When your visuals appeal to the people you are trying to reach, it’s a very good thing.
Visuals typically consist of photography, illustration, and infographics. Unlike language which must be listened to or read, they convey a lot of information instantly. So you do not need to read to the end of a sentence to conjure up an idea in your head, or read several paragraphs to understand what a story is about, instead, an image will convey a lot simultaneously. The viewer decides “Yes, this is for me,” or “No, this is repelling to me.” Often, their response is “Meh, just passing over this because it is uninteresting or invisible to me.” In design school, they teach us that people “read before they read,” meaning they take in a lot of information and make decisions about things before they get to reading. Because images communicate very quickly, they are often the first thing people look at to determine if they are interested in the writing that accompanies the image. The same applies to meeting people, but we can jump to that in a minute.
Yes, this is for me.
If an image is compelling—if I like it, for whatever reason—I am going to explore more deeply. I am going to be predisposed to like the entity more or believe that it’s credible. If a topic is interesting to me and an image brings it to life or helps me understand the topic better, I will look at it. It doesn’t mean I have to like the content. I personally have no desire to look at images of suffering animals, but it will likely grab my attention, and I will probably take in the caption if not the whole article.
No, this is not for me.
Our worlds are already too complicated as it is. Anything I can reject, I will, as an act of self-preservation. If I do not like an image, I am going to pass it by. For me, an image of beer is not of interest, but there are millions of others for whom that image will resonate. For some, if an image includes many women in bikinis, it’s even better. Now, show me an image of baby animals in a natural setting and you’ve got me.
Meh, it’s invisible to me.
This is incredibly common. If the image is super uninteresting, the likelihood that it will permeate the person’s consciousness is quite low. A viewer may not respond to a visual at all. What’s interesting is that it’s hard to distinguish between the “No” response and the “Meh” response. After nearly thirty years of marketing, I’ve found that “Meh” is the dangerous one. It is the one that will go unnoticed because presumably, the company liked what they put out into the world. They are in the “Yes” camp. How many people is it invisible to? Good marketing is about attracting the people you want to attract and repelling the people you don’t.
Suffice it to say that every viewer carries his/her/their own taste, associations, and biases. And audiences are composed of people with overlapping or shared interests and values.
Yes, No, Meh; Speed Dating
The fastest way to hit this home is to consider dating apps where people are putting their likenesses on display. In short, people want to look like their best selves in the hopes of attracting someone that they might be attracted to. The person chooses what he or she thinks looks good and then others decide what he or she thinks looks good.
It makes sense. Everything about the choice of photo, including what the person is wearing and where they are located provides clues to what that person is about. That person may be on the deck of a sailboat in the Aegean sea. And that person is dressed well.
Out in the world, you see an inordinate amount of images of people in cars. For starters, the lighting conditions in the front seat of a car are flattering. Then, because so many people “market” themselves with images taken in cars, others may very well think that they ought to have a car shot. And if the car in the picture so happens to be a VW Van or a pickup truck or a limousine, there is even more information for the viewer to glom onto. Some people include professional photography of themselves. Presumably, they attract the kind of people who are attracted to someone who does professional photoshoots of themselves. This polish will repel others. From a strategic perspective, it would be good to look compelling enough in the photo to be attractive, but not so good as to deliver a kind of disappointment in real life. This is where having a friend to help you comes in. You can choose photos that are a good representation of how you look in real life. For us, and in marketing, a good image is a real image. It is not a fabrication that lies. In the case of dating, people will find out the truth eventually.
TYPES OF IMAGERY
The main categories of imagery include photography, illustration, and infographics. The role of Instagram and Pinterest in modern western civilization is a testament to the power of the image. The barrier to entry with imagery is lower than language. Everyone can have an opinion about imagery that they like and be 100% right for themselves.
Most importantly, you want to have imagery that aligns with your brand. In other words, you want imagery that literally embodies who you are. Your image choices will shape what people think and feel about your product, or service, or organization. We aren’t only talking about content, but style and execution. Whether the image communicates the right thing overtly or just subconsciously, it invites a response. Those who are leaders are out in front having to reinvent their visuals or maintain a level of quality, or consistency, or innovation over time, because the followers are right behind them. If your brand design is following, your imagery will likely attempt to look like that of your competitors.
Over time, there is less and less custom imagery being requested. For years, the norm was to hire photographers and/or illustrators to make custom images. We would plan and conduct photoshoots. We would sketch up all kinds of loose ideas and pair them with stylistic samples of an artist’s work and ask people to squint their eyes and imagine. There was something rather exciting about making imagery for a client. It still happens, it is just less frequent than it used to be. And it can sometimes feel a bit riskier to a client who wants to know exactly what they are going to get.
It probably goes without saying that people want to see visuals of things that interest them. My stepmother recently got remarried to a lovely guy who happens to love airplanes. He cannot get enough of them. His entire Instagram feed is full of airplanes and cute images of her. One of my daughters loves puppies. The other loves all things related to urban street culture. My husband is obsessed with travel to remote locations.
In school, I was taught that people in the western world are most attracted to images of themselves. Continuing in descending order, they are attracted to images of people they know, particularly those who they aspire to be like, then images of people they almost know (aka celebrities), then to living things with eyes (particularly babies), living things like trees and flowers, then inanimate objects and so on.
People have personal biases towards colors as do cultures. Color has an immediate effect on most people. For whatever it is worth, the most appealing color on earth is blue and the second runner up is green. But I digress.
The Power of Real Moments
People are fairly adept at ascertaining authenticity. We are attracted to images of real experiences, real gatherings, weddings, days at the beach—images that were not masterminded. In this way, documentary photography, photojournalism, wedding photography—basically photography of real events that are not photoshoots—are the most powerful.
The Blessing of Stock Imagery
For relatively little money, people have access to images—vast libraries of images that you search for with keywords. Today, there are a bajillion stock photo houses online, and some include images that are free. There are websites, like the nounproject.com, where you find a library of generic infographics for free (when you credit the artist) or to which you can purchase the rights for very little money. Rather than planning a photoshoot and paying for photographers, or finding an illustrator, or drawing infographics from scratch, these websites can be an absolute godsend. They save time and money. If we need an image of a sky or an image of walnut paneling, it’s all there. And if we need an image of a certain type of woodfinch found in southwestern Tasmania, there are choices. Spectacular images of the natural world are available within seconds, so you need not head to the northern lights or the Antarctic for images of penguins. I have to imagine that images of the sky must be used more than any other image on earth and they are available for free.
The Curse of Stock Imagery
The ubiquity of generic stock photography means companies can shape perception quite easily and look the same. Among the worst offenders are the ones that are cast for diversity, which communicate the idea of racial equity and inclusion. Images of diversity, in which all colors of people are curated into a single moment, each person smiling from ear to ear, are a dime a dozen. You can visualize the models heading home for the day after the photoshoot, check in hand. My colleagues and I often muse about building a stock photo resource with imagery in which no one is smiling. It is simply impossible to represent life accurately if people are only represented when smiling.
It is not uncommon to see the same image being used for different companies. Certain industries are particularly prone to this—banking and insurance come to mind. It becomes harder to discern what is genuine.
Use Stock With Care
It can take many hours, if not days, to dig through imagery—and once you find what you are looking for, it can cost up to $750 or so to purchase the rights. And, again, you might not be the only one in your industry to use that image. There is no power in an image that is passed over and ignored. Stock imagery can be a godsend, but it can also make your business look like a sham.
Imagery by Industry
Think simply about Airbnb images. Think about all the information that comes in about those houses. Out of those you can afford, you choose the one that appeals to you most. I am quite confident that the rentals with the best images perform infinitely better than ones with poor images. I probably don’t need to explain this to you.
We have expectations around what kind of imagery will work in certain contexts. At fast-food chains, the food must be lit perfectly—even steaming—or in fact, be moving, whenever possible. If the owner of a new fast-food restaurant was to decide to shoot photography on her smartphone, she might very well kill the business before it gets started. Or, if her food is good enough, the images might give her an edgy, DIY look that garners a cult following. If her business turns into a national chain, you had better believe they will be doing extravagant photoshoots of moving food in no time. Photos of food often indicate a tourist restaurant. In America, photos of food do not occur for fine eating establishments. In Asia, photos of food, even in fine restaurants, are relatively common.
High Fashion is about aspiration or fantasy. The imagery in this instance is absolutely the epicenter of their marketing. Companies will retain the finest fashion photographers on earth, who are typically disarmingly personable and can make people relax in front of a camera. These companies afford supermodels, knowing that their beauty and celebrity reflects back, both on the company itself, and on the customers. These companies are selling brands more than clothes—knowing that a promise of the life they portray is where the financial returns will come from. More affordable items like fragrances, sunglasses, and wallets, will sell to the masses, enabling people to make a statement about who they are.
If a company is actually trying to sell clothes from images, the selection of models matters profoundly. The return on investment in the right model is profoundly real. Models come in all body types and the model absolutely needs to appear to fit your clothing. One of the reasons models have to be as thin as they are is because the camera will automatically add nearly 10 lbs of weight, and a small model, with the help of pins and clamps, can fit into more clothes. For clothes to fit really well, it requires that you cast people in your clothes, include alterations on set if necessary, and hire a stylist with a tool belt full of pins and clamps to make the clothes look like they fit on the body. There’s a profound amount of technical skill required to capture the quality of clothing, but that’s for another article.
I am reminded of an image that a fashion client ran for many years of a handsome guy in what was called the Teddy Bear Big Shirt. It was the dawn of fleece. Every time they would attempt to replace the image, sales suffered. There was something about the model, and the way the light hit the pile on the fleece and his dark tousled hair that simply worked for many years.
Imagery by Culture
Just like what is “good” to one person may not be good to another, the same applies to cultures. I was recently in Japan. Evidently, many people think a good visual includes multigenerational businessmen in suits conferring with a very attractive young woman wearing an animal costume. It seemed like three out of five images included these ingredients. Sometimes only one guy, sometimes several girls in animal costumes. It was a great reminder of how what is considered “good” is often good for a specific group of people or culture.
Imagery and cliches
Clichés are clichés precisely because they communicate so effectively. On the one hand, the cliché is effective, and on the other, it must be executed well, or else people might not pay attention in certain contexts. Or you may run into the same danger as that of ubiquitous stock imagery.
An image of the sun’s rays shooting through the forest and evoking the quality of God will work for the cover of a spiritual magazine. It may also be perfect on a condolence card.
We had a new healthcare client say, “Please, no matter what, do not show us an image of an old wrinkled hand holding a child’s hand. If we see one more of those…” Be careful with clichés.
THE PEOPLE SELECTING THE IMAGERY
Are you the customer that you are trying to reach?
So the power of visuals in your marketing begins with this question. A good visual is subjectively good. One must always begin by asking yourself if you are in fact a good representation of your customer. If the answer is yes, then we set up for one conversation. If not, we need to have another. It won’t surprise you when I say that people often make decisions about what they like, in terms of imagery, without thinking about what might resonate with their customer.
When you are not your customer
If you are not your customer, then you need to accept this reality. Let it sink in. Then, go hire someone who will be able to communicate effectively with them. This is where you hire designers who will know how to create imagery that will resonate with your customers.
If you want to appeal to teenagers, you might very well be safe to hire very young designers. But if you are wanting to appeal to adults, and hire a teenager—who is likely to create visuals that appeal to their own personal tastes—this can present problems. It’s a phenomenon that sort of warms my heart because people do get what they pay for. When you hire experts, you are hiring expertise that was hand earned over many years of making mistakes. (Whoa, that model has a very big head and makes the other model look like pinheads.)
When you are not representative of your customers and don’t hire professionals, at least get input from a few real customers. There’s one rule though: Do not ask, “What do you like?” But instead, ask, “What does this approach make you think about this business?” and “Will you actually want to buy this one instead of that one?” A lot of times, what people say they “like” isn’t what they buy. And to do all this, you first need designers to create choices for your target audience to respond to. Photographers and illustrators can either search for visuals that will resonate with your audience, or create them from scratch. Believe it or not, despite the millions of stock images available, there are simply some visuals that do not exist yet in the world.
Normally, companies are trying to make money. To do so, they want to appeal to people who will spend money on the offering at hand. How many times have I seen a mature company ask a twenty-year-old to design for a 40-year-old audience, and the visuals do not work? If you are charged with creating images by a value-based copy like American Eagle, you will appeal to teenagers who want stuff that looks like Abercrombie and Fitch. Your visuals reflect your values and choices. They communicate something both consciously and subconsciously. The professionally lit image of the slice of steaming hot pie from Granny’s oven is different from the one you just snapped on your iPhone. Each image carries an entire story behind it.
When you are your customer!
And if YES, you are the customer yourself, then you are free to choose what appeals to you and the audience will follow. Sometimes, a person’s personal taste and individual point of view is so narrow as to not appeal to enough customers so you have to watch for that. I have been in many conversations where I believe an audience could be much bigger if only the visuals were more inviting and inclusive. When a business is already doing well enough, it’s not an easy case to make.
People are essentially marketing themselves these days via Pinterest boards, Instagram, and Facebook feeds. Some prefer private boards but it’s worth remembering that cork boards and refrigerators have enabled people to collect images that make them happy and reinforce their preferred sense of self for quite some time. Being able to choose which images are YES is entertaining. Millions of people take great pleasure in curating and assembling images that reflect themselves, their interests, and their values. It’s FREE.
Visuals have the potential to demonstrate that you are what you say you are.
Historically, humans trust what they can see with their eyes more than what they hear or read. We’ve all heard “Talk is cheap.” A magnificent church filled with images in stained glass literally embodies a connection to the eternal. An island at sunset makes us grateful to be alive. The image of ourselves at our first birthday, smothered in cake, will always be a great image. The dorky images of the junior prom with the bad hair mean we were there. People love and trust images. It follows that businesses attract the audiences they deserve because of how they choose to represent themselves. In other words, visuals set up for a kind of honest connection with an audience. The synapses fire in real-time and people tend to know when something is phoney baloney (if not at first, then eventually). This is always rather comforting to me. People attract people depending on how they show up in the world. Businesses attract people in much the same way. They will get back what they deserve.
A good visual is good to someone specifically. Imagery that is not good (or a NO to you) might be a YES to someone else. After nearly thirty years of helping businesses and individuals market themselves, we help them connect with their audience, first and foremost. For us, a good image is a real image. It is not a fabrication that lies and if it did, it gets found out. People will find out eventually. When good images reach the right people, they have immense power to shape perception in ways that build trust.