Word-of-eye marketing

August 29, 2013

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Allen Adamson
Chairman, North America,
based in Landor New York

What is it about all this photo sharing? Come on, how many pictures are you going to take of you and your buddy at the bar with droll expressions, and why do you think we want to see all of them on Facebook? 

Folks, it’s a rhetorical question. People these days just love to take pictures, and they love to post pictures, and my guess is that the trend is just going to continue. More than that, it’s a trend that marketers with strategic smarts have latched on to. Where just a couple of years ago brands went into overdrive to figure out how to take advantage of all the online chitchat about their products and services (you know, word of mouth on steroids), now they are going into overdrive to figure out how to use still images, candid snapshots, memes, video snippets, and infographics to help tell their brand stories. 

The word-of-mouth market has now been superseded by the word-of-eye market. 

We live in a culture whose technological advances have made images so simple to capture and disseminate that visually shared moments have become the currency of everything in our lives, from hard news to dancing cats and everything in between. 

Apple is a master at using strong, beautifully crafted images to show how its products fit into people’s lives. Its recent launch of a new iPhone campaign is a meta-example of this phenomenon. Though the ad is only one minute long and conveys limited information about the iPhone’s myriad capabilities in a single-sentence voiceover, it’s a glorious piece of moviemaking. 

On the face of it, the ad is typical of Apple’s earliest initiatives in that it is basically a product demonstration: Here’s what this device can do. But it’s the heart of the ad that conveys how images—and the desire to share them with friends and family—have become one of the most significant human dynamics to emerge from the technology revolution.

Yes, mobile image sharing is booming, and it can be supported by more than just Apple’s beautiful campaign:

  • Global new camera phone sales are expected to reach 1.5 billion units in 20141
  • Our phone cameras are with us 24/7, meaning there is no reason to ever miss a photo opportunity
  • Facebook says it gets more than 300 million photo uploads every day2
  • To strengthen its mobile presence, Facebook bought Instagram, the photo app that went from zero to 30 million users in its first 17 months3
  • Twitter, formerly a words-only communication application, recently introduced a major upgrade in the form of Vine, a feature that lets users add six-second videos to their tweets
  • Pinterest, the fabulously successful content-sharing service that allows members to “pin” images and videos to their virtual “pinboards” for sharing, continues to experience exponential growth since its launch in 2011; the platform had the highest increase in audience and time spent on any social network across all devices such as PCs, mobile web, and apps

Just as the implication for brands in a digitally enhanced word-of-mouth marketplace was significant, equally so is the implication for these organizations in the candid camera, word-of-eye marketplace. Obviously, the key to success is unlocking the power of pictures, whether they’re still or video, and getting consumers to engage with your brand and, more importantly, getting them to become willing brand advocates. 

Intuit cofounder Scott Cook says, “A brand is no longer what we tell a consumer it is, it is what consumers tell each other it is.” If a picture is worth a thousand words, you can only imagine the impact visual sharing will have on building brands today. 

So how do brands take advantage of the power of pictures?

There are two ways. The first is to create and control sharable moments, to design experiences that are meant to be photographed or videotaped and passed along to as many BFFs as possible. The second is to make sure that everything associated with your brand is ready for its close-up. That is, think about how your brand naturally fits into people’s lives and make sure these everyday experiences are worthy of being shared. 

It’s amazing the number of marketing folks who think they can create something that will instantly go viral. Creating an experience that will go viral is sort of like buying a lottery ticket and thinking you’ll win. Easy in concept. Hard to achieve. But there are a few rules that can help lead to success. If you’re looking to encourage the snap-happy purveyors of your brand message, your initiative must be:

Simple to understand and take part in. All strong brands are able to express what they stand for as a single, sharply focused point. If you can’t do this, you can’t get your message across. The same is true of a branding initiative you hope will catch on. Your customers must be able to grasp your story’s intent and understand the way you want it portrayed.

Real. Credibility is a key to powerful branding. Your effort must be genuinely tied to what your brand represents. In this transparent, cynical market, consumers are nothing less than skeptical. They’ve developed a sixth sense. When something doesn’t jive with the brand’s essential nature, they can tell. If you want them to share something relative to your brand, it must be the real deal because, as agents of your brand, they’re putting their own reputations on the line.

Relatable. You need to know your customers—how they think and feel—in order to get them involved in your initiatives. Your branding must be something they can relate to, something they can identify with.

Winnable. Not every branding tactic is right for every brand. Pick your battles. Not all brand experiences are equal in getting your point across. Know where—and if—you can play and win.

One example of creating a platform for visual brand sharing, and one that adheres to the rules above, is the Hollister Photo Challenge: a chance for one of your original photos to be used as a Hollister T-shirt design and have it appear on Hollister’s Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram pages. For cool, chill laid-back SoCal people, this initiative is a perfect fit.

For the more sophisticated fashionista, Burberry has come up with a more appropriate candid camera marketing tactic. In 1856 Thomas Burberry opened an outdoor apparel shop in England, where he introduced gabardine (a water-resistant and breathable fabric) and started producing the trench coats that would make the company famous in England and around the world. After decades of success followed by a short period of declining sales, the brand was repositioned to appeal to the younger, higher-end audience who covets the coat today. 

While Burberry had a solid presence on Facebook, it realized it had to do something more ownable and unique to the brand to keep its name on the top of the fashion charts. In 2009, it introduced the Art of the Trench campaign through which existing customers could share photos of themselves wearing their Burberry trench coats. 

In the year following the launch of the campaign, Burberry’s Facebook base grew to over one million, and e-commerce sales grew 50 percent year over year.4 By 2012, 60 percent of Burberry’s marketing budget was allocated to digital.5 Given that a study undertaken by ROI Research finds that 44 percent of respondents are more likely to engage with a brand if they post pictures, this is a smart marketing move.6 

But smart word-of-eye branding initiatives include more than just posted and curated shopping sites, be they for T-shirts, trench coats, or any of the hundreds of crafts, handbags, or wallpapers found on Pinterest, Etsy, Fab.com, and other similar venues.

The folks at Diageo, with the objective of broadening its market for Johnnie Walker in Asia, looked beyond the unique flavor and distinctive packaging of the product and created an actual place for people to experience the brand. Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai is the first “whisky embassy” anywhere in the world outside of Scotland. 

JW%20Pic 3[1]

It is an impressive example of looking beyond the normal channels to tell a brand’s story. Everything about the building and its amenities was designed to help consumers understand the brand’s history in China, and to increase their appreciation of whisky and how it is made. Visitors are just naturally inclined to take pictures of the eye-catching building, its blending room, and the hundreds of back-illuminated bottles of whiskey. And they’re just as inclined to share these pictures.

Pictures drawn, viewed, and shared also figured significantly this past April as part of Dove’s ongoing Campaign for Real Beauty to the tune of about 26 million viewers of its web-only initiative.7 In the spot, a forensic sketch artist draws several women based only on their descriptions of themselves. Then he draws a second portrait of each woman based on descriptions of relative strangers. The resulting sketches are displayed side-by-side, and the ones inspired by the strangers are more flattering than those based on each woman’s own sense of herself. The tagline reads: You are more beautiful than you think

It is, of course, a demonstration of the insecurity so many women feel about their looks. It clicked with its audience, rating over 90,000 “likes” on Dove’s YouTube channel. It was way back in the pre-digital era of the 1960s that testimonials became an integral part of Dove’s branding strategy. In this fast-forward version of Dove’s simple brand idea—to make more women feel beautiful every day—the company has skillfully leveraged the tactics and the power of word of eye to reinforce its brand’s promise.

While there are hundreds of clever examples of companies that have captured the power of visual sharing as part of their branding strategies, there is another way brands can take advantage of the word-of-eye phenomenon. Quite simply, this is thinking about how your brand fits into people’s lives and ensuring that your points of touch are so remarkable and photo-worthy that people want to document and share without outside encouragement. 

Virgin America Plane 1-web

Visual branding is part of the success of Virgin Airlines, for example. In a conversation I had with Julie Cottineau, founder and CEO of consulting firm BrandTwist and former VP of brand at Virgin USA, she told me, “Virgin America pays a lot of attention to the visual aspects of the experience. From the moment you walk into the plane you can see a difference. There’s purple mood lighting and white leather seats that really reinforce the airline’s promise of a Breath of fresh airline. You can literally hear people ooh and aah and watch them as they reach for their cellphones to snap a picture to share the experience with friends, all before they’ve even left the ground. Take a look at Flickr, Pinterest, and Instagram and you’ll see tens of thousands of shots and pins of the Virgin America planes.”

Apple, too, is a great example of a company whose brand communication is part and parcel of everything it does, and built into its very culture. Russ Klein, the former global chief marketing officer of Burger King and current chief marketing officer of Arby’s, in a discussion on the subject of word of eye told me, “It’s odd to think that someone could own the color white, but Apple has done it in such a fresh, vertical way. The ubiquity of its usage, combined with the discipline of the execution of the experience makes it a dominant image for people. The color white is a signature for the brand and is immediately recognizable in visual communication. It’s not a marketing add-on, but is branding that’s built into the product design.” 

Many companies look at marketing and branding to create demand—and to create sharable moments. The best companies know that the best sharable moments come from doing what they should be doing. Or, as Russ put it, “The gestalt of a brand happens along the way—it’s an inflection point. Consumers won’t connect with something if it’s not authentic, doesn’t represent positive intent.”

What’s behind the success of the best companies is a clear vision of what their brand stands for, a commitment and the courage to stick to this vision in all of its efforts, along and across the entire customer journey. 

When someone takes a picture of the most delicious pizza they’ve ever eaten, the most amazing hotel room in which they’ve ever slept, a video of a salesperson helping fit baby’s first pair of shoes, and posts it, well, you get the picture, it says more about the brand than words ever could.

It’s a word-of-eye market. Now that every brand is on candid camera, it (and its customers) had better be smiling.


1. Woody Oh, “Global camera phone sales to reach 1.5 billion units in 2014,” Strategy Analytics, strategyanalytics.com/default.aspx?mod=reportabstractviewer&a0=8817 (13 August 2013).

2. Rick Armbrust, “Capturing growth: photo apps and open graph,” Facebook Developer Blog, developers.facebook.com/blog/post/2012/07/17/capturing-growth--photo-apps-and-open-graph (17 July 2012).

3. Sarah Kessler, “Instagram: From zero to $1 billion in 17 months,” Mashable, mashable.com/2012/04/10/instagram-timeline (10 April 2012).

4. Jorge Grieve, Anita Idiculla, Katie Tobias, “Entrenched in the digital world,” Business Today, businesstoday.intoday.in/story/burberry-social-media-initiative/1/191422.html (3 February 2013).

5. Russell Parsons, “Burberry credits digital spend for revenue bump,” Marketing Week, marketingweek.co.uk/burberry-credits-digital-spend-for-revenue-bump/3031880.article (15 November 2011).

6. Ekaterina Walter, “The rise of visual social media,” Fast Company, fastcompany.com/3000794/rise-visual-social-media (28 August 2012). 

7. Eric Spitznagel, “How those Dove ‘Real Beauty Sketch’ ads went viral,” Bloomberg Businessweek, businessweek.com/articles/2013-04-26/how-those-dove-real-beauty-sketch-ads-went-viral (26 April 2013).


This article was first published as “ Smile. You’re (always) on Candid Camera” in the Hub (July 2013). hubmagazine.com




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