NEW BOOK: Visual Hammer
Forty years ago, Advertising Age published a series of articles by my father, Al Ries, and Jack Trout titled "The Positioning Era Cometh."
Nine years later, McGraw-Hill published their book "Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind." In the years that followed, "positioning" became one of the most talked-about concepts in the marketing community. In its 75th anniversary edition, Advertising Age selected positioning as one of its 75 “top ad moments.”
But as revolutionary as positioning was, it had a weakness. Invariably, positioning strategy was expressed verbally. You looked for a verbal hole in the mind and then you filled that hole with your brand name.
The best way into the mind is not with words. It’s with visuals. They can play a more important role in marketing than words because visuals hold emotional power that words alone do not. Emotion is the glue that sticks memories and brands into the mind.
Consider what the pink ribbon has done for Nancy Brinker. In 1982, Ms. Brinker started a foundation to fight breast cancer in memory of her sister, Susan G. Komen. Since then, the foundation has raised nearly $2 billion. Today, Susan G. Komen for the Cure is the world’s-largest non-profit source of money to combat breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society was founded in 1913, yet most people have no idea what visual symbol the society uses.
Here’s the difference: The Cancer Society has a trademark that is almost impossible to verbalize while Susan G. Komen has a visual hammer that is easy to verbalize.
Then there’s Aflac, the company that brought us the duck. In 2000, the first year the duck was advertised, sales went up 29%. The second year, 28%. The third year, 18%.
Before the duck, Aflac had a name recognition of 12%. Today, it’s 94%. (The duck is the hammer and the “quack” is the verbal nail. It’s the integration of the two that makes the brand so memorable.)
The advertising industry is hung up on trademarks and logotypes, but in reality they account for only a small percentage of visual hammers. Anything associated with a brand can become a hammer. Color, packaging, demonstrations, founders, celebrities. Even the product itself.
In 2010, Coca-Cola spent $267 million advertising its brand in the U.S. What was Coke's slogan? Most people don’t remember. What they do remember is the “contour” bottle.
The contour bottle is not just a bottle—it’s a visual hammer that hammers in the idea that Coke is the original, the authentic cola, the real thing. Even though Coca-Cola sells very little cola in contour bottles, the visual is strongly identified with the brand. And they reinforce the visual hammer by using the bottle image on its cans, cups, billboards, trucks and even business cards.
If Coke’s contour bottle says "the authentic cola," what does Pepsi's "smiley-face" trademark, introduced in 2008 to much fanfare, say? Pepsi's new smiley-face trademark says "Pepsi." In essence, it's a rebus, a visual symbol that’s a substitute for a brand name.
In fact, almost all trademarks are rebuses. After years of constant use, they can be recognized as symbols that stand for brand names. But trademarks don’t have to be meaningless.
Nike, for example, has the Swoosh, a powerful visual hammer. The Swoosh doesn’t just say "Nike." The Swoosh says "leadership." Nike was first in its category, giving it permission to create a visual hammer out of a rather mundane checkmark that has been streamlined. Today, everybody knows what a Swoosh looks like, but how many people can rattle off a description of Reebok’s trademark?
If you’re not first in a category, you need a hammer, not a trademark.
Not every brand gets it right. Take Red Bull. Despite $5.1 billion in annual sales, Red Bull doesn’t own a visual hammer. It had the opportunity, but its visual is too complicated for a small energy-drink can. "Two bulls and a sun" make a weak hammer. Furthermore, its blue cans undermine the Red Bull name.
In spite of these examples, why do many marketing people work exclusively with words, when the real power is with visuals? Don’t get me wrong—words are important, too. The objective of a marketing program is to "own a word in the mind” and visuals shouldn’t come before some well-thought positioning planning. But to consider words independent of how they might relate to a visual would be a mistake.
The interplay between words and images is like a nail and a hammer. If the objective is to nail two pieces of wood together, why fool around with a hammer? Why not just focus all of your efforts on putting the pieces of wood together with a nail?
That's the problem of marketing. Your most useful tool is a visual hammer, but the nail comes first. Unless you pick the right nail, all the creative hammers in the world are not going to help very much.
For decades, marketers have sat in meetings developing positioning statements for their brands. But sorry Dad, today that’s not enough. Today, marketers also need a visual hammer to build their brands. A visual hammer that connects emotionally, authentically and credibly with consumers.
This post is an except of a longer article that was published in Advertising Age on March 12, 2012 entitled: Repositioning 'Positioning': Connect with Consumers with a Visual Hammer; Not Verbal Nails. Laura Ries Uncovers the 'Weakness' in her father Al's famed theory on Postioning. Read the Ad Age article here.
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