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What every business owner needs to understand about visual marketing in our digital age


It doesn’t seem to matter how advanced the technology and marketing worlds become — there’s always going to be a place for traditional advertisements too.

The funny thing is, both digital and traditional marketing seem to rely on many of the same design principles and visual techniques to capture and keep the attention of the public.

Let’s take a look at the two realms of marketing and find out why both are still thriving thanks to a shared visual vocabulary and some well-established principles.

Visual design can fill “knowledge gaps”

According to Eric Lazar of SpeedPro, visual branding “transcends every aspect of a company’s presence in the marketplace.” But why?

Not to be unkind, but not every customer makes informed purchasing decisions. At some point, many customers decide they either have enough information or that the incomplete information they’re working with is enough to differentiate one product or service from another. So what gives them that last little nudge if the other data available to them doesn’t do the trick? If they still have unanswered questions, say?

Oftentimes, it comes down to visual design. The visual design and identity of a brand are found in its choices of colors, typefaces, types of images and even textures. In other words, it’s a collection of things that stir the emotions rather than the intellect. In a toss-up between two similar companies with similar product offerings, it’s this extra “fit and finish” and “perceived value” that can tip the scales in your favor.

Best of all, paying attention to your company’s “visual identity” in a real way is a task that applies to print and traditional advertising as well as to digital. Good thing, too, because according to some experts, more than 90 percent of purchase decisions happen on the unconscious, emotion-driven level. And in just about any type of environment, a strategic use of color and placement is associated with higher levels of visitor comfort.

Sometimes it’s about what you’re not saying

There’s a certain strategy involved in the deployment of silence and white space in nearly any kind of creative medium. If you’ve seen the “Blair Witch Project,” you know about its brilliant use of a pure black canvas. Back in the day, people were dumbfounded at having paid 10 or 12 bucks to watch a blank screen for a portion of that 81-minute runtime. But we identify it today as one of the most effective suspenseful movies in recent memory. It’s aged very well, and probably a big reason why is because it was unapologetic in its methods.

To switch back to visual design, brand identity and product design, consider just how polarizing something like Jony Ive’s (Apple’s lead designer) custom-commissioned cover for Wallpaper* Magazine was. It was a success first of all because it was so completely different from every other magazine cover in existence that people started talking about it nearly reflexively. It’s an aggressively clean design, almost laughably so. But here’s that emotional response every company and brand is looking for: the “X Factor” that will make somebody pick your magazine up off the newsstand or your product off the shelf.

But it was a triumph for another reason too: because it was objectively (and subtly) subversive in how it upended design trends broadly, and Wallpaper* Magazine’s established design language specifically. It’s a reminder that sometimes the most effective design for something that’s meant to move products or copies of magazines is one that says as little as possible. Customers, despite their desire for information about purchases and brands, still want to be swept off their feet. They don’t want information overload.

Even the design of your website or app can take a page from this book. There’s value in withholding information that isn’t immediately relevant and embracing clean and intuitive design instead of clutter. The years-old trends of “flattening” and adopting unadorned “material design” for digital user interfaces — across desktop and mobile operating systems — seems to confirm this point.

However you go about spreading your message, advertising needs to be measured

Recent years have seen greater emphasis placed on analytics, including gathering and studying customer sentiments on your efforts and keeping track of traffic, sales, bounces, abandoned carts and much more. Marketing isn’t much different — and it’s possible to dig in and analyze even the most apparently unimportant parts of your campaigns, including the visual cues and variables we’ve been discussing.

For internet marketing campaigns and website redesign iterations, A/B testing can be one of your best friends in ensuring your home page, landing page, product pages, email dispatches and everything else are working as intended. A/B testing, of course, involves serving one design to one group of users and another design to another group, then gathering data on which version produced the best results. In this case, the result you’re chasing is an emotional reaction, culminating in a sale or another type of conversion.

But you can do A/B (or “split”) testing even for printed media, mailers and other physical marketing efforts. For advertisements that exist physically in the world, you can “test for” the desired consumer response by including different discount codes in marketing material variants, for example. When customers bring that coupon in to make a purchase, you’ll have a better idea of which design(s) landed and stuck around most successfully in their minds.

Remember consistency

We tend to notice when companies experience a midlife crisis or seem to go crazy before our eyes, grabbing at any new trend or “refreshing” or “rebooting” their visual identity so many times that people can’t hang on to a single cohesive impression of that brand. IHOP’s recent rebranding is a prime example of when not to fix something that’s not broken.

And think of the Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi rivalry. Today, Pepsi’s market share is about half of Coca-Cola’s, with the gap only having widened in recent years. Now, look at how many times Pepsi has refreshed their brand identity over the years and how few times Coca-Cola has.

We’re not claiming a direct or necessarily causal relationship — but it can’t be entirely a coincidence. It feels fairly likely that the reason Pepsi doesn’t enjoy the same place in American iconography nor the same level of brand loyalty is that customers can’t close their eyes and imagine the logos, colors and typefaces clearly. It hasn’t had a consistent brand identity for longer than a couple years at a time.

For all our talk about using advanced methods to test the variables in your design language, sometimes we get a solid reminder not to change things that don’t need changing. If anything, this trend is becoming even more important as brands seek a successful pivot to “digital first” and “digital everything.” If customers can’t come to expect a similar experience and a similar identity across your entire physical and digital existence, don’t be surprised if your success proves equally ephemeral and indistinct.

Nathan Sykes is the editor of Finding an Outlet, where he writes about the latest in technology and business. Be sure to follow Nathan on Twitter @nathansykestech.

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