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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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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)

Sources:

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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