Perspectives on the Use of Visual Images in Marketing Research

We can think of visual images in different forms. Pictorial images like a painting, a photograph or a drawing often depict a congruous scene of figures, objects and background, telling a story, enclosed in a frame. An image in a marketing context may represent product objects, people (e.g., customers, sellers, models, endorsers), a view of the scene of a retail store, etc.. But we may also refer to the visual image of a print advertisement as a visual scene that displays a complex layout of pictorial images, brand logo, text and additional graphic elements of decoration. Rather frequently the ad would show portions of pictorial images (like ‘clip-arts’) embedded in the whole scene, and the spatial arrangement of its objects or elements appears as discontinuous. Visual images may further be related with product packages, website pages on the Internet, video, or the view of a store’s front window and its interior space when one is present on premises of the physical site. Viewing a visual image  is an experience that may be, for example, enjoyable, challenging, annoying or disturbing. If the image leaves us indifferent, however, we would not spend enough time to figure out what we experience.

Lindt ChocolateWhen the object of a researcher’s study is a visual marketing material like an ad or product packaging it is most sensible to show the actual material or a pictorial image of it to consumers participating in the study. It is essentially more reliable for measuring affective and cognitive responses going beyond elementary memory-based measures of awareness. As we try to measure consumers’ recall of detail in an ad’s scene, its accuracy tends to decrease sharply and therefore any further references to content asked from respondents are likely to be of low reliability. The same is true when studying response to a retail scene — we should bring the research participants to the brick-and-mortar site itself, show them photographic images of its scene (i.e., layout, design, merchandise display) or computer-simulated images for a store in planning. Presenting an image of the material or retail scene is likely to enable researchers to capture emotion-laden responses more varied in type and intensity, and reach greater depth in the thoughts and feelings evoked in consumers-viewers vis-a-vis reliance on memory or mental images re-constructed by participants in their minds.

Pictorial images may be used productively, nonetheless, also if they do not appear related to a focal product, brand or company. A visual image can be utilised as an implicit bridge that helps to connect consumers’ mindsets with a brand of interest and to open-up the respondents to engage in a dialogue with an interviewer about personal or more private aspects of their lives (e.g., how a brand may function in the relations between a parent and his or her children). Relevant pictures with respect to the topic of research may be introduced by the interviewer or the interviewee. Professor of marketing Gerald Zaltman (Harvard Business School / Olson Zaltman Associates consulting firm) advises that pictorial images can help consumers to reveal and reflect attributes of a focal brand or company even though on surface the image shows no relation to that brand; the image serves as a metaphor whereby figures or objects in the image substitute for the brand (e.g., a gorilla has been shown by purchasing agents to suggest that managers from the vendor company have been stiff and stubborn in negotiations with them or  have demonstrated insensitivity to their needs). In Zaltman’s technique of metaphor elicitation (ZMET) the consumers bring pictorial images of their choice to their interviews through which they may describe the brand or tell a story about the role it plays in their lives (1).

Advertisements compete eagerly for grabbing the attention of consumers against editorial content as well as other ads in their own product category or in any other domain. It is a tough and demanding competition. The methodology of eye tracking, enhanced by advanced technology for taking different measures of eye movement and fixations, is especially suited for studying what captures attention to the ad and how information is attended to and could be utilised within the ad scene. It is generally assumed that the longer the latency of fixation on an object or element, the more thought a viewer dedicates to it, though the technique cannot directly reveal much more about the nature of affective reactions or cognitive processes.

Important and useful insights have been gained through eye tracking research. An extensive research by Pieters and Wedel (2) shows, for example, that the power of text to capture attention is sensitive to the surface size of its text-body but a picture can capture attention fast almost regardless of its size. Hence it is unnecessary for advertisers to fill an ad copy with larger pictures in expectation that it would increase the chances of capturing attention to the picture and to the ad as a whole. For text, however, surface size, determined by amount of text or font size, is significant (e.g., consider magazine ads that combine a colourful and vivid picture on top and a body of text of some explanation beneath it for achieving maximum effect). Regarding brand logos, it is found that the surface size of the logo is likely to distract viewers from reading text. However, greater interest in a brand logo for any other quality (e.g., the brand itself) can increase interest in reading the text, and secondarily, watching the pictures in the print ad. Text is attended by viewers of print ads particularly more elaborately when viewers have a declared goal of buying a product of the type advertised (Rayner and Castelhano, 3); this is compared with a task when viewers are asked just to rate an ad — then pictures get to play a greater role in viewer attention (i.e., number of fixations and time spent observing and processing). Consumers are more interested in text portions of a print ad that provide information on a focal product relative to pictures when a purchase of product of that type is seen expected.

In order to characterise more concretely the processing of visual information and better understand the valence and content of feelings and thoughts, the investigation process of research has to continue with other methods (e.g., experiments, interviews with probing). The approach I put forward aims to provide such expansion of insights: the technique allows to attach additional information reported by viewers to objects or elements they choose and relate to in the visual material (e.g., a print ad, a photograph). Its starting point is based on visual thinking rather than verbal explications, therefore I named it Visual Impression Metrics. The following chart of a framework model of communication depicts plausible factors that may trigger the processing of ‘objects’ in a visual marketing material from the consumers’ point-of-view:

Two notes to the chart: (1) The combination of verbal and visual elements that correspond with each other is fundamental to encoding; (2) From an information processing perspective, consumers may go back and forth between attention to and processing of various elements or objects in the whole image.

A pivotal strength of eye tracking is the ability to trace when attention is awarded unconsciously to objects in the ad in addition to conscious attention — viewers transit between these processes as they move from bottom-up to top-down (and vice versa) processing of the information found in the visual material. A consequence of this, however, is that respondents are not likely to be able to comment on objects they attended to unconsciously. An approach as described above, while more reliant on conscious processes, may be used in conjunction with eye tracking so as to shed more light on how consumers-viewers utilise information from objects in the visual scene, their meanings or implications for them.

In the other realm of research using visual images, a pictorial image is utilised as an aid to enquiring on a topic or concept rather than being the subject of research. An interviewer may show the respondent a picture selected by the research team and invite him or her to discuss it (e.g., what they see in the picture, what it reminds them of, what associations it brings up about a product/brand). When showing the same picture to a group or sample of respondents, it is possible to compare and aggregate how various consumers relate and react to the same image. On the other hand, a picture retrieved and brought by each consumer-respondent is much more capable to entail an idea associated with a brand that is meaningful and relevant to that individual. Gerald Zaltman’s method for eliciting metaphors by visual images is most appropriate to that end — it is free of the assumptions or expectations of the marketers or researchers. But on looking at the interviewing process, it is apparent that separating the thoughts of the interviewer from those of the interviewee is not obvious. A main theme of the instructions of Zaltman to interviewers for probing, as demonstrated in his book “How Customers Think” (Chapter 4 Appendix), is to avoid offering an interviewee their own explanations or interpretations of a reply just given by him or her nor implying their own understanding of the picture. An effective probing approach is to follow-up on a last reply of the interviewee using his or her own words (4). The line between desired and flawed probing in examples given, however, is not always sharp and clear — one needs to carefully make the vital distinction between guiding the interviewee (right) and leading the interviewee (wrong).

Selecting a pictorial image as a stimulus to trigger an “enquiry” in a survey (i.e., quantitative research) needs to be done by careful screening and examination, guided by pre-tests and/or qualitative research techniques, in order to present a picture that conveys the target concepts one wishes to study or test. Vice versa, key constructs (e.g., emotions, thoughts or associations) revealed in a qualitative study by using visual images should be substantiated through quantitative methods for the relevant target population of consumers. Thus, researchers would choose for a survey a pictorial image they appraise, according to findings of the qualitative study, as the best representative or conveyor of the concept of interest shared by the consumers. The method of Visual Impression Metrics, for instance, is suitable for certifying whether focal figures or objects as portrayed in the image scene carry the expected meaning.

The possibilities for research with visual images are numerous; they offer some intriguing opportunities for enriching our consumer insights. Visual images evoke more quickly intuitive and emotional responses, they often succeed in encouraging people to share their thoughts and feelings, and may engage forms of visual thinking that differ from verbal thinking. Depending on context and purpose, visual images can be used in marketing research to enhance the quality, reliability and validity of our findings, and thereby improve the knowledge of marketers about their consumers.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

Notes:

(1) “How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market”, Gerald Zaltman, 2003, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

(2) “Attention Capture and Transfer in Advertising: Brand, Pictorial and Text-Size Effects”, Rik Pieters and Michel Wedel, 2004, Journal of Marketing, 68 (Apr.), pp. 36-50.

(3) “Eye Movements During Reading, Scene Perception, Visual Search, and While Looking at Print Advertisements”, Keith Rayner and Monica S. Castelhano, 2008; In Visual Marketing: From Attention to Action, Michel Wedel and Rik Pieters (eds.)[pp. 9-42], London, New-York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

(4) Ibid. 1.

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