Simply put, the foundation of the marketing communications industry–the consumer’s emotional relationship with products–has never been more fragile.
In our experience as product specialists, we have come to identify eight forces that have a profound and lasting impact on a product’s relationship with its audience. Use them sensitively as you create your brand’s marketing communications and you’re building a love affair between a product and its consumers.
At Woodshop, we have a saying: “Before you go forward, you have to go back.” When we get a brief from an advertiser or an agency about their product we immediately ask three questions.
- Who. As in, who are we talking to? Without this, no product can hope to build a meaningful connection. Adults 18-49, for instance, is a group that includes both people who have never had sex and people who are grandparents. From an emotional, as well as a practical perspective, their views about what makes a car appealing are solar systems apart.
- Why. Why do you want to emphasize that angle? Why will the audience care about that feature? Many marketers get stuck on their list of hero shots. But unless you’re explaining, or better still, demonstrating, the value to the consumer, you’re just talking to yourself–or worse, your product’s designer.
- How. Depending on the product’s category, these questions range from “How does it work?” to “How does it compare to … ?” The latter is always important because audiences often establish a relationship with a product by relating it to something they already know.
American Express has built a powerful emotional connection with its audience by turning a green piece of plastic into a symbol of personal service and trust. The company’s ability to answer the “who,” “why,” and “how” questions in extraordinary detail allows them to present their products with confidence and specificity, two attributes that build long-term, trusting relationships.
Audiences relate to personalities, and every product can be infused with one, whether it’s made from sheet metal or vapor (as in Vicks). Sometimes, we establish a specific personality type to affirm an audience’s belief about a product. Or, we add depth to the relationship by introducing a surprising aspect of the product’s persona. Interestingly, we’ve found that even “aloof” can be valuable–building a sense of scarcity and desire, if used correctly.
Coca-Cola, the perennial winner of the cola wars, has always sought to present itself as confident and friendly. Pepsi, on the other hand, has consistently adopted a more energetic persona, as it sought to play catch up. Whether you measure by sales (almost 2:1) or Facebook fans (34.8 million vs 6 million), we’ll leave it to you decide which has proven the better choice
FRAMING / COMPOSITION
Framing and composition must reflect a product’s personality. Doing this effectively requires a well-designed visual hierarchy.
- Is the most important feature in the proper area of the frame? This is guided by the Golden Rule, developed by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, which defines the four points of intersection within an image that are of greatest interest to the eye.
- Are we effectively communicating the product’s personality, through our choice of framing and angle?
- Have we provided enough environment to create understanding for and connection with the audience?
Keeping these concerns, and a host of other subtle references, in balance allows composition to play its essential role in building a product’s relationship with its audience. Get it wrong and you isolate when you should be connecting.
In the multi award-winning Old Spice spot, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” the Old Spice product is in frame for about 10 of the commercial’s 30 seconds. In that time, it is never shown close enough to read the product label, but it is always in the area defined by the Golden Rule as being of maximum interest. That piece of composition is no accident. Consumers understand you need to show them your product, and usually want you to as well. But they want you to make it worth their while, preferably on an emotional basis.
The question of motion goes hand in hand with that of composition and framing. The first question is what should be moving, the camera or the product? There are consequences to both.
A slow-moving camera or lens communicates calmness, thoughtfulness, and confidence. More dynamic motion projects enthusiasm and vitality. The energy provided by camera or lens movement sets the tone and provides the emotional context for the product itself. In many ways, camera motion is as important a stage as the surface on which a product rests.
There are technical issues that can restrict some camera movements, particularly when you’re working with computer generated (CG) products. This makes the question of motion a multi-faceted debate that needs to happen early in the design process.
The question of physically moving the product itself depends on the relationship you want to build with the audience. A nod and a wink, or a serious demonstration of capability and customer benefit?
If the product is going to move then the audience has to be convinced that the motion is justified by virtue either of the product’s own capabilities, or its personality. This is especially true of food which you move at great risk to the audience’s appetite appeal. In our work with Sonic, we worked to maintain a balance between appetite appeal (which itself is highly emotional) and the personality and sensibility we wanted to highlight. Record-setting sales prove that it was the right call for the relationship we wanted to offer Sonic’s customers.
Color has two challenges. Picking the right one to convey the emotion you want, and then using it effectively so that, figuratively, it leaves a mark on the audience.
The first reference point is whether the brand owns a color. If it does, that factors into every color decision.
UPS is brown. McDonald’s, Netflix, and CNN lean on red. BP and Whole Foods, green. In every case, the choice of color is driven in part by the quality the brand or product wishes to convey. Yellow is warm, red exciting, green calm and healthy. Some brands have deliberately chosen a multi-colored palette to communicate diversity. Of these, Google and NBC immediately stand out.
The second consideration is how color can be used to enhance the product’s physical appeal. When presenting food, we worry a lot about the color of the background environment. Will it emphasize a specific attribute of the product? Its freshness, or flavor. With cars, most of the time we want to work with grey or black. Not only do those colors communicate balance and neutrality, but they allow us to light in such a way that the environment can become part of the story, and allow us to show situations that reflect the audience’s own world and build emotional connections.
LOOK AND LIGHTING
Advertisers love their products, and in many cases their initial preference is to shoot a product practically. But in today’s world, the look of a product is a multi-faceted consideration.
The evolution of technology and the ubiquitous presence of screens of all shapes and sizes has changed our relationship with reality. Today, visual perfection has become the norm. Which ironically provides advertisers with a new opportunity because suddenly, authentic is sexy.
When creating the product in CG, is the goal photo-real, hyper-real, or surreal? What are the benefits in terms of aesthetics or demonstration, and how are we going to fill the emotional gap that hyper-real presentations usually create with the audience. Is perfect really what you want?
Calvin Klein has long established a look for its product that immediately establishes a relationship with its audience. In CK’s case, the human body acts as an aspirational mannequin and the look and the lighting immediately identify both the product and the mood. In CK’s case, the look itself became so strongly identified with the brand that there were many occasions when showing the product itself became unnecessary, a powerful example of the value of an emotional connection over a practical one for certain brands.
LOCATION, ENVIRONMENT, AND DRESS
As Malcolm Gladwell discusses in Blink, human beings absorb information in micro-second bursts and deduce enormous insight from fragments of evidence. This makes the choices of location, environment and dress absolutely crucial.
Location and environment are driven primarily by demographics, the goal being to create “relatedness” with the target-market. This also requires taking into account factors that might alienate potential customers. For instance, if your car commercial shows palm trees, drivers in cold weather climates will worry about the car’s performance in snow and ice. Incorporate a high rise, and the rural viewer will immediately begin to disassociate.
Dress is not simply a wardrobe choice, but includes decisions about how products are wrapped or accessorized. For instance, when food products come with wrappers, should the wrapper looks as though it has been handled by a customer or a food stylist? The former communicates authenticity. The latter, stylized manipulation.
The same considerations apply to attributes like refreshment. A highly stylized bottle or can bursting from ice against a high-tech backdrop suggests cool on multiple levels, but runs the risk of emotional disassociation from the audience. A six-pack in a cooler can be more authentic but less glamorous. As always, the choice needs to be both strategic and empathetic.
On a practical level, the choice of the surface on which a product is presented has a variety of implications. Matte or glossy can have enormous impact on whether the audience perceives the product as contemporary or traditional. Certain textures connect more easily with certain demographics–a clay tile, resonating differently than black and white marble or concrete. They also absorb and reflect light differently which has implications for both look and personality.
Corona’s television advertising of the last couple of years has used locations almost as an additional character, contributing both personality and relatedness in building the product’s connection with its audience.
Type talks. Sometimes literally. And what it says about your product can impact an audience for years.
Type has its own personality, and should reflect the characteristics of the product we want to accentuate. Above all, type must never be allowed to sublimate the product’s own personality. Changing a font that has become an established component of a product’s presentation is a monumental decision. Without explanation, the change risks undermining confidence in the relationship between product and audience.
Coke and Pepsi have been waging the cola wars since 1898. In that time, Pepsi has employed five distinctly different logos. Over the same period, Coca-Cola has strayed just once from its classic scripted font–in 1985, when it launched the ill conceived and short lived New Coke. By 2007, the company had restored the original logo as the product sought to rebuild the trust of its audience.
These are eight powerful creative forces and they need to be used with intent, as part of a disciplined process, or you suddenly find yourself playing three dimensional design chess, with each choice throwing the others into doubt. Get the balance right, and you’re instantly building lasting relationships between a product and its audience.
Sam Swisher and Trevor Shepard are founders of Woodshop–The Product Specialists.[Image: Flickr users Caden Crawford, Nozomiiqel, Thomas Leuthard,Katsuuu 44, Sudhamshu Hebbar, and Puuikibeach]