Book review: Visual Hammer

BY Dylan Schoenmakers

Laura Ries explains why great taglines need great visuals, too.

This issue, we’re reviewing a one-two punch from Laura Ries, co-founder of Ries & Ries with her father, Al Ries. Catch up on our review of Battlecry.

How do you make your brand noticeable and memorable? A catchy slogan? Positive PR? A bottomless advertising budget?

Common sense would say it doesn’t hurt to have generous helpings of all three, but it wouldn’t provide the whole strategic picture. And Laura Ries knows what’s needed.

She should know: as the daughter and business partner of Al Ries, consulting and branding expertise runs in the family. Together they’ve authored a number of influential books, such as The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.

Visual Hammer marks her debut solo book, though it comes blessed with a foreword from her father, who trusts that her “visual hammer” concept will become as famous as his own positioning concept did in the indispensable, industry-changing Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.

It’s an appropriate foreword because Visual Hammer is in many ways a direct response to Positioning and its titular concept, which is that brands need to own a specific place, relative to competing brands, in the consumer’s mind.

But for the younger Ries, one aspect was overlooked in her father’s emphasis on verbal messaging: the visual. In her analysis, positioning strategies, like so much of the marketing industry’s methods of communication—plans, reports, taglines—typically favour logical and analytical text over the emotional impact of an image. (If the idea that words are “logical” and pictures “emotional” seems a little simplistic, we’ll return to this snag later.)

It’s an interesting thought and extension of her father’s work, one that concretizes in her suitably visual metaphor of the hammer and nail. The nail, Ries argues, is a brand’s verbal messaging that must be complemented by a powerful image, the hammer. Visual Hammer’s thesis is that a brand’s image provides a recognizable and memorable connection that then drives the brand’s message into consumers’ minds. Working in tandem, a strong brand message is made useful and effective by a complementary associative image.

Ries is quick to insist that Visual Hammer isn’t promoting a simple reversal of written/visual dominance. In fact, she often brings up the fact that the nail or brand message, as the objective of a marketing campaign, is more important, a claim that would remain consistent with the logic of Positioning. Her emphasis is that “a visual hammer is the best and most effective way to get inside a consumer’s mind.” The most successful visual hammers are ones that work in lockstep with a slogan, that supplement or enhance the original verbal messaging to increase its efficacy. The nail is still the element that gets “lodged in”; the hammer, being a tool, acts as the means to get it there.

So, what qualifies as a visual hammer, and how do you make one work successfully? This is what the bulk of the book is concerned with, and Ries uses real brand examples to provide case studies, backed up with generous research on sales and profits before and after brands have made major visual changes.

It turns out a visual hammer could be any number of images associated with a brand, and the chapters are organized around the multiple visual tools that could have an impact on a brand or function as a visual hammer, including logos and symbols (the Nike Swoosh), colour (the iconic yellow of McDonald’s Golden Arches), unique product qualities (Cheerios’ holes), packaging (Grolsch’s swing top) and company founders (KFC’s Colonel Sanders).

The extensive examples reveal a few of Ries’s principal rules for successful visual hammers.

1. Originality

Ries knows that top brands don’t always have the highest quality products, but are usually the first to distinguish themselves as leaders in an area, whether that’s through a new product or unique brand positioning. (I’m not a coffee drinker, but even I’ve heard—as Ries cites—that McDonald’s supposedly has better-tasting brew than Starbucks, whose logo communicates “high-quality coffee” more than the McDonald’s M.) Visual hammers profit from being associated with or conveying originality and therefore leadership.

2. Simplicity

For Ries, brand diversification that leads to internal differentiation is a no-no. (In other words, don’t differentiate between varieties of your brand; differentiate your brand from other brands.) FedEx’s original purple/orange logo was bold and interesting for a courier service, but now that a rainbow of colours is used to represent its many types of courier services, FedEx is associated with no colour. It’s lost the impact of its visual hammer.

3. Longevity

It’s hard not to expect constant visual refreshment in a world where “creative” is synonymous with “new.” But Ries argues that images, which are more strongly associative for a brand, should change infrequently and can benefit from a recognizable history (think long-lasting Tony the Tiger or Planters’ Mr. Peanut). Nails come and go, but better to keep a trusty hammer in your belt for a while.

4. Specificity

For a visual hammer to pair effectively with a verbal message, the two need to have a unified link. But the process of creating verbal and visual messages in isolation or in different departments can lead to a common problem: if messaging is too abstract or general, it’ll be impossible to find a visual hammer to connect with it. American Express’s “Take charge” or Audi’s “Truth in engineering” don’t make it easy to find a visual that unites those generic phrases with their respective brands.

Which leads to a problem of my own. In Visual Hammer, much is made of the fact that images can act as powerful associative aids—in a way that words never could—because words are cold and logical and pictures are emotional. (As anecdotal evidence, Ries suggests that more people cry when watching movies than reading books, to which I say: Google the phrase “book hangover.”) The right-brain, left-brain argument is a little reductive in its binarism, and it can’t be denied that successful slogans can have emotional resonance and brand recognizability, from State Farm’s warm and fuzzy “Like a good neighbour…” to the inspirational “ Just do it” of Nike.

But fortunately for Ries, that criticism can can be sidestepped because it’s not fundamental to her main argument that a powerful visual is the most effective means to drive a brand’s verbal message into the mind. There’s no denying that images do have a unique ability to symbolize a brand, connect with viewers and embed themselves in our memory.

All in all, there are more than a few good ideas in Visual Hammer, and Ries has come up with a simple, catchy metaphor to make sure those ideas stay hammered in.