Finding the right emotions – a picture paints a thousand words (part 1)

Marketers have regained their interest in emotional advertising in recent years, and the evidence is clear that emotional advertising beats rational advertising.

Great brands have always known this, communicating loudly and consistently around a core message. For example, Dove, IKEA, Nike, and Virgin all create a strong emotional connection with customers by shaping both their communication and their brand experience around this core (nurture, equality, performance, or fun).

So how can you find the right emotion for your brand? Emotional measurement is still in its infancy, with many “neuroscience” approaches limited to measuring the strength of emotional reaction (intensity) and in some cases the type of emotional reaction (valence). However, even the best-developed tool, facial coding, is limited to one positive (happy), one mixed (surprised), and five negative emotions. However, we all know that we can be happy for many different reasons, and that there are many forms of emotional satisfaction.

TapestryWorks believe that the language of images can capture much more of the nuance of emotion than the language of words through the use of faces and body language in context, and through visual metaphors. Metaphors are particularly powerful, and a recent study at Princeton University and the Free University of Berlin showed that sensory and body-based metaphors are processed differently in the brain. Such metaphors activate the emotional areas of the brain much more strongly than more literal metaphors. For example, “she looked at him sweetly” had a stronger emotional reaction than “she looked at him kindly”, even though they have the same meaning and equivalent comprehension.

The findings reflect the ideas of embodied cognition and that the way our minds understand the world, especially language, is by relating it back to stored experiences (i.e. sensory experience). Much of the human brain is involved in processing sensory information to look for patterns that match previous memories, and visual perception dominates this sensory processing.

Because of the power of this pattern recognition, the brain can process images far more quickly than language. According to one recent study, an image can be processed in 13 milliseconds or less, the equivalent of 75 frames per second. And, of course, images are much more likely to trigger an emotional response than language.

The argument for using visual (and other sensory) stimuli in research is compelling. For too long, researchers have relied on question-and-answer strategies that are good at eliciting considered rational responses, but poor at capturing intuitive and emotional reactions. The challenge is to find the right set of images or, as in much projective work, ask participants to find their own.

It is a particular challenge to find imagery that can work across culture. Images don’t always translate well, but then neither does language, as I’ve written before. Paul Ekman has shown that facial expressions are broadly universal (or at least six or seven of them), and work by George Lakoff has shown that many metaphors are also universal (as used in market research by Gerald Zaltman and others).

TapestryWorks have spent the past few months developing a database of imagery based on situated emotions (emotions in context) and visual metaphors. It was a challenge, and it has taken some time to find the right set of images. We have focused on finding ones that work in an Asian context. The images are based around the positive and negative aspects of universal human motivations that can be related back to specific emotional and functional needs that drive brand and product choice.

We have tested the images in the field and confirmed that they lead to much more instinctive responses from research participants, who immediately know if an image is the right one to express their feelings, but often struggle to choose words. Interestingly, there is a common tendency to pick more words than images in order to express the right meaning – after all, doesn’t a picture paint a thousand words?

In today’s digital world, it is becoming easier and easier to use imagery as well as language in data collection. Although mobile screens are limited, in many ways the use of pictures is much more user-friendly than sets of words – the brain can screen pictures very quickly and easily, even when they’re small (as long as details are not lost).

I recently shared some of the images with a friend from Hong Kong, who said far more eloquently than I have, “Images are, and always have been, the most powerful way to connect. It’s how we evolved. We can process images in a split second: it was previously fight or flight, now maybe we can use the terms engage or avoid”.

How can you use fewer words and more images in your research?