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"). 

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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!

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