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Why it’s the visuals that hammer home the message

Visual Hammer

By Laura Ries (Kindle, self-published, 161 pages, $4.99)


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In business, words are supreme. But in marketing, we know that visuals are vital. The question of how to make those visuals effective – to hammer into consumers a verbal and emotional message – is tackled by marketing consultant Laura Ries in her new book, Visual Hammer (available in digital form, on Kindle e-books).

She is the daughter and business partner of Al Ries, who 40 years ago, with Jack Trout, wrote the first article about the now-widespread concept of positioning, outlining how to gain a spot in the consumer's mind for your product with an idea of what need you satisfy. But in a foreward to his daughter's book, Mr. Ries notes that the positioning concept has a weakness: Invariably, it's expressed verbally.

"In executing a positioning strategy … you look for a verbal hole in the mind and then you fill that hole with your brand name. Lexus, for example, filled a hole called 'Japanese luxury vehicle,'" Mr. Ries explains.

But in a world filled with slogans, the best way to grab the consumer's mind, and emotions, is with visuals. That's where Ms. Ries's conceptual framework comes in handy. The marketing position, a verbal concept, is the nail. The tool that hammers that into consumers' minds is the visual hammer.

At BMW, for example, the "ultimate driving machine" phrase was the nail – a powerful positioning statement that allowed it to become the world's largest-selling luxury-car brand. The visual hammer was the smiling faces of drivers in commercials.

For Marlboro, the visual hammer is the cowboy. The nail is the fact it was the first cigarette aimed specifically at men – a masculine cigarette.

For Budweiser, the nail is the authenticity of the "King of Beers." That was hammered in effectively by the Clydesdale horses pulling an old-fashioned beer wagon in the company's marketing. Ms. Ries notes that the brewer abandoned that for the frogs in a nighttime swamp croaking "Bud"… "Weis" … "Err" in its famed 1995 Super Bowl commercial. "Brilliant, right? Not in my opinion. Frogs croaking the name Budweiser? Where's the visual nail?" she asks.

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Ms. Ries is equally appalled by Budweiser's award-winning "Was sup?" commercials. "As a verbal idea, it lacked motivation. What does 'Was sup?' have to do with drinking Budweiser beer?" she asks. Recently, she notes, the company slogans have been "Here we go," and "Drinkability," verbal ideas that are impossible to visualize.

She mourns the idea that left-brain managers often want verbal nails that encompass broad concepts and wide appeal. She points to the slogan: "Chevrolet runs deep." Even if Chevrolet manages to put that idea of running deep into the minds of consumers, she questions whether it will motivate them to buy a Chevy.

"[W]hen your idea is a high-level abstraction or a concept that is broad and general, it's almost impossible to find a visual hammer that will drive the idea into prospects' minds," she stresses. "Effective visual hammers need narrow nails, like driving and safety. … How can anyone find a visual hammer that symbolizes democracy, loyalty, trust, and other high-level abstractions?"

In choosing a shape for a visual hammer, go for simplicity. The Red Cross exemplifies that with an iconic symbol that combines colour and shape to represent its name. Retailer Target's bulls-eye symbol works as a memorable trademark.

Most common shapes such as rectangles, circles, arrows, triangles, checkmarks, sun, and stars are already overused. So Ms. Ries urges you to find an unconventional shape. The peace symbol and Mercedes Benz's Tri-Star trademark are similar to each other, but different from the pack. Coca-Cola's contour bottle, Nike's Swoosh, and McDonald's golden arches all have strong currency.

With colour, it helps to be first, as Tiffany was with its distinct shade of blue. "The Tiffany box is a very effective visual hammer. Put a blue box on a table and a white box from some other jewellery store next to it and watch the reaction of a typical woman. The blue box will generate an emotional reaction that the other box will not," she says. Kodak used yellow as its visual hammer for film. Mary Kay used pink Cadillacs to promote her line of cosmetics. Century 21 for years had its real estate agents wear gold jackets.

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Visual Hammer is provocative – entertaining and informative. But the author has a tendency to go too far in trying to explain everything through her concept. If all you have is a hammer, after all, then everything looks like a nail. She tries to explain some business successes and failures by the visual hammer-and-nail concept when other factors likely played a significant, if not larger role.

Still, after reading the book, you'll pay more attention to visual hammer and nail, probably to your company's benefit.


If the attention given to private-equity companies through the attacks on U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney's stewardship of Bain Capital has caught your attention, Bloomberg News reporter Jason Kelly offers some insights into this hidden but powerful industry in his book The New Tycoons (Bloomberg Press, 232 pages, $41.95).

He alternates chapters about issues facing the industry (such as raising capital and operating acquired companies efficiently) with looks at some of the major players (though not Bain).

The book gives a balanced look at the industry, which accounts for an estimated 8 per cent of U.S. gross domestic product.

Some of the most intriguing questions about the industry have been raised, he writes, by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Fund, which at times has taken over companies itself in search of strong returns.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More


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