How marketers can rise to the challenge of the new visual economy

Instagram: shifting the balance of creative capital in favour of consumers
Instagram: shifting the balance of creative capital in favour of consumers

In the new visual economy, consumers' compulsion to edit, share and style their lives is challenging the fundamentals of marketing, writes Nicola Kemp.

If anyone was in any doubt that life really is beautiful, we have the photographic proof all around us - and the volume of images out there is rocketing. Analysts estimate that 10% of all the 3.8tn photographs that people have ever taken were produced in the past 12 months. Every two minutes we take more photographs than in the whole of the 19th century.

As Britain continues to morph into a smartphone nation, Instagram images and tweeted pictures have swiftly become units of speech in their own right, underpinning a new visual economy where, for social networkers, at least, experiences are to be recorded and shared, not moments in which to be lived. For digital natives, what is defined as real is constantly being challenged and many have assigned a higher priority to the recording and sharing of their lives than living the experience.

This shift represents a phenomenal challenge for brands and a huge democratisation of creative capital. Marketers are no longer the exclusive guardians of their brands' images.

This shift represents a phenomenal challenge for brands and a huge democratisation of creative capital. Marketers are no longer the exclusive guardians of their brands' images; when consumers have the power to distribute, adapt and distort product images and visuals, the art of marketing faces a fundamental shift. In this new visual economy, it is futile for marketers to hang on to the notion of control and stringent brand guidelines.

Dr Alex Gordon, chief executive of semiotics and cultural- insight agency Sign Salad, says that consumers are becoming brand-owners. "Brands are being defined by consumers who can use social-media channels to appropriate, interpret and parody them," he explains. Pointing to the rise of 3D printing, he predicts a future in which consumers can have total control of brand-creation and development.

Certainly in the visual sphere, the meteoric rise of Instagram has shifted the balance of creative capital in favour of consumers. At a time when some are choosing their leisure activity not out of personal preference but, rather, on the basis of what visuals it is likely to provide for their social-media feed, there is a growing army of consumers defining themselves not by what brands they buy, but what they share.

With the old rules of marketing being swept away, how can marketers get to grips with this new business environment?

A new visual history

In this digital, visually driven universe, consumers' personal history and sense of self has been superseded by their social networking profiles, providing an evolving snapshot of their lives.

Fiona Harkin, vice-president of content at innovation research and advisory firm Stylus, says the main shift in consumer interactivity has been driven by the fact the internet has no boundaries. "Today there is a mashed-up visual history where everything is available and images are no longer consumed in a linear way."

While it would be rash to declare that this new visual economy signals a shift in power away from the printed word, there is no doubt that how consumers record their lives has fundamentally changed. John Clark, planning director at brand design agency Coley Porter Bell, believes that society is becoming more visually mediated. "Words were once the most economically cheap thing to do and in many ways the shift toward visual communication has been very economically driven," he says.

Just as the printing press set the written word free for the masses, the smartphone has empowered this generation to share how they see themselves, and their lives, with ease.

Just as the printing press set the written word free for the masses, the smartphone has empowered this generation to share how they see themselves, and their lives, with ease. This trend will only increase: according to research and consumer-insight firm Future Foundation, while 47% of UK consumers currently have a smartphone, this will increase to 80% by 2020.

Gordon explains that this shift has, in essence, moved consumers from a culture of exclusivity to inclusivity. "There used to be that small circle of trust, but this move toward mass sharing of images is all about a new spontaneous and mass experience." While the focus among many consumers is creating their own personal cultural capital, these images know no boundaries.

The age of airbrushing: a shifting aesthetic

The new visual economy has ushered in a new aesthetic. Social-media users are far more aware of their image and invest time and effort in cultivating their digital footprints, which are sometimes at odds with the reality of their lives. According to Future Foundation, 44% of consumers agree with the statement "I wish I could be more like the person I describe myself as on social media".

What consumers define as "real" is constantly being challenged and, at a time when consumers' recording and sharing of an image can submerge the experience itself, it is no surprise that marketers are struggling to keep ahead of their consumers.

Dirk Singer, director of social-media agency Rabbit, points to the rise of the "selfie", a cultural phenomenon where social- media users upload endless self-portraits, as evidence of the constantly changing visual ecosystem. "The selfie has produced a range of 'selfie celebrities' famous only for taking pictures of themselves, and they exist only in this arena. The definition of what an influencer is is constantly changing," he explains.

Consumer curators

Against this backdrop, consumers increasingly define themselves not just by what they picture themselves doing, but what they share. In the words of Voltaire: "Appreciation is a wonderful thing; it makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well."

Perhaps one of the easiest wins for brands is capitalising on this trend and encouraging key influencers to wear, use and share their products, driven by this desire to belong. However, many marketers, constrained by outdated campaign cycles, have struggled in the face of this real-time documentation.

"There is often a difference between the aspirational world a brand sets up in traditional advertising and the rawness of imagery on Instagram and Vine," explains Matt Dyke, founder and strategic partner at interactive experience agency AnalogFolk. "It is difficult to achieve consistency. Brands need to move faster, embrace speedy sign-offs and be clear about who is responsible."

Brands must also be wary of appropriating their consumers as their primary distribution and marketing channel. Kerry Rheinstein, account director at Future Foundation, says that the sharing economy has great opportunities for brands, but they should beware of relying on oversharing. "We think the sharing culture will decline over the next four or five years and it will become naff to overshare, so brands need to make sure they embrace more creative communications like Vine," she contends.

Fragmentation

The history of social media is one of intense fragmentation, and shifting to new technologies is nothing new. As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared in May: "The big stuff we are seeing now is sharing with smaller groups." In line with this, marketers should beware of believing that a presence on Instagram or Tumblr is in itself enough to keep abreast of this evolution.

Pointing to the Twitter video app Vine, launched in January, Rheinstein says that marketers should be prepared for fundamental shifts in the social-media ecosystem. "In advanced markets Facebook visits are declining, people are already looking for the next big thing and being creative and sharing things about their lives is key to this," she adds.

Certainly the fast uptake of Vine shows how consumers are becoming far more adept in their use of visual communications. Dyke says that people are starting to use images as a form of visual chat. "It's difficult to write a pithy Facebook post, but with imagery it's easier to consume and share," he argues.

Dyke cites Facebook's newsfeed design as evidence that the social network has reconfigured its approach to better focus on visual communications.

Filtering, but not as we know it

There is no doubt this vibrant visual economy has empowered consumers with a proliferation of tools to help them understand the world as it happens. Yet there is a major potential barrier to achieving that understanding: the fact that this evolving "ecosystem" is devoid of editorial control or informed judgement.

While the vast majority of consumers are embracing technology to filter their photographs and present the very best version of themselves, the fact remains that, in the truest sense, social media has no filter.

The idea that "Twitter is the new Associated Press" may have made a good soundbite, but it is an assertion that fundamentally fails to understand the messy, visceral and sometimes plainly horrific impact of the new visual economy.

While the vast majority of consumers are embracing technology to filter their photographs and present the very best version of themselves, the fact remains that, in the truest sense, social media has no filter. Digital natives have long since moved on from the notion that you would turn on the TV when a tragedy occurs. In the midst of the aftermath of April's Boston Marathon bombings, for example, the array of horrific images, unfiltered pictures of the very worst of humanity, and the complete lack of editorial control couldn't have been clearer. For brands, their glossy images and commercial messages stood in sharp juxtaposition to these shockingly raw images in social-media feeds.

The quantified self

The relentless rise of the new visual economy has certainly led to a fundamental slew in creative capital toward consumers. While marketers have had the rhetoric of big data rammed down their throats for years, the more subtle alteration in how consumers are recording, sharing and empowering themselves through recording and sharing their lives and data has been virtually ignored by brands.

The shift toward the "quantified self" is poised to become one of the biggest consumer trends for marketers to address, and the switch toward visual communication lies at the heart of this transformation.

Harkin says that digital natives are increasingly building up a wall of data around them. "Whether that's an image of somewhere they have been, a 'selfie' or a picture of a dress they want to buy, it is almost second nature to Millennials who don't know the difference between the online and offline worlds," she adds.

Hyperreality: the blurring of the real and virtual worlds

The emotional fallout and psychological impact of this trend is a key issue and, as the recent #fbrape campaign has shown, marketers need to have their eyes wide open when it comes to acknowledging the dark side of social media. The apparently inexorable rise of the "selfie" has, for example, brought with it a counter-trend of so-called "slut-shaming", where users take to social-media channels to criticise teenage girls for images they post of themselves. Make no mistake: cyber bullying is a modern-day version of stoning and the ever-increasing number of images and videos used to attack or criticise often vulnerable young people is not something marketers can ignore.

"This is the inherent nature of the internet," points out Harkin. "It is one big social experiment. You will never have control of it, but people and brands need to be accountable for their actions."

While consumers are often "economical with the truth" on social-media channels, the notion that consumers are somehow detached from their social-media images is fundamentally flawed. A plethora of research suggests that consumers do not distinguish between their real and virtual lives. In February, researchers working for the US Department of Defense found that the proportion of drone pilots working from remote locations who experienced severe mental health problems was the same as pilots of manned Air Force aircraft in regions such as Iraq.

Ruptured reality

At a time when individual consumers are acting as their own art editors, ironing out their perceived imperfections in digital images, the chasm between their real and virtual selves is manifesting itself in an array of new trends. Dr Robert K Sigal, a plastic surgeon in the US offering a "FaceTime Facelift", a procedure designed to improve the way people look when using the iPhone's video chat app, is among a growing number of businesses capitalising on consumers' emerging digital-driven insecurities.

Sigal developed the procedure in response to the rise in patients who came in to consultations with their iPhones to show him how they looked on FaceTime. "People say 'I never knew I looked like that - I need to do something'," he explains. "We've developed procedures to specifically address it. I've started calling it the 'FaceTime Facelift effect'."

Of course, not every consumer would resort to cosmetic surgery to achieve the airbrushed effect that has become so easy to achieve online. Nonetheless, as the world holds up a virtual mirror to itself, an ever-increasing number of marketing and social challenges are appearing. A wave of feeling against the "Instagramisation" of photography is already having an effect. "There is a backlash against over-styled images and a shift toward showing things as they are, without filtration," warns Rabbit's Singer.

However, smart brands are already capitalising on the fusion of the real and virtual, seeing it as a branding opportunity. Nike's photoiD app invites consumers to post Instagram images that are then styled into customised Nike trainers specifically designed to reflect their images. The development of wearable technology such as Google Glass is only set to speed up this fusion.

Just as the smartphone freed technology from the doldrums of our desks, this coming generation of wearable technology will lift the limitations from the new visual economy. Computer scientists have long argued that the adoption of such devices will empower consumers by making technology less disruptive to their connection to the present moment.

One thing is clear: the battle for consumers' attention will only get fiercer. The big question for marketers is whether it will be the real world or the virtual one that will slide into consumers' peripheral vision.

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