Humans are wired for images. The most effective brands leverage this.
Compare these two things:
Look away. Then answer for yourself which of the two better captured your attention and memory: the words or the photo?
The Blendtec blender could have been just another blender in a sea of utilitarian kitchen gadgets. But its inventor, Tom Dickson, used imagery to capture attention and persuade. Blendtec’s promise is “super-powerful blending,” and Dickson showed, rather than told of, that promise being delivered. Dressed as a mad scientist, Dickson filmed himself challenging his Blendtec to blend shockingly difficult objects, such as marbles and iPhones. He did not need to say “super-powerful blending” because the viewer sees the power without words. The original “Will It Blend?” video so captured our attention that it went viral before “going viral” was a thing.
Imagery rules. At a neurological and emotional level, it crushes in effectiveness even when compared to excellent copy. This is because images feed our brains the way that our brains are designed to consume. Storytelling through imagery is a brand’s superhighway to persuasion and recall.
People perceive and grasp an image at lightning speed – 60,000 times faster than we process text.
In the course of human development, language is wildly new to our brains, and therefore wildly slow. While words must go through the slow prefrontal cortex for processing, our brain stems process images in a flash.
People remember images with drastically higher accuracy than they do text, and for a longer period of time. In one study described in John Medina’s fascinating book, Brain Rules, people could remember more than 2,500 pictures with at least 90 percent accuracy several days later.
When you use imagery with your audience, you do the cognitive heavy lifting for your audience, supporting their ability to remember you.
Imagery invites participation, and sidesteps debate.
Effective storytelling invites the audience to participate. Persuasion is most potent when the audience reaches the conclusion themselves. They envision what comes next in the story, anticipating and co-creating the persuasion. They believe the conclusion because they helped generate it. The more participatory your story, the more the audience is moved by it. They do not debate their own conclusion as they might debate your conclusion.
The best storytelling invites that participation by leaving room for the audience to interpret. These stories show, rather than tell.
Instead of telling the audience that this blender is super-powerful, the image shows a blender successfully dicing an iPod. The audience constructs the conclusion “super-powerful blender” themselves. They like their own conclusion more than one you could have given to them. They will embrace it, believe it and remember it.
Imagery is significantly more successful at gaining the attention and memory of our audience. It turns out that neurologists have been studying and quantifying this effect for more than a hundred years, and they have a name for it: the “pictorial superiority effect.”
Think about visual imagery from an evolutionary perspective. We humans have spent most of our species’ history on the savannah. In the early years, our job was to discern stimuli, avoid the ones that posed threats (a lion’s subtle movement from the distance), and approach the ones that would sustain us with life (prey, water sources, reproductive opportunities).
We modern humans have the same hardware now as during paleolithic times – brains evolved to ensure we avoid threat and approach survival-sustaining activities.
Text is recent to our species. While our brains are fast and reliable with imagery, having honed the ability over millennia, we are slow and unreliable with the written word. Text did not help us avoid threats, gain food or approach mates until very recently, so survival did not optimize us for text.
Furthermore, we now know from neurological examination that, according to our brains, there is no such thing as text. Text is just tons of tiny little pictures that our brains (sloooowwwwly) decode. Text perception is slow because our brain doesn’t see words. It sees pictures, which it translates into other pictures. As John Medina writes in Brain Rules, “Reading creates a bottleneck in comprehension. To our cortex, surprisingly, there is no such thing as words.”
How can we, as marketers and leaders and business owners, make use of this insight?
First, favor imagery over copy. Don’t let imagery be an afterthought. It works harder, faster, and more successfully than even the best copy. So use that power! Give at least as much thought to the visual imagery you choose as you do to copy. I’ve seen websites with punchy, clever copy coupled with stale stock photos. Invest in original, on-brand imagery. If you have to choose between imagery excellence and copy excellence, choose excellent imagery.
Second, keep letters and words to a minimum. If you can communicate a 10-word sentence in 3 words, do it. If you can communicate 3 words in one, do it. If you can use a short, non-SAT word, please do so.
Now that you know how vital imagery is to brand, you’ll start to notice it everywhere. Here are a few classic and contemporary examples to get you started:
When you tell stories to build your brand, don’t get so enamored by your witty copy that you lose the opportunity to communicate through imagery. Using imagery respects and accommodates the neurological hardware of your audience. Harness this, and your story will be better grasped, liked and remembered.
Lindsay is a Brand Strategist and Founder of Ironclad Brand Strategy, which builds brands using an exacting and analytic method. Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered a deep appreciation for the executive charge: to create sustainable value. Ironclad advises companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, IMDb, T-Mobile and Starbucks. Lindsay holds an MBA in Business from the University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business.