Visual culture today

We don’t live in the communication age. That would be an insult to communication, which on some level is supposed to be communicative. We live in a visual communication age. About 4 million people consume visual information every day on the internet. Images, memes, emojis, emails, GIFs, tweets, YouTube videos, Instagram. Each internet user has an opportunity to interpret pixels at light speed. And especially in the western world, visual culture reigns supreme. 

“We live in a visually intensive society.” Some of the greatest ideas have been communicated in these visual metaphors: the American Dream, the Japanese aesthetic, Bharath Mata, the black flag, the pride colors, Burberry’s edgy elegance, the Versace scowl, and Amanda Gorman’s not-so-tired imagery in the inaugural verse. Pictures have never been more powerful and there can be no words without images. And visual culture can create, communicate, and reproduce cultural identity. This ranges from architecture to apparel, from national identity to ideological notions and more.

After the image-dominated Facebook, the hyper-visual Instagram became cool, both combing the emotions of a social app with a photo album. Camera phones have refocused our attention from our own noses into the world. The beauty of it is no accident and is not just about photographs but conversations about them. Building conversations around your product and service is an important part of consumer research. And whipping them up with images and visual metaphors will by far be your most important branding decision.  

Visual communication beats 

There is more to seeing than simply sensing imagery. Seeing is also dependent upon memory a done’s ability to interpret said imagery.

Aldous Huxley, 1894 – 1963

Fact check

Just so we’re clear and certain, here’s the science.

  1. Half of the human brain is directly or indirectly devoted to processing visual information. The retina contains 150 million light-sensitive rod and cone cells. Neurons that process visual cues and objects occupy about 30% of the cortex while it is only 8% for touch and 3% for hearing. Both the optic nerves are made up of a million fibers while each auditory nerve carries only 30,000. 
  2. Visual information processing is more sophisticated than other sensory information. We can process vertical or horizontal orientation, color, size, shape, movement, and distinctions between overlapping objects.
  3. The brain process images that are seen for as little as 13 milliseconds. The brain can identify images from point to point in brief movements called fixations about three times per second. 
  4. At least 65 % of people are “visual learners”. According to the Index of Learning Styles (ILS), at least 65% of people are visual learners. Other studies have estimated that the proportion of visual learners to other learning styles is even higher, some as high as 80%.
  5. We have a remarkable ability to remember pictures than words. We can remember about 2000 pictures with at least 90 % accuracy in recognition tests for several days, even with they are presented for a brief moment. This is perhaps because picture memory is superior and it automatically engages with multiple representations and associations with other knowledge.
  6. Visual presentations are 43% more persuasive than non-visual presentations.
  7. What we see can influence what we hear. The ‘McGurk Effect’ is a perceptual illusion that mismatches audio-visual stimuli even if it is coming from different sources. But what is interesting is that what we see overrides what we can hear.

Perhaps Arthur Berger had a point. Seeing may be believing, after all.

Visual communication in market research

Chief research scientists ay foresees a shift from text-heavy Internet to a more visual one. This is going to be the default mode of communication in the digital world. In the process of storyboarding and audience profiling, images have multiple benefits:

  • They help envision the finished product in advance, which is also low-cost prototyping of sorts.
  • The sequence allows teams to collaborate easily over the life cycle of product development.
  • It can help eliminate inconsistencies early on.
  • Storyboarding can help create a realistic list of resources and expenses.
  • It helps overcome procrastination and streamlines effort.

Visual metaphors in consumer research

“The world rewards the people who are best at communicating ideas, not the people with the best ideas.” – David Perell

Today, 80% of the value of the S&P 500 is comprised of intangible assets. We also know that 70% of people consider themselves visual learners. Between your business challenge and brand, positioning is an enormous white space of opportunities. A space waiting to reflect the emotions, aspirations, needs, fears, and hopes of your customer. And just because branding has to do with unquantifiable emotions, it doesn’t have to be any less logical. Your systematic approach to market research and branding can start with a list of different values and benefits. 

We already know of metaphor elicitation techniques. One such list developed by the likes of Milton Rokeach, Steve Reiss, and Shalom H. Schwartz establishes links between a certain value-based image culture and motivated decision making. Studies show how it adds value to usage and attitude, brand equity, segmentation, innovation, and customer experience. And how it only deepens meaning from spontaneous responses by adding subjective dimensions implicitly.

Think of the American beauty market, for instance. What is the experience of being a woman in the US today? We have brown band-aids. The nude-is-not-a-colour movement. Body positivity influencers. Beauty brands consciously promoting diversity and inclusivity celebrating the aspirations, motivations, struggles, and triumphs of more and more women. 

Metaphors in this market may be customer evangelists publishing everyday things that are relatable. These metaphors are more intuitive and help avoid over-rationalization while generating deeper and more granular levels of meaning that are both verbal and visual. And at the end, if it, you learn more about what people really think and feel about your brand. User-generated content actually becomes solid fodder for customer research in well-managed circumstances. 

The common thread

Language is a human construct, and so are visual cues. But something about seeing unlocks raw and rich potential in communication. Perhaps it is something to do with what Berger was saying? 

Seeing helps build more meaningful communities. It helps identify the core and associative values of your customers. Images give symbolic, psychological, and commercial meaning to purchase decisions while allowing users to take the wheel.

Yes, there’s a premium placed on inclusivity and diversity in brand communication in progressive societies. Its origins may also lie in the massive market opportunity in opening up diverse target groups. The more inclusive your market segments, the richer the community, and the more meaningful your brand message. The common thread that runs through market research, the community and the brand is visual information and communication.