Marketing folks often talk of the importance of developing a “brand image” or “corporate image,” since these images presumably help the brand from an equity standpoint. Bur rare on lips of marketing professionals is consideration of using “imagery.”

Images or Imagery?

A brand image is a mental model of what a brand stands for. Brand images are important, no doubt. But imagery is something different altogether—it's the process of representing something in our minds using our senses. Imagery occurs when we picture something in our minds and imagine the way it looks, feels, tastes, and so on.

Why should we care about imagery? Isn't this the domain of eggheaded cognitive psych academics? It sure it is, but we can learn a lot about how to make messages more memorable and persuasive if we try to understand what they've learned from years of research.

Imagine It - Understand It

Our academic friends show us that we've got to be concerned about putting too much information in ads. Too much information creates information overload—meaning that consumers aren't likely to either process ad information or remember it. Do those technically laden computer ads ring a bell here? But imagery isn't susceptible to overload. The reason is that the more information you are asking people to think about the more you are building on their imagery of the product. Details provide richness that builds the image. Richly developed images, in turn, help consumers better understand what the product is and why they might want it.

Imagine It - Remember It

Research has also taught us that we usually remember something better and for much longer periods of time if we imagine it. People asked to picture an apple, for example, compared to the word “apple” are more likely to remember apples, pick out apples from a list of objects they've seen on a previous task, and call them to mind when making a choice about what to eat. From a marketing standpoint, this means that whenever possible, we should get consumers to imagine our brand name, our brand logo, and benefits our brand can achieve since the imagery they evoke will create better brand name recall, higher brand recognition, better recognition of logos, and better claim recall—all very important communication objectives.

Imagine It - Want it

Aside from its impact on learning and memory though, imagery can be used to make products more desirable. Consider, for example, an ad for a beautiful vacation resort—say in Cabo San Lucas. Looking at that ad, you start to imagine how great it would be to be on vacation. You imagine basking in the warm sun, drinking margaritas under a palm tree, feeling the wind blowing gently on your back, reading that steamy novel you've been wanting to read. Right then and there, this ad has been successful in creating “problem recognition.” It's gotten you to think about how much you need a vacation and how great Cabo might be as a vacation choice. Consumers won't buy something if they don't see it as something they need or want. Imagery can stimulate desire.

Imagine Experiencing the Product — Like It

But there's more. Consider two resort ads. One contains information about the sumptuous room, the spa, the romantic restaurant. The other talks about how these attributes of the resort will make you feel. This ad incorporates a character into your imagery—you. It asks you to imagine not just the product, but you using and experiencing the benefits that it has to offer. Research shows that imagery involving the self experiencing the benefits of the product is much more persuasive than imagery of just the product alone. If you want consumers to like your product, get them to not just imagine your product, but to imagine using it—and having great results.

Imagine It — Expect It

Not only might consumers like your product more if they can imagine themselves using it and experiencing what it has to offer, research shows that imagery can also affect their expectations about the product and the likelihood that they'd buy it. One study, for example, found that consumers who imagined themselves using cable TV were more likely to subscribe to cable TV. Consumers who imagine having a great time using the product, or having it solve some problem they have, will expect that it will actually deliver. These expectations can influence the likelihood that they'll buy the product. Here's the rub though: If they expect your product to deliver something and it doesn't they're not going to be too happy. So imagery without substance runs the risk of creative dissatisfaction if what they imagined doesn't pan out.

Stimulating Imagery

So, if imagery's so great, how do we get people to do it? There are lots of ways and we're still learning about which may be most effective and why.

Pictures and Concrete Words. People seem to be able to imagine things better if you give them a picture—because it provides something concrete that they can then image. Even if something is presented as a word it can be imaginable if it's concrete as opposed to abstract. For example, consumers are more likely to remember a brand of bread named, say, “Brown Kettle,” than a brand named “Pride” because they can picture a brown kettle in their mind. They'd have a much more difficult time calling to mind an image of “Pride” because it's an abstract word.

Imagery Instructions. A more direct way to stimulate imagery is to ask consumers to engage in it. You might say, “picture this,” or “imagine this” and then tell them the features and benefits of your brand. Imagery instructions might be particularly good when using media like radio where it's impossible to present pictures. One caveat about imagery instructions—they're not going to work in stimulating imagery if you target market is first time buyers in the product category. They don't have any prior experience using the product, so on what basis can they imagine using it?

Also, let's be clear that in order to imagine something, we need to focus attention on the image we're building in our head and not get distracted by things happening in the environment (have you ever tried to meditate when a two year old was screaming “Mommy!”—it doesn't work). If we've got a lot of other things going on in an ad—music, voice-overs, lots of different scenes—it may interfere with consumers' abilities to attend to the image in their heads. For this reason, imagery instructions might be more effective with print than with broadcast media because consumers can control whether, when, and to what extent they process information from the ad (vs. attend to the image in their heads).

Guided Imagery. One of the potential problems with imagery instructions is that consumers can fill in their own images—images that may not always be positive and which may be idiosyncratic to experiences they've had. For example, let's say you ask consumers to imagine owning a particular car—say a Mercedes. What if they've already owed a Mercedes and it was a lemon? Imagining a Mercedes is going to call to mind memories of how often the car broke down, how it frustrated them, how it created anxiety over whether they'd actually be able to get to where they wanted to go reliably and on time. Because consumers can fill in the details with their own (not always positive) imagery experiences, sometimes we're better off being very explicit about what we want them to imagine. We call this guided imagery because we're actually directing imagery content.

Imagery is nothing more than movies in our heads. You know how powerful movies can be in affecting what you understand, remember, like and expect. What you may not realize is the power of the internal movies that consumers generate themselves.

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image of Debbie MacInnis

Dr. Deborah J. MacInnis is the Charles L. and Ramona I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, and a co-author of Brand Admiration: Build a Business People Love. She has consulted with companies and the government in the areas of consumer behavior and branding. She is theory development editor at the Journal of Marketing, and former co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. Professor MacInnis has served as president of the Association for Consumer Research and vice-president of conferences and research for the American Marketing Association's Academic Council. She has received the Journal of Marketing's Alpha Kappa Psi and Maynard awards for the papers that make the greatest contribution to marketing thought. She is the co-author of a leading textbook on consumer behavior and is co-editor of several edited volumes on branding.