A Glance at Visual Research in Marketing: Photography

Visual stimuli have been ubiquitous in marketing and retail for many decades.  They may be represented in the form of printed materials (photos, drawings, and other graphic elements), video clips, physical scenes in shops and malls, and naturally in the design of products. However, the area concerning the design, implementation and evaluation of visual stimuli has lacked in sound theoretical grounding, until recently. This situation is changing in the past 10-15 years with a stream of research signalling the emergence of a field of visual marketing (Wedel and Pieters 2008). Although the body of knowledge backing this field  is still limited and scattered, Wedel and Pieters admit, groups of researchers in marketing and consumer behaviour are working towards establishing this new field.  They offer this definition of visual marketing:

“The strategic utilisation by firms of commercial and non-commercial visual signs and symbols to deliver desirable and/or useful messages and experiences to consumers”

Research in this area may address how consumers perceive, interpret and react to visual materials or scenes. One topic of special interest, for example, deals with the allocation of attention to various visual elements that appear in a scene (e.g., frequency, scan paths, and latency). The scene may be a single print ad, a page in a magazine that contains an ad, a web page, or the image of a retail space. But questions also may arise with regard to the effects of visual elements, and compositions of them, on consumers’ thoughts and feelings, and how they influence attitudes.  

Not to be mistaken, this is not just the object and matter of academic research. It is eventually the concern of marketing practitioners using visual stimuli. In an interview for an article on “Advertising as Science” in Monitor on Psychology , Prof. Curtis P. Haugtvedt  laments that creative professionals in advertising are reluctant to rely on research to assess the appeal and persuasiveness of their artwork aimed at consumers. He criticizes them for overly relying on their personal taste and judgement  Yet, Haugtvedt asserts, people in the field need to understand that there is a scientific way of making better ads (Clay 2002).  This may be applicable to additional contexts beyond advertising (e.g., product development, web design, store design and product display).

Furthermore, visual images can be used in marketing and consumer research as stimuli that facilitate or trigger thoughts and feelings of respondents on variety of subjects (e.g., consumer-brand relationships, lifestyles, shopping behaviour). The images do not have to be directly associated with materials or scenes controlled by marketers. Showing a visual image such as a drawing, a painting or a photograph can help to lift barriers in interaction between an interviewer and a respondent, imposing a more relaxed and story-telling atmosphere in which respondents feel more free and comfortable to talk about their feelings, thoughts and experiences (Belk 2007).

Photographs are a very popular means for sharing impressions and memoirs between people. Photographs can also serve as memory aids to ourselves. Taking photographs has also become easier and more accessible with the help of the “digital revolution”. Almost anyone can choose the type of camera that is most suitable to him or her given their areas of interest, level of expertise in photography, and objectives for producing photographs. There can be beautiful and impressive photographs taken meticulously with much thought and planning vis-a-vis photographs that were shot in a rush, almost automatically, during a trip, just to remind ourselves “hey, we’ve been there together”.  People communicate a lot with photographs: they send them, show them and talk about them in face-to-face meetings, via e-mail and Internet websites, and even during a conversation on a mobile phone.

Connecting with people, objects and places as displayed in a photograph is easier compared with  a verbal description of them (e.g., consider a marvelous landscape in a vacation resort or an emotional family event). A visual image can fulfill several functions. The appearance of a dear person in a visual image can stimulate emotions. The image of a product in a picture may function as a cue that quickly links with another remembered image of that product (e.g., a photo of a product in an ad calls an image of the same product as seen previously at a store or at a friend’s home). A photograph in particular has a documentary power, that is, providing evidence or proof that something really happened (leaving aside photo manipulation practices for a moment). Objects in a photo seem more tangible, the details in them are usually sharper and clearer (than drawings or mental images constructed from memory in one’s head), and they appear more vivid  (Messaris 1997).   A visual that is perceived more real can help to induce feelings and memories faster and easier. These are properties that can benefit research.

Methods of photo-elicitation in research may take two main routes: eliciting responses to photographs chosen or prepared in advance by the researcher or eliciting responses to photographs taken by the participants themselves (i.e., prior to an interview a respondent is allowed a period to take photographs according to some general instructions). The second form of research can be extended to use home videos (Belk and Kozinets 2005). In the remaining of the post I will elaborate on two contexts wherein research may be enriched by the employment of photographs.

Retail — Stores are primary venues for encounter between consumers and goods, whether on a main shopping street, in a shopping centre or a mall. Access to the goods is direct and often in a hand’s reach. But when standing at the store’s front or facing the front window, what kind of first impression do you get? What feeling do you get from the atmospherics surrounding you (e.g., light, colours, wood or metallic)? What objects first attract your attention, and where do you go next to check merchandise with greater scrutiny? Photographs can help a store owner or manager detect what places, fixtures and product displays attract the shoppers more, and which stimulate a stronger reaction. The emphasis is on things such as indoor design, furnitures and fixtures (i.e., the store and its content without people present.) Findings may direct the store manager/owner in making improvements to store’s layout and design, assessing a new or renovated design from a customer perspective, and for choosing angles of view most attractive to customers for photographs to be placed in ads or on a website.  

One way to conduct a phot0-assisted study is to invite a group of consumers (15-30) to the store and let them stroll around with a camera, taking pictures of certain things that had some impact on them (got interest, raised curiosity, aesthetically liked or rather upset and turned off). Later a researcher conducts a personal interview with each respondent accompanied by his photographs. Another way is for the researcher to select in advance a set of photographs from the store, present the selected photographs subsequently to a sample of consumers and measure their responses in a face-to-face or internet survey (i.e., a quantitative research). The methods can be joined as a two-stage research programme.  

Other types of outlets where people remain to receive service such as bank branches and restaurants are also appropriate targets. For example, in a study conducted in a hotel (150 rooms full service in the US), guests were asked to take photos of things that impressed them in any area of the hotel, whether in their guest rooms, transit areas or in public halls such as lobby and restaurant . The photographs were used in a later interview to help guests-respondents to relate to aspects of design that were important to them. The researchers (Robson and Pullman 2005) found that guests prefer to focus on places that imbued them with a more domestic feeling as opposed to the feeling of a commercial or institutional setting. Guests also mentioned things that emphasised in their view the consideration of their personal convenience or wellbeing by the hotel. Robson and Pullman reported that they were surprised by some of the details guests bothered to photograph, for instance a tangle of cables leading from electric equipment to a socket in their room. 

Experiences — In marketing-related and sponsored events such as presentations and shows, art performances, exhibits, festivals, parties and competitions of various sorts, we may observe people involved in dynamic experiences. A photograph can capture special moments, the dynamics in interaction between people, and also a sight of the scene where an event takes place.  These kinds of photos can help participants to reflect on and express their experiences.  A study may include both consumers who attended an event, and share their experiences, and others who did not attend but are asked about their impressions and expectations based on experiences communicated by the former. A study as such can guide preparations for an improved new event given lessons from a previous one. This type of research may also be effective  in some retail venues that encourage interactive shopping experiences and entertain visitors. 

As suggested above, still photographs may be replaced by video films that provide audio-visual (motion) information. A representative for a family may be instructed for instance to record their preparations for a holiday trip (e.g., how they dressed and what equipment they took along), where they have visited, dined, lodged etc.. This video can later be watched and discussed with a skilled interviewer. The high availability of video cameras at households these days facilitates the participation of more consumers in videographic studies (Belk and Kozinets 2005).

I perceive great potential for interesting and practical insights from research with photographs, particularly in those two areas exemplified above. And although this sort of study may entail a diversion from common and routine research practices, there is much room here for demonstrating beneficial creativity and innovativenss.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


Introduction to Visual Marketing, Michel Wedel and Rik Pieters, 2008, in Visual Marketing: From Attention to Action, M. Wedel and R. Pieters (eds.)(pp. 1-8), London; New-York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Advertising as Science, Rebecca A. Clay, 2002, Monitor on Psychology, Vol. 33(9), American Psychology Association.  [A recommended reading] 

You Ought to Be in Pictures: Envisioning Marketing Research, Russell W. Belk, 2007, in Review of Marketing Research, N. Malhotra (ed.)(pp. 193-205), M.E. Sharpe

Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising, Paul Messaris, 1997, Sage Publications. 

Videography in Marketing and Consumer Research, Russell W. Belk and Robert V. Kozinets, 2005, Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 8 (2), pp. 128-141.

Hotels: Differentiation with Design, Stephanie Robson and Madeleine Pullman, 2005, Implications Newsletter, Vol. 3, Issue 6, University of Minnesota.

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