Back in April of this year, I wrote a piece entitled A View To A Thrill: Why Marketers Need To Get Visual, Fast. The article essentially served as a not-to-gentle reminder (at least that was its intent) to those in marketing and advertising of the power of the visual when it comes to reaching and engaging consumers.
What I wrote then is surely true today.
The power of visuals in marketing and advertising is not the future, it is the present. Ok technically it’s the present AND the future but my point is this is not something that’s coming down the road nor is it a trend or a fad for that matter. Consumers want and quite frankly, expect to see some kind of visual aid, if you will, when it comes to marketing and advertising. These visual aids resonate and connect with consumers and spur them to take action.
However, based on new research it may not be just any old picture or image that will do when it comes to fully engaging and resonating and in turn prompting a consumer to take action AKA spend their money on your product, service or ware.
In what may be considered a play on the adage of “sex sells,” Claudia Townsend, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Miami and Suzanne Shu, Assistant Professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management have discovered that the better looking an image is, the more likely someone is to take action — especially if involves a riskier proposition such as buying a used car or investing in an IPO.
Their research, Using Aesthetics and Self-Affirmation to Encourage Openness to Risky (and Safe) Choices, focuses on consumer behavior and shows how a person seeing photos of something attractive, for instance images of their past purchases, “affirms” them because seeing something attractive triggers their personal connection to something good-looking.
One specific example Professor Townsend shared with me comes from the world of real estate, a big financial risk for sure.
“It’s no secret that real estate brokers spend a ton of money on their marketing materials,” says Townsend. “According to our research, it would make great sense for a realtor to design their postcard materials, etc., highlighting an image of the house someone has already purchased next to a photo or two of unattractive houses that points out they already made a beautiful choice once (that the realtor recognizes this) and that they should work with this realtor to do this again.”
She says the message and image affirms the potential client and, in turn, makes them more likely to open up to making a decision that involves financial risk such as buying a new home.
Another example she references is an online only business such as 1-800 Flowers. “Many people shy away from online flowers services because the shopper has no control over quality,” says Townsend. “Online flower companies, per the research, would be smart to begin taking photos of past arrangements that sent to your clients/friends/family members and utilizing these images in the checkout process/marketing campaign. It affirms the shopper by showing past, attractive purchases that have been made which causes them to choose taking a risk with the company again.”
More to the story
There is of course more to the story and as usual I wanted to dig deeper and learn more so spoke with Professor Townsend in more detail about the study. As you will see there are learnings here for any marketer, be they of the B2C or B2B variety.
Steve Olenski: What are the key takeaways B2C marketers should focus on related to the findings?
Professor Claudia Townsend: Previous research shows that people have a natural tendency to doubt information that goes against their own point of view. This makes sense because we are inherently motivated to see ourselves as smart good decision-makers. So, tell an Apple loyalist why your PC product is better and he is inclined to find holes in your argument. Or offer a person with a sedentary lifestyle reasons to join your gym chain or purchase your fitness equipment and she is likely to question your advice.
The key finding from our research is that associating a consumer with something good-looking diminishes this bias and makes him or her more open to arguments. In a sense all marketing materials are a company’s way of offering arguments for why a consumer ought to purchase their product. Thus our findings really are relevant to anyone trying to convince a consumer that their product is the right choice.
Moreover, this association with good aesthetics is easy to do and can occur in a variety of ways. It can be as simple as reminding the consumer of a past purchase of a good-looking product or showing them images of good-looking things they are related to and emphasizing that relationship (e.g. “Look how nice the public parks are in your hometown.”)
Of note is that we aren’t just saying have an attractive product or good look marketing materials are more persuasive. That’s a given. What our research shows is that it’s about associating the consumer with something good looking that has this effect. The psychological process for the consumer entails (1) feeling connected to something physically attractive, (2) feeling better about oneself, (3) thus being open to persuasive arguments.
Olenski: What are some real-life examples of the results of the study you can share with us?
Townsend: While our studies were all run in the lab, what’s nice about our results is that we find they hold across a variety of contexts (e.g. choice of investment vehicle as well as choice of outdoor activity). Also the explanation we find for our results is based on inherent psychological reactions so it ought to hold across situations.
But our findings are likely most relevant in situations where consumers might have a natural inclination to doubt the marketer or perceive purchase as risky. One of the most apparent risks to consumers is financial risk (the money given up for the purchase). But there are other risks such as social risk (will others approve). So marketers of products at a high price point or that are publicly consumed (e.g. fashion items) could find our results particularly useful.
Then there are industries that tend to be perceived as less trustworthy such as used car salespeople or real estate agents. Our research suggests that a pamphlet that features the beauty of the neighborhood where the potential seller has opted to live (emphasizing that connection between the individual and the neighborhood), might make the potential seller more amenable to using the agent’s services, more so than images of the beautiful houses the agent has sold to which the seller has no connect.
Additionally, purchases made online or from lesser known brands may be perceived by some as risky. The eBay platform might benefit its sellers by reminding browsers of the particularly good looking items they have previously bought or even just showed interest in.
Alternatively a product purchased as a gift for another has some inherent risk involved in it. Enclosed is a company that recognizes this and offers a panty gifting service that targets an audience who feels uncertain in their ability to select gifts, let alone lingerie, for their significant other. The company’s website eases this anxiety by taking on the majority of the selection task, by walking the gifter through a simple personalization process, and by offering a phone number where a concierge service offers guidance. Our research suggests that offering reminders of past beautiful gifts that the giver has selected also work to ease apprehension. Indeed, Enclosed does this, asking shoppers to imagine the jewelry gifts they have given in the past.
Olenski: Are there learnings here too that can help B2B marketers, too?
Townsend: Absolutely. One can imagine that when the decision-maker is a business, rather than a consumer, there is even more hesitation to accept the marketer’s word for why the product is best. A business decision-maker may have to justify her decisions to a higher-up and likely may feel more accountability for the action. Additionally a B2B purchase can often have a much higher price tag than B2C. So the issue of financial risk becomes more apparent. Therefore, anything that prevents the decision-maker from coming in with a negative bias towards the information or otherwise doubting the marketer is that much more useful.
Click here to read the full findings of the study.