Is a picture worth a thousand words in European advertising?

Most US marketers invest a great deal of time, research, and effort in developing visual imagery for their marketing communications. The driving factor behind this effort is the idea that a communication piece has only a few seconds to capture a user’s attention and an image can convey messages both strongly and quickly. In fact, the reliance on imagery in marketing communications has grown exponentially in recent years. One reason is that consumers are inundated with messages, so an ad, website, or package has to capture their attention forcefully in order to be noticed at all. Another reason is based in neuro-marketing and the fact that visual images create multiple cues in the human mind, leading to multiple retrieval options, which could increase the potential for recall of the product’s message. Finally, the last reason is the rise in international marketing and the idea that images can convey a message more accurately across markets and cultures than text.

Recent research, however, indicates that these beliefs are only truly relevant in a media-driven country like the US. Extensive media usage studies have shown that people in the US watch considerably more television and read more image-intensive print magazines that European consumers. In Europe, people have a much stronger cultural tradition of reading newspapers and books vs. magazines; in addition, their television viewing and Internet usage is often to 50% less than their US counterparts.

The research study compared how US and European respondents reacted to two chocolate bars, initially and in later recall. One chocolate bar had extensive imagery on the packaging to convey the differentiating factors, i.e. creaminess of the chocolate and the included nuts. The other chocolate bar packaging was simply text based, describing the product and its key ingredients.

Not surprisingly, the US consumers preferred the visual packaging on the first bar and were able to recall the brand name easily several weeks later. However, the European consumers strongly preferred the text-based packaging, reading the entire package text rather thoroughly. Their recall of the text-based brand was extremely strong during several recall tests over extended periods of time.

Therefore, from an international marketer’s perspective, the emphasis on images may be misguided when creating messages for European audiences. The cultural propensity to carefully read information vs. a simple scan for information could mean that more text is justified, even required, in these markets.

Reference:

Mikhailitchenko, A., Javalgi, R., Mikhailitchenko, G, Laroche, M. (2008). Cross-cultural advertising communication: visual imagery, brand familiarity, and brand recall. Journal of Business Research, 63, pp. 931-938.

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