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Does Your Brand Have a Visual Hammer? Laura Ries on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

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Matthew Grant
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
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This week's guest on the Marketing Smarts podcast is Laura Ries, branding consultant and author —most recently of Visual Hammer, a book focused on the importance of tying a brand's core message (the "verbal nail") to a striking visual image (the "visual hammer"). 

From Strategy to 'Visual Hammer'

Ries's premise is fairly straightforward: To leave a lasting impression on the mind of customers and potential customers, brands cannot rely on words alone. Rather, they must find a distinctive image that immediately communicates their brand message. They must rely on images rather than words to accomplish this because images wield a blunt, emotional force that words lack.

Paradoxically, however, the search for a visual hammer begins with words—to use Ries's metaphor, the "verbal nail." And deriving such a verbal nail from a company's branding strategy demands focus. 

"The problem at way too many companies and brands," she told me, "is they are trying to be all things to everybody."

"If that's what your strategy is," she added, "you're never going to have a powerful or effective message and you're never going to be able to think of a good visual hammer to go along with it."

You've Got to Be Narrow

Much of the work that companies need to undertake for honing their message and developing a visual hammer involves narrowing down what they want to communicate about themselves. The simple reason for this is that complex, multifaceted ideas are difficult to effectively verbalize and well nigh impossible to visualize.

Interestingly, Laura believes that thinking in terms of visualize-ability can guide us in the focusing process. Indeed, she goes so far as to say, "Sometimes you throw away maybe a better nail for one that is better visualized."

To illustrate her point she pointed to Volvo and BMW. In the case of Volvo, she said, the company could have gone with a basic message of durability on the road, but that's a little abstract. "Safety," on the other hand, could be quickly visualized by showing a car with the front-end smashed and the passenger compartment unscathed.

Similarly, BMW could have tried to emphasize the reliability of its vehicles, but that too is fairly abstract and difficult to illustrate without telling a drawn-out story. Instead, it settled on "driving" as the essence of the BMW brand, at which point the only visual hammer required was that of a sleek automobile zipping smoothly down the autobahn. 

What Are Words For?

Being a word guy, however, when speaking with Laura I felt that I had to come to their defense. Sure, images can produce an almost immediate emotional response—show a picture of a distressed child to a parent and you may very well provoke a visceral reaction—but can't words too have a palpable emotional impact?

"The thing with words," she said, "is you need a whole lot of them to get an emotional response."

"In branding," she continued, "you don't have time to write three chapters to get people emotional. No one gives you that."

It boils down to a question of time. While you need to use your words, as parents like to say, to capture the essence of your brand and the feelings you want to evoke in your customers and potential customers, in the instant that people encounter your brand on- or offline, it all comes down, in Laura's eyes, to the visual.

Still, even she was almost wistfully about what one might do with the undeniable power of words.

"Believe me," she said, "if we could get people to read an 800 page book on my brand, I could really sell something!"

If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Laura, you may listen above or download the mp3 and listen at your leisure. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

This marketing podcast was created and published by MarketingProfs.

This episode features:

Laura Ries, President of Ries & Ries, based in Atlanta, Georgia. She has been working for 18 years with her father and partner Al Ries, the legendary Positioning pioneer. Together they consult with companies around the world on brand.

Matthew T. Grant, PhD is Director of Content Strategy at Aberdeen Group. You can find him on Twitter (@MatttGrant) or his personal blog.

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  • by Liam Shannon Wed Oct 10, 2012 via web

    I must say that this article is way too simplistic. For starters, a brand is the promise of an experience not a single advertisement. Second, brands exist in the minds of consumers not on the page of a magazine or a commercial on tv. As such, brands need to be made up more than either words or pictures - they need to be built around consumer-insight driven ideas.
    On a side note, Volvo has had the same proof point throughout its history- steel frame construction. What has changed has been its target audience and therefore its positioning. In the '60s when it was introduced to the US as a brand targeted at young, basically cash-strapped early adopters, it was positioned as durable - look at the early Volvo campaigns. Now, as that audience has matured and moved upscale, the same steel frame construction is used to give permission to a positioning around safety as an audience who has arrived is more concerned with protecting what they have than having a car last. BMW on the other hand, had to distinguish itself from the other high end European cars and so chose to go with its racing and performance heritage over Mercedes engineering positioning.
    Besides these two examples, Ms. Reis' idea would work if there were only one or two competitors in a category. In reality, today brands have to compete within much more nuanced categories and so need to have more complex value propositions. Of course, it is good to be able to visualize your message. However, real genius lies neither in words nor pictures alone but in ideas that speak to a real audience need or desire.

  • by Nicholas Lester Wed Oct 10, 2012 via web

    You're kidding me, right? I can and have sold products with words only... try that with just an image. Remember the study about online dating? Women chose the man whose words were better over the man with the sexier photo. Words don't convey emotion? "To be or not to be," I suppose is unemotional which is why the entire world knows the line regardless of language.

    I'm stunned. The Nike logo without Let's Do It is nothing. When BMW moved away from The Ultimate Driving Machine they lost business. Their images didn't change.

    Silent movies are dead... we like words.

    Oh, I forgot, people don't read anymore... people like Ms. Reis have been peddling that line for three decades, yet it has NEVER been true.

    Marketing narratives, life's narratives require emotional and logical components to be effective. Images can help open the emotional path and more easily allow the words to get through... that's it.

    Wow... every two bit graphic artist is now you're best marketer... have you ever worked with these guys? C'mon I expect more from MarketingProfs.

  • by Deb Gray Sun Oct 21, 2012 via web

    I have to disagree with Mr. Lester's assertion that words alone can build a memorable and lasting brand.

    Yes, "to be or not to be," is powerful emotional stuff. But it took a five-act play to be so.

    If Nike's words were so integral to brand, he might have remembered it's Just Do It, not "let's do it."

    Silent movies dead? Wait, wasn't the latest Academy Award winner...

    Well, you get my drift. In think Ms Reis has - and I apologize in advance, nailed it.

  • by Simon Burn Mon Oct 29, 2012 via web

    Laura Ries is stating the absolute obvious regarding tying in a core message with a visual.

    Was it even worth making into an article? It appears it's all about flogging yet another book on branding... same old recycled content, dressed up with a new buzzword... *yawn*...

    I support what Liam Shannon said:

    "Of course, it is good to be able to visualize your message. However, real genius lies neither in words nor pictures alone but in ideas that speak to a real audience need or desire."

    Not your best article to date, Marketing Profs!

  • by Dinesh K Thu Sep 11, 2014 via web

    it is very good & easy to understand to visualize this article. This very effective & powerful message for all new marketing Profs.


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