From Commentary and Conversation into Practice
For those of us at the intersection of marketing technology and content development, the challenge seems clear: how do we evaluate cultural trends in imagery and reference these trends to engage with audiences across social and addressable media in a way that resonates with the stories we’re creating for brands? Engagement must translate not only into “likes” but also into creating meaningful conversations that can launch movements and lead to collective action. One way we can do this is through the creation and clever use of iconic imagery.
What makes an image iconic?
We can start with three essential elements: culture, content, and context.
Does the image convey the state of our culture?
What are the formal aspects of the content--its subject, style, and composition/presentation?
As for context, who created this image and where is it oriented/positioned? On which social media platforms?
The sheer magnitude of images on social media and their homogeneity of style can make it difficult to discern any meaning in any of them. But when an iconic image breaks through, it can resonate deeply with an audience, creating a sense of shared experience, common ground, community, and trust that can sustain over a long period of time.
How can we attract audiences with imagery?
The name Haddon Sundblom will be lost on many people, but the illustrations of Santa Claus he created in the 1930s for The Coca-Cola Company remain instantly recognizable to this day. Sundblom’s work is both timeless and yet of a specific time and place. The images invoke a feeling of sentimentality and nostalgia for happy times with family and friends.
So the question is, how can we create permanent associations between brands and images that resonate with specific audiences today?
Much like the Coca-Cola example, marketers are still using imagery to attract audiences but the culture, content, and context have changed a lot since the 1930s.
Nike’s advertising partnership with Colin Kaepernick in 2018 is a good example. That campaign and the accompanying imagery became flash points around some deeply divisive issues in the U.S., including those around race, politics in sports, and big business. None of the backlash or controversy the Kaepernick campaign provoked was lost on Nike founder Phil Knight.
“It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it,” he told Fast Company last year. “And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.”
In an era of visual homogeneity, let’s look at some of the current trends that leading image makers are using to break through and influence culture.
Rather than looking to create aspirational images, there’s been a trend toward documenting fashion in a way that feels more accessible and honest. Photography referencing the transparent style of Richard Avedon or the more raw, spontaneous style of photojournalism has become a trend that audiences may find more honest and relatable.
Perhaps it’s a matter of living in cynical or uncertain times (impeachment hearings, anyone?) but there has been a growing tendency toward the use of shadow, noir, or dark imagery in portraiture and editorial imagery. The use of chiaroscuro-influenced lighting recalls the paintings of Dutch Masters like Rembrandt. The balance of light with darkness can be beautiful and memorable. The images resonate, especially against the very clean, bright, and clickable early Instagram style that became so ubiquitous and familiar.
Expressive tech refers to the use of AR (augmented reality) digital photography filters on Snapchat and Instagram that can add virtual makeup to the image of a face, add or remove colors, and layer images with filters for greater self-expression. In contrast to the backlash at the use of AR for facial recognition for police surveillance in places like Hong Kong, visual artists are embracing the use of filters to reshape the model’s face and heighten the beauty, novelty or expressiveness of its form. Unlike the aspirational images of the past that New Realism rejects, Expressive Tech looks forward to a place where technology has become even further and organically enmeshed in our daily lives in a positive way.
#ASMR (Autonomous sensory meridian response)
Visual and audio content that provokes a deep sense of wonder, tingles the brain, and otherwise creates a sensory experience from which a viewer just can’t look away has been characterized as ASMR. Hashtags such as #oddlysatisfying, #satisfyingsounds, or #asmrvideo among many others provide a reference for this type of colorful, creative, and often kooky imagery.
Repurposing familiar spaces
The juxtaposition of a familiar space used for an unusual purpose is a novelty that captures the imagination and seeks to engage audiences through the experience. Dead shopping malls are transformed into pop-up art galleries. Designers such as Jacquemus stage fashion shows in lavender fields. Taco Bell’s pop-up hotel in Palm Springs is a surprising extension of that brand. These unexpected combinations of space and function grab attention by virtue of the curiosity they create. Brands can use this repurposing of space to provide backdrops for their consumers to immerse themselves in a brand experience and create novel imagery that the brand can broadcast out on its own social channels and hope that their customer also finds novel enough to cross-promote on their own.
In the same way that the selfie put consumers in control of their own image and the Instagram and Snapchat platforms created stages for its presentation so have consumers been able to recapture definitions of beauty to make them their own. Inclusivity is in and audiences are now able more than ever before to see a broad range of people and images that may more closely reflect their own lives. Technology enabled this transfer of power and brands and artists can tap into this trend by showcasing social diversity in campaigns.
Using imagery to lead culture and increase customer lifetime value
Sharing a brand’s ideas and values in an authentic way through imagery can build an audience that may engage with the brand on a deeper, more meaningful level and over a longer period of time. At their best, campaigns that lead the way in reflecting cultural trends help audiences sort through all the marketing messages sent to them and associate themselves with the brands that best champion their shared values.
This is the second of two posts based in part on a presentation by Alexander Tran of the projects on The New Image Economy.