Getting to the Core of Brand esSense: Visual Thinking in Research

Dec 07 2014

If you want to talk to the emotional brain then you need to talk a language that emotions speak and hear, and that’s much more the language of the senses, especially the visual sense, than it is words. Visual approaches can help us understand the core of the esSense of a brand, by understanding the emotional story that underlies the goals or motivations of customers.

Market research still uses too many words, that only engage System 1 or the rational part of the brain through question and answer approaches that still dominate the industry. However, we are now living in the age of the image, where visual literacy is said to be on the rise through the constant multiplication of personal screens. I would argue that humans have always been visual and that the recent past and its focus on words is just an aberration (and mostly an aberration of Western cultures as Asian cultures and languages are still highly dependent on visual context).

With today’s technology there is no longer an excuse for research not to make more use of pictures and less use of words, moving beyond the occasional use of projective techniques and visual metaphors to develop a visual language that can capture human emotions. The brain processes images in the blink of an eye, bringing a rich set of associations and meanings. By contrast, words require deliberate (rational) thought to process and understand, with a more limited and more narrow set of associations, that often depend highly on knowing the context that cannot be conveyed by the word alone.

Visual information accounts for around 90% of the 11 million or more pieces of sensory information that flood into the brain every second, keeping us updated about the changes that are happening in the world around us. This means that around on-third to one-half of everything that our brains do is related to processing and interpreting visual information.

We think visually, which is why metaphors are so powerful and pervasive in language. In order to understand abstract concepts and ideas that are communicated in words the brain translates them back into a language that can be understood - the language of the physical world and sensory experience. Some argue that metaphors and analogies are the basis of thought itself.

This is especially true if we consider emotions that are experienced physically and not verbally. Words cannot capture our emotional worlds, but pictures can.

Ultimately emotions are the body’s (or brain’s if you prefer) way of managing us towards our goals, as Kringelbach and Phillips say:

“Emotions are evolved mechanisms for motivating behaviour, helping us to seek what we need to survive by guiding us towards what we like and find pleasurable, while avoiding what may be harmful, damaging or painful. Emotions are a way to assess and interact with our ever-changing environment, taking into account our current needs and our past experiences.”

Even the most simple organism floating on a pond (i.e., our ancestors) has strategies for approach and avoid - moving towards areas where there may be useful nutrients and moving away from areas where there may be harmful toxins. As animals evolved these systems became more sophisticated, such that Jaak Panksepp has identified seven indepdendent ‘emotions’ (or goal-directed behaviours) in animals. The most important of these is Seeking, going our into the world and finding ‘new stuff’ (i.e., approach). Others are Rage, Play, Lust, Panic (or grief), Care and Fear. These are independent systems in that they work through independent circuits of neurons in the brain, that ‘take control’ of behaviour in relevant contexts and direct the animal to focus on achieving the goal.

This is also true of humans, and some experiments in evolutionary psychology have shown similar effects, such that when a goal of ‘self-protection’ or ‘status’ is primed, then information about the environment is filtered through the need to be relevant to this goal, and things that are less relevant are simply ignored. Seeking, rage, play lust, panic, care and fear are emotions that humans experience too, related to goals such as feeling individual, enjoyment, finding a partner, belonging in a group and raising children. Humans have developed a few more too, and generally these are closer to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, including the needs to be knowledgeable, masterful and individual.

In TapestryWorks’ work we use a framework based on twelve archetypal goals, providing a granular framework for decoding emotion and behaviour. These twelve can all be seen in some of the brands that successfully understand. communicate and design around core customer needs. For example, IKEA not only communicate the values of democracy and equality in providing affordable furniture for everyone, but they also deign the store experience around this idea too.

In a recent study in Indonesia, TapestryWorks used our Visual Think Cards, designed around the framework of twelve archetypes, to understand the meaning of indulgence to Indonesian consumers. The work revealed that indulgence is about expressing yourself as an individual, but importantly with the need to remain connected to close others (as Indonesia like other Asian cultures values belonging rather than standing out as an individual).

Additionally, we looked at sensory associations with the idea of indulgence and found a rich set of associations, some predictable and some surprising (at least to someone from a Western culture), as indulgence was predictably associated with soft and silky textures and slower styles of music but also with blue colours and calm feelings, Thus, while being expressive, indulgence was seen as calm, cool and relaxing too.

The study showed the power of visual stimuli to capture the richess of human experience, both in terms of sensory experience and emotional lives of humans. In Asia, perhaps more than anywhere else, the experiences and feelings that make up human lives can be best expressed visually and not verbally.

In summary, images work better than words in many areas of research because they speak more directly to the emotional brain, without translation, providing a clearer signal to noise ratio for communication.

Images are better because:

  1. They are processed more easily and spontaneously
  2. They evoke a richer set of associations
  3. They do not require translation to be used in multiple cultures and countries (or those with different language abilities)
  4. They provide consistency of stimulus (even if responses are different, I can be certain that the stimulus was the same)
  5. They provide a clearer way to communicate insights with clients, who are also visual like the rest of us

Isn’t it time that we used less words and talked more directly to the reality of people’s lives?

[This is a version of presentations given at IIeX AP 14, in Sydney on 5 December 2014 and for Festival of NewMR on 3 December 2014. Click here to see the presentation slides from IIeX.]


Brand esSense: Using sense, symbol and story to design brand identity by Neil Gains

The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotion by Jaak Panksepp & Lucy Biven

The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think by Douglas Kendrick & Vladas Griskevicius

The Age Of The Image: Redefining literacy in a world of screens by Stephen Apkon

Emotion: Pleasure and pain in the brain by Morton Kringelbach & Helen Phillips

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