The Power of Images

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Freud used dreams to plumb the depths of the unconscious for hidden meanings and emotions. Professor Gerald Zaltman of the Harvard Business School uses pictures.

These pictures are at the heart of a process Zaltman has developed — based on ethnographic research — to help companies learn what customers really want. When words fail, the images consumers choose can serve as a window into their thoughts. These images can be used to tap nonverbal reactions, and to probe below the surface for deeper feelings. The insights gleaned can then be incorporated into marketing campaigns that resonate with consumers on an emotional level.

Marketers have traditionally used ethnographic research, developed by anthropologists, to observe consumers interacting with a product. However Zaltman and others have taken this approach a step further, attempting to gain insight into consumers' reactions to a product by asking them to answer questions relating to the product by using pictures. What is unique to Zaltman's approach is his focus on images as a means to tap consumers' unconscious beliefs and feelings.

According to Zaltman, traditional consumer research's emphasis on words can be limiting. When asked what they think of a product beyond its literal function, many consumers become tongue-tied. Sometimes deep-seated thoughts don't rise to the surface when consumers are asked about the greater meaning of products as prosaic as pantyhose. Or, what they feel resides in their unconscious, and is not readily described by words alone.

Cognitive experts have long known that most people are more comfortable expressing themselves through visual images than words. “About 60 percent of all stimuli reaching the brain do so through the visual system,� says Zaltman. “So it is important that we use visual stimuli to activate neurons or thought if we want to learn more about what people are thinking.� He sees images as metaphors for thought. As representations or stand-ins for ideas, images can offer a way to delve deeper into what consumers think about specific products, he adds.

When the Heinz Endowment set about developing a marketing campaign to raise the profile of the arts in Pittsburgh, it turned to Zaltman for help. The goal was to promote arts appreciation and participation among people who had previously shown little or no interest. To learn what the arts mean to these people, Zaltman's team recruited 22 consumers from a broad range of age groups, income levels and occupations, in Pittsburgh, Boston and San Francisco. They were asked the following question: “When you think of the arts and how they impact your life, what thoughts and feelings come to mind?�

The selected individuals were asked to bring in about 10 pictures that captured some aspect of their feelings about the arts. They were given the option of taking photos or bringing in pictures from junk mail, magazines or newspapers, and were explicitly instructed not to select literal pictures of the arts. A week or two later, each consumer spent about two hours discussing the images he selected in one-on-one interviews with Zaltman's team. Subjects were asked to explain their thoughts and feelings about the arts, using the pictures as visual cues to trigger associations, anecdotes or explanations. Interviewers explored metaphors and probed for deeper meanings. Then participants sat with a computer graphic artist who combined their images into a single collage.

What emerged from the interviews were shared ideas and feelings about the arts, which became the basis for the Heinz marketing campaign for the Pittsburgh arts scene. Many respondents spoke of art's ability to transform, either by stimulating or energizing. For example, one photo collage created from pictures a participant brought in shows a pale, zoned-out person who has not embraced the arts. It also showed a cat licking its lips, which represents that sated feeling audiences enjoy when they have shared an artistic experience and feel refreshed, says John Dymun, chairman and creative director of Pittsburgh-based advertising and public relations company, Dymun & Company. The agency developed a marketing campaign with the Greater Pittsburgh Art Alliance based on the ideas researchers teased out of participants.

Another consumer found that a giant screaming head of a person with mouth wide open represents the exhilaration he associates with enjoying the arts. (See photo, left.) The images culled by the participants directly influenced the communication strategy the ad agency used, according to Dymun. One metaphor the subjects continually cited was art's power to transform. As a result, the advertising team designed a slogan that evokes precisely art's ability to transform, enrich and energize: “The arts bring life to life.� The team also directly linked the arts to patrons by creating a logo that uses the letters in the word “arts� to create a face and convey the idea that the arts humanize the person, says Dymun.

The resulting ad campaign illustrates art's oft-cited ability to transform by representing people's wish to become someone else, to rediscover who they really are or simply to escape. One TV commercial, for example, shows a female paramedic taking on a new identity when she's out enjoying the arts. (See photos, above.)

Relying on pictures to represent consumers' feelings has its advantages as a research technique, says P.K. Kannan, associate professor of business at the University of Maryland. In traditional focus groups, the more verbal people usually dominate the discussion, he says. In contrast, says Aric Rindfleisch, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona, this image-based approach allows people privacy to gather images and think about their answers, giving those who are socially inhibited a chance to voice their thoughts.

As companies continue to vie for that competitive edge, especially when it comes to introducing new products, they are increasingly turning to image-based research for additional insight, though not to the extent that Zaltman does. Just ask Ben Brenton, a senior brand manager at Kraft Foods Inc., who commissioned the Chicago-based World Link Group to conduct such research. While developing a new food product that's slated to appear in late 2002, Kraft used photos to learn more about a target consumer group's food needs when they return home from work. The findings augmented and reinforced the results from more traditional in-home interviews and focus groups. Although Brenton declined to describe the product in development, he says insights gleaned from the pictures and explanations people gave of their relationship to food, helped Kraft define the core benefit of the product and tailor it to meet consumer needs.

To Zaltman, using images to reveal the depths of consumer feelings about a product is more effective than many traditional research approaches, including focus groups. However, Zaltman's approach also costs more. While a focus group usually costs between $10,000 and $50,000, ethnographic research that uses pictures runs from $40,000 to $100,000. Zaltman typically charges $75,000 to $100,000 for a project.

“You get a far richer understanding of how the 95 percent of thinking that's unconscious partners with the 5 percent that is guiding consumer behavior,� he says. “You dig deeper.�

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