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Whitepaper: The Power of Visual Storytelling

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Never before has the human race been better at spotting a fake. Getty Images Director of Visual Trends, Pam Grossman, confirms: “The viewer’s eye has become a lot more sophisticated,” and what it wants — above all — is something real.

The Power of Visual Storytelling

Data: HubSpot Content Marketing Statistics

In the age of the selfie, people want something that speaks to them personally. Images that come off as constructed, airbrushed, or posed no longer resonate. People want the unpredictable, but familiar at the same time. They want real, candid moments from everyday life. Moments that speak to the human experience.

That’s the kind of connection that secures a strong and stable bond. Authenticity taps into the passions and emotions of an audience, letting them see something of themselves in the images and turning them into eager advocates of the story you’re trying to tell. User-generated content (UGC) reveals real people and places, meaning real moments and emotions that establish a new kind of heightened digital intimacy.

So, how do you select authentic images for your brand? First of all, keep it honest. It may sound obvious, but there is tangible proof that real rules. According to the Wall Street Journal, Olapic co-founder Jose de Cabo discovered that users clicking on photos of real-life people are twice as likely to convert to a sale. That’s something any marketer can get on board with.

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“The aesthetics of UGC – authenticity, openness, the everyday – tap into strong and important ideas…through the realness of slice-of-life images, brands show that they understand you, your life and concerns.” – Micha Schwing, Getty Images Director of Content Strategy

Case Study

Dove has long embraced authentic in their brand campaigns. By now, we’re all familiar with Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, which continues to celebrate the true beauty of real-life women and girls as well as its tenth birthday this year. Few brands have been able to so seamlessly master the art of authenticity, much less keep it going for so long. In 2006, long before the topic was on the tip on everyone’s tongues, Dove launched its “Evolution” YouTube video, which illustrates the transformation a model undergoes from start to finish: makeup, airbrushing and all. A caption reads, “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted,” which introduces the importance of a more authentic paradigm.


The brand’s latest video effort is called “Patches,” and features a group of women who undergo a two-week experiment in which they apply a “beauty patch” to boost their looks and self-perception. The result? Happy, confident ladies, who are shocked to find out that the secret ingredient of those patches is…nothing. Creating something that needs nothing to evoke powerful results sums up the power of authenticity. What started with a simple bar of soap has transformed into a brand bent on revolutionizing the way women perceive beauty and themselves. That’s a brand we can get behind, and one that cares about what’s real and what’s not.

Key Takeaways

1. Articulate your brand personality. Select images that amplify your voice. Before you can select an image that conveys authenticity, you must first lay out what is “authentic” to your brand. What is your brand purpose? What is your mission? Who are you talking to? Once you define the core pillars of your brand and voice, these principles can become an “authenticity” filter that you run all of your selected images through.
2. Learn what resonates, and constantly align your strategy to match. As you integrate visual content into your strategy, look at what resonates. What posts get the most shares and clicks from your target audience? What is the subject matter and style of those photos? This will help guide your visual content selection based on what resonates with those you are trying to reach.
3. Keep it relatable. While celebrity photos work, always balance them with images that form a connection with the viewer. When selecting visuals, leveraging images that feel candid help build your brand identity in a more human way. If you are using images of celebrities across social channels and on your website, make sure you are also including images of real people that embody your brand as well.


We spend our lives almost entirely online, but most of us have had it up to here with digital. People want to cut through the screen, and let themselves be engulfed by visceral experiences.

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Data: Web Marketing Group Infographic Statistics

We want zoomed in, we want high detail; wrinkles, textures — the nitty-gritty. We want to go beyond pixels, we want to smell and touch. A striking image strikes for just that very reason.

The more senses a visual is able to engage, the more attention it receives and the more information is retained. Our minds are full of an endless visual library, one that influences everything we see and how we see it. All-encompassing visceral exposure draws on a viewer’s memories, past sensations and experiences, building stronger connections in the brain.

Our culture has succumbed to information overload, but our senses still yearn to be stimulated. What happens to real meaning in an age of digital excess? Technology has developed around us at such a break-neck pace that few have had a chance to catch their breath. But there is a growing clarion call to return from where we came — we want the feel of handmade, we want the details of the precious moments of our everyday lives. We want what’s real — or at least, what feels real.

Here are some examples:

The Power of Visual Storytelling

The Power of Visual Storytelling

The Power of Visual Storytelling

“We’re fatigued by what digital life has become. Our culture has become driven by information overload, but our sense still yearn to be stimulated. What happens to meaning in an age of digital excess?” – Patty Grossman, Getty Images Director of Visual Trends

Case Study

Squarespace has put sensory-evoking imagery at the heart of their visual brand identity. Squarespace does a fantastic job of engaging all five senses with its new yearlong (and aptly named) campaign, Details. The video features stunning close-ups and sound bytes of the very things that fuel the various creative individuals who choose Squarespace as their web platform. Water flowing over purple cauliflower and orange kiwano, mascara-clad batting eyelashes, reverberating bass strings, the repetitive precision of a sewing machine’s needle and thread: the viewer sees all of these visuals starting at maximal zoom and ending at how gorgeous it all looks on each separate Squarespace site. Coupled with the perfect sounds, the ad creates a jaw-dropping feast for the senses, and a very compelling argument to sign up for the service.


When our senses become overwhelmed, we feel fascinated and inspired — and we want to share that feeling. That’s a powerful response, especially when it comes to your brand and content marketing.

Key Takeaways

1. Don’t be afraid of the tactile. Choose images that people can almost touch. When selecting visual content for the web, it is a great opportunity to deliver a sensory experience to your audience. Pay attention to images with textures that viewers can identify. Select images with detail and allow your audience to build an emotional, recognizable experience with your content.
2. Leverage visual content to create intrigue and drive click. While every image should not adhere to this rule, it is a fun way to drive clicks and play with visuals. When selecting imagery with high detail, you can crop these images in a way that interests your audience, but encourages them to learn more. Just remember, the cropped image still must be able to stand on its own.
3. Create sensory experience in your images by highlighting details and imperfections as well as large scenes a viewer can get lost in – consider the micro and the macro in your visual imagery. Imperfections in photographs touch on both authenticity and sensory. They are things that people can feel and relate to. Let certain imperfections add to your style and narrative.


In every story ever told, a powerful character has fueled the narrative. These figures embody an array of personas that have remained more or less the same for thousands of years. Archetypes are written in our DNA and are just as powerful today as they were at the dawn of humanity.

The Power of Visual Storytelling

Data: HP Power of Visual Communication

They have been used as the main elements of storytelling throughout human history. Carl Jung, who was the first to explore and define archetypes, believed that all of mankind’s most influential ideas boiled down to these character traits, which allow us to use our senses to facilitate recognition and foster connections.

The most relevant branding archetypes, for instance, are Caregiver, Jester, Lover, Outlaw, Explorer, Creator, Hero, Magician, Sage, Ruler, Innocent and Everyman. These have evolved from a traditional set of classic characters and storylines that are still just as powerful today and can be used as inspiration to build powerful communication strategies. Through understanding the archetypal stories that shape our culture and values, brands can create more engaging content and better connect with their audiences.

Case Study

Learn In has both embraced and redefined the ideas of the archetype. The Lean In movement is making serious waves when it comes to constructing an image of the new woman. Partnering with Getty Images, LeanIn.org aims to create a library of images that empower women to take on the future at their fullest potential, instead of using visuals to assign them the same roles they’ve had to play for centuries. Lean In author and founder Sheryl Sandberg has said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” This project remedies just that. The popularity of the ever-growing collection continues to soar, depicting women in a widening array of professions, styles and situations, effectively creating a mirror for the possibilities that do exist and can exist, if only we imagine them.


When you look at an image, try and identify the characters you see within it. What will they mean to different people within different demographics? What are the connotations they present today, versus five or ten years ago? Give your viewers something they can relate to and watch the connections form.

What does a woman look like today? She’s a mother, but she’s also an artist. She’s a caregiver, but she’s also a badass. She’s a goddess who looks after her family and serves her country, too. She brings new life into the world, and she works a 9-5 to boot. She’s snapping selfies and saving lives. She’s strong, she’s independent — in a word, she is limitless.

When you look at an image, try and identify the characters you see within it. What will they mean to different people within different demographics? Give your viewers something they can relate to and watch the connections form. Seeing a part of yourself or something familiar in a visual is the first step toward evoking emotion, which is the first driver of behavioral change.

Key Takeaways

1. Create an aspirational persona for your brand – move beyond demographic and think about emotional connection. If your brand was a person, who would that person be? How would they talk? What stores would they shop at? What would they read? What would they do on a Saturday? Understanding your brand’s persona is key to understanding the people that should represent your brand in images.
2. Create personas for your target audience. What archetypes does your audience embody? Are they open-minded adventurers? The best moms on earth? What motivates and drives them — and how does your brand help them meet their goals? Defining the personas for your audience is key to understanding the images and people that will resonate with them.
3. You don’t need to embrace dated stereotypes. When selecting images, always perform a gut check. Does the image of the person articulate a stereotype? Does the image feel dated in terms of its political stance? Images of people are powerful, but with power also comes responsibility. You don’t want to make the mistake of selecting an image that feels like a 1950s advertisement for cleaning supplies.


We happen to be living through one of the most exciting eras of history, and nothing reminds us more of this than a powerful visual. This is an age of globalization and uprising, of revolution and new ideals. Cultural relevancy is on everybody’s minds and lips. That’s why it’s vital to keep on top of the game and ahead of the crowd, delivering localized content in real-time.
Today, we have nearly 200 years worth of stunning photographs and moving images that continue to construct meaning for moments gone by, giving them life long after they’re gone. The difference between a great photo and a forgettable one is an instant gut reaction — you know it when you see it. That’s why it’s vital to keep on top of the game and ahead of the crowd, delivering localized content in real-time.

Know your audience and trust them to open their minds. When it comes to marketing, viewers need to feel a connection with the brand through some regional or cultural relevance, while the brand maintains global appeal. How can you choose visuals that highlight regional culture while tapping into global human values?

To connect with audiences, choose images that capture a moment in real time and make relevant connections with how we live our lives today. The best visuals are immediate and timeless effortlessly and simultaneously.

The image that speaks to each generation is constantly changing, and visual producers need to be on top of that evolution. What’s coming next? How can you connect with your audiences to anticipate the next visual trend?

“It’s necessary to take risks, even if they may alienate some of your audience. It’s always good business practice to be progressive and assume that people are going to catch up.” – Pam Grossman, Getty Images Director of Visual Trends

Why? Because it’s inevitable. Time waits for no one, so even the stragglers will come around sooner or later. With so much beauty in the world, it’s a shame that it’s still necessary to “overcome” our differences. Cultures and disparate ideals are colliding, and they need to be embraced. Image-makers and visual trendsetters hold the power here — the power of influence.

Case Study

Honey Maid embraces cultural relevance and takes a stand for modern families. Honey Maid’s most recent campaign is a great example of progress in visual marketing. In 30 seconds, the once old-fashioned graham cracker brand succeeds in placing itself at the forefront of one of the country’s most compelling topics: the evolving definition of family. The campaign celebrates all kinds of families — real-life families — and sheds a new light on our concept of “wholesome” to encompass every possible kind, including single, military, homosexual and interracial parents.


The incredibly moving and on-point campaign illustrates cultural relevancy like no other, and triggers viewers’ emotions in a deeply heart-warming way. And for all the haters out there? Honey Maid anticipated their resistance, and fired back with a followup spot in which two artists created something beautiful out of their negative responses, simultaneously highlighting the fact that the love the ad received greatly outweighed the hate. That’s an example of a forward-thinking brand that covers all of its bases and has a deep understanding of its audience and the world that we live in. Powerful branding follows change — extraordinary branding leads us towards it.

New visions and realities are constantly coming into light — new kinds of people, new kinds of families, new kinds of societies. All kinds of bodies, all kinds of skin. All kinds of men and women ever-evolving towards something better and brighter.

Key Takeaways

1. Embrace imagery that is bold, takes risks, and pushed the boundaries of cultural acceptance. When taking a stand, always consider your target audience. How can you select images that are relevant to them and their beliefs? How can you use imagery to stand behind your target audience and take a stance for what they believe in? Just make sure that the stance you take addresses your target audience and brand persona appropriately.
2. Be in the moment — an image or Snapchat may not last forever, but it can evoke real emotion and impact. Ephemera is becoming the norm. But just because it doesn’t last forever, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be thoughtful. By jumping on the real-time bandwagon and creating thoughtful imagery, you can build emotional connections with your audience. Relevancy is not just about the image itself, it’s about the context the image exists in.
3. Know where the line is. Pay attention to the moment in time, and be sensitive to it. If there is breaking news that affects your audience — or a global audience — it is not the time to leverage images for self promotion.

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