuals continues to increase, in my view, bringing us to the topic of packaging. The most effective package design leverages selective verbal brand communication, but only after it first attracts its core audience by emotive, resonant visual communication. Remember the classic adage before developing package design: “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
WHICH VISUAL ASSETS?
What excites fans about their favorite brands? And what turns consumers on to some brands over others for the first time? It’s seeing representations of these brands in an exciting visual manner. Nothing – not even a strong website or the effective use of social media – can deliver more punch than packaging. Packaging makes the brand concrete and invites consumers to interact with it, if developed properly. Structure, color and graphics all help to garner attention, but it’s imagery that makes emotional connections.
When consumers are in retail environments, one of three scenarios will happen. The packaging is so blasé or formulaic (has the expected category look and feel) that it is ignored. Structure, graphics and color are interesting, but the packaging visuals do not attract sufficient attention to prompt further examination of its verbal brand communication. Or, the visual assets on the package elicit full attention from consumers, to the exclusion of everything else on the shelf — prompting interaction (picking it up to read the verbal brand communication) and then purchase.
Well-chosen imagery tells a story; it’s meaningful and adds weight to verbal brand communication. It matches the brand’s values. It feels authentic and depicts the subject matter in a natural manner. Nothing looks cheesy, contrived or inappropriate to the brand’s positioning. There are likely additional backgrounds or visual cues that are central to the brand, but the packaging isn’t so busy that it’s impossible for consumers to focus on the key visual that conveys the brand best.
Visual assets should add brand value; they should represent the brand in consumers’ minds. When the brand is mentioned, a visual should come to mind first, and then the verbal concepts associated with the visual picture should be perceived, in order to be effective.
When deciding which brand assets ought to be visualized, it’s important to conduct research. What are the purchase drivers that consumers are mindful of when shopping for items within the product category? Which specific drivers differentiate one brand from all of the others? Which associations do consumers make in their minds about the brand? How are their shifting wants and needs determining what matters most now, and does that align with the current manner in which visual and verbal communication are expressed? Do subtle changes, or not so subtle ones, need to be made to address what’s relevant to consumers now? What is the brand’s value proposition, and does that clearly stand out on packaging?
When a key visual is developed, besides the brand identity, it ought to be retained, leveraged and consistently used in all marketing communication — including packaging. It stands for the brand as much as the logo does over time. For example, the Swoosh is immediately recognized by consumers around the globe: It says Nike. A red “hood ornament” superimposed over a shiny chrome V shape signifies the Disney Pixar Cars brand. A high-tech robotic mask denotes Hasbro’s Transformers. The golden arches stand for McDonald’s.
While other visuals might be contemporized over time on packaging, the key visual must remain the same. Few beverages are hotter than coconut water, and Vita Coco has found a way to show consumers — kids and adults — how hydrating it is using visuals of water droplets on its packaging and a palm tree and coconuts in place of letters on the brand identity.
When we think about each of these visual elements, we realize how central each is to the brand and its positioning; how each speaks eloquently of that brand and no other. Recognition is important but even more so are the brand assets that are called to mind by these visuals. No matter how many new products are introduced, keeping a key visual in place brings forth all of the emotions associated with the brand in the consumer’s mind. That is especially important for licensed brands, since consumer products can be launched in a myriad of categories.
LICENSING A RUNAWAY HIT
According to Mattel, the company had no idea that its launch of Monster High dolls in 2010 would become such a runaway hit with its target market. Kiyomi Haverly, vice president of design at Mattel stated: “Honestly, it was very surprising to us. We just noticed girls were into darker Goth fashion.” Just as brands like Twilight are aimed at girls aged 6-12, Monster High dolls are, too – and they’re cool and camp – rather than dark.
By 2013, Monster High’s pretty little “ghouls” had become a billion dollar brand for Mattel, with sales growth of 56 percent in 2013 alone, according to Cathy Cline, Mattel’s marketing executive overseeing girls’ brands. She observed: “And it’s also one of the fastest growing brands within the entire toy industry.” Cline attributes Monster High’s success in this manner: “The message about the brand is really to celebrate your own freaky flaws, especially as bullying has become such a hot topic.”
This is an important perspective. As Barbie sales have been flagging, Monster High sales are surging. Barbie was always the fashion-forward beauty that girls aspired to be; Monster High’s beauties are cool, off-beat and imperfect … perhaps just as today’s girls see themselves. The Ghoulfriends really do have classic “monster” backgrounds, yet each is a modern girl. For example, Draculaura, Dracula’s daughter, is a vegan, according to her backgrounder. Meat is a turn-off; she can’t stand the sight of blood. Cleo de Nile is the daughter of The Mummy and is 5,842 years old; Frankie Stein was the handmade invention of a mad scientist who built her from parts which sometimes fall off; and Operetta is the daughter of the Phantom of the Opera and very artsy.
While the ghoulish dolls are instantly recognizable to girls, the licensing of consumer products in many categories leverages two key visual assets: a pink-bowed “skullette” (a term of endearment among the brand’s fans) with large, black eye sockets edged by feminine long lashes and an MH shield-shaped badge reminiscent of a school insignia. These key visuals are symbolic of the brand and its values in a meaningful way. They deliver brand communication with more punch than verbal elements ever could.
For the devoted fans of Monster High, these visuals symbolize belonging to a special group; they’re just as important as the brand identity, if not more so. It’s fun for girls to seek out new consumer products in various categories by identifying the MH badge and skull in categories throughout retail environments. No matter how many knockoffs might appear, Monster High presents itself as a one-of-a-kind brand, one that young girls have adopted on an emotional level.
WHAT COMES FIRST: VISUAL OR VERBAL?
Does all of this mean that most verbal brand communication should be eliminated? No, it doesn’t. What it does mean is that since people are visual, attracting consumers by leveraging powerful visual communication is the first order of business when it comes to packaging. Yet, it must be supported by selective, well-developed verbal communication to seal the deal. This puts the onus on brand managers to hone in on the verbal messages that are key to the brand and the product, eliminating everything else in the process. It also puts the onus on marketers to first develop brand embodying visuals … and that’s about more than having a well-developed brand identity and a nice product shot that looks like a billboard across the front panel of the package.
1. Thriving in Academe: A Rationale for Visual Communication, National Education Associate Advocate Online, December 2001