Coley Porter Bell's ECD, James Ramsden, spoke to Shots about System 1 thinking and how to harness the power of visuals.

It goes without saying that we live in a visual age. People now confidently share and communicate using pictures, videos and all things visual. From Instagram’s live stories, in-built GIFs and supersize emoji’s in iOS, to Snapchat’s filters, doodles, captions and curations on Pinterest; there are endless options available. The exponential rise in the way we share visual information with each other using film, video, icons and symbols, has even got people thinking about the impact on the future of the written word. 

Despite this backdrop, many ‘professional’ brand inventors, architects and creators tend to rely on keys, charts and onions, populated solely with words to communicate brand and communications strategies to creative teams.

So should we be relying less on words and more on visuals to communicate what a brand is or what it stands for? How important are visuals exactly?

It’s worth thinking about the theories behind what happens to our brains when we make decisions. Over the last few decades, neuroscientists have been conducting research that explores how we use two very different parts of our brain to navigate through the daily decisions we face. It’s called System 1 and System 2 thinking.

For example, System 2 is the deliberate, conscious, effortful but slow part of our brain. It’s the part we use to learn new things, or the bit we engage to solve difficult problems; but it’s not how we make most of our decisions as we go about our lives. 

The majority of our choices are actually made in the other part, System 1; the instinctive, intuitive and rapid response mode of thinking. It works constantly in the background, influencing the majority of our decisions without us even knowing it. 

One of the best ways to bring this to life is to think about an everyday activity that many of us do, like driving. If you’ve been driving for over a year, you probably wouldn’t think twice about the actions required to get from A to B. You’re on autopilot. But it didn’t always feel like that, did it? 

In the beginning, you have to engage your brain in every aspect of the process. From how long it takes to get the car moving to how intimidating it is to navigate a busy roundabout whilst remembering ‘mirror, signal, maneuver’. 

With time however, through repetition and experience, the art of driving moves from the effortful, hard and tiring System 2 into the everyday, instinctive and rapid response System 1.

It goes from something we have to think about, to something that becomes automatic and instinctive. 

Which is just as well. If we had to remember everything about all the things we have to navigate everyday and the decisions we have to make, our brains would probably explode. 

But, what has all this got to do with visuals? 

Unbelievably, 90% of the information our brains uses to decode all those auto pilot decisions when in System 1 mode are visual. Therefore visuals have the biggest influence on most of our decisions. This is because visuals are a shorthand for our brain to process vast amounts of complex information. They have the ability to over-ride all of our other senses. 

For example, if we see over and over again that the more expensive, high-quality face creams come in precious glass jars rather than tubes, the System 1 part of our brain will fill in the blanks and start to automatically assume that ALL creams in a jar are of a high-quality. 

In Phil Barden’s book ‘Decoded’, he tells a story about a cosmetics brand that undertook consumer testing to see which formulation of a new product consumers preferred, with some interesting results. 

In every state in America, product A got better results – but in one single state, product B got the best results. After much investigation into possible variables like demographics and weather, they finally uncovered the answer. 

In the rogue state, product B had been distributed in a jar rather than a tube. 

Due to the powerful way our brain processes visuals, product B having been delivered in a jar, overrode every signal for it to become the better performing choice. 

Certain colours can have a similar effect. When you see black food packaging in supermarkets, you’re likely to believe you’re buying the more premium or indulgent end of the range. However, when you see the whiter packaging, it often symbolizes the basic, value end of the range. 

Although everything moves in cycles, this simple theory is a tad clumsy. ‘Coding’ of this type is powerful and it’s woven into many people’s psyche, so much so, that only the most confident brands break away from the expected clichés. 

For example, Apple has very successfully used white to represent their extraordinarily-premium product, complementing the colour with the right materials, photography, layout and design to deliver a luxe experience. 

This highlights how important it is when we are developing brands to deeply understand the nature of visual appeal before we jump to obvious or pre-conceived ideas. Many designers and creatives do this intuitively, but the truly great ones often create and design brand worlds that turn conventional thinking on its head, creating something that is new and wonderful. 


How do we harness the power of visuals?

Firstly, you can use visuals to clarify meaning. After all, words have the potential to be ambiguous. What comes to one person's mind when you say ‘security’ for example, could be completely different to someone else’s. Are we talking bouncers, homes or parents? 

By incorporating visuals into the process of defining brands, you can create greater clarity for both the agency and client team, ensuring that everyone can see what the other person is seeing in their mind’s eye. 

Secondly, you could go further and use visuals to unlock hidden, more powerful equity lurking in our subconscious – as visuals are the dominant language of System 1. At Coley Porter Bell, we use a collaborative technique to brand equity creation that applies System 1 and System 2 techniques to build a visual brand essence for a brand or creative proposition. 

Using a combination of projective, intuitive and visual techniques, we help brands create a visual definition, understanding the brand’s story so its proposition is delivered in a way that connects with both system 1 and 2 parts of the brain. 

It’s called Visual Planning and it’s our commitment to use the shared understanding of the power of visuals to bring brands to life. In defining a brand visually, not just with words, we help unlock more powerful System 1 associations and in turn, more compelling brand equity. 

Lastly, by understanding how the System 1 brain decodes the visual world around it, you can design brand experiences that intuitively elicit the response or the behavior you are after. 

We have worked with the experts at Ogilvy Change and external neuroscience partners to identify some rules of thumb. They include everything from how to build in visual cues that imbue brands with human character traits, understanding and borrowing the visual language associated with particular concepts, and deconstructing a brands essential visual DNA. 

All of which helps brands increase the chances of real world success, where understanding and unlocking the power of visual, not just the written language, is increasingly important.

This was originally published in Shots.