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Preparing for the post-literate consumer

By Martin Kihn | Senior vice president, marketing cloud

November 5, 2020 | 8 min read

Do words even matter anymore? After all, visual mediums like TikTok, Netflix and YouTube are dominating consumers’ attention. What’s a marketer to do? Salesforce’s Martin Kihn discusses how marketers can still reach a non-reading audience.


Let’s imagine you were unlucky enough to be a visitor to our planet today, and you wanted to learn something about us from our media consumption. What would you see?

Well, you’d be overcome by images. TikTok has more than 500 million active users, and its 15-second maximum clips are watched 17 billion times a month. (Note: there are only 7.5 billion people on Earth.) Snap has 300 million users, and it’s growing faster than Facebook and Twitter, which seem wordy by comparison.

Photo- and video-heavy Instagram is favored by Gen Z over Facebook, and its content is more likely to be shared. Meanwhile, the second most-visited website in the world – with over two billion monthly users, second only to its parent Google – is YouTube.

Our TV screens are growing larger than our walls, surging eight inches on average in the last five years. And the most prevalent cultural phenomenon other than TikTok dance challenges is probably binge-watched streaming services, which spend more than $35 billion a year on new video content.

Blogging is dead and other favorite headlines

You’d be forgiven for believing that we’ve forgotten how to read. Judging by our popular culture, we’re becoming a post-literate, oral society, one whose always-dominant visual sense has overwhelmed our reasoning to the point where 72% of consumers now say they prefer all marketing to be delivered via video.

We don’t notice this trend because we’re part of it, but historian do. An iconic 1958 VW ad cited for its visual austerity contained just 165 words, including ’Lemon’. Last year, VW ran a magazine ad – remember magazines? – that had all of 13 words, including ’Volkswagen, it’s plugged in.’ Newspapers have seen subscriptions decline 70% since 2000, echoed by the 20 million hits received to the search “is blogging dead?”

And when asked what drives results, a recent survey of successful blog writers came up with a rather poignant answer: video!

You can’t even assume people can hear you anymore. One survey found that 92% of consumers watch videos with the sound turned off. We’ve segued into a world of pure imagery, reality with a single key.

Of course, it’s understandable. Sight is our dominant sense and is more primitive than the others. Almost 90% of the information going into our brain is visual, and 40% of neural fibers flow to our retinas. Images are processed much faster than text, which is a learned input that requires years of practice.

Words still exist. This sentence is proof. In fact, it may seem odd to be making such a statement in words, to a literate audience. But mass culture increasingly treats words as a kind of visual fillip, a graphic element used for iconic rather than informational content. Increasingly, American consumers are like English-only speakers who visit Tokyo, struck by the occasional familiar word among the kanji script.

Marketers: visualize this

How can a marketer adapt to the rise of the post-literate consumer?

First, make sure your brand has a strong visual identity – stronger than you think it needs. A recognizable logo and color palette aren’t enough. Assume consumers will not look at your logo – after all, they’re certainly multitasking. Your brand identity must be so strong it can be communicated simply through a consistent, insistent drumbeat of the same colors, fonts, shapes and styles.

Some of the most persuasive work on the impact of advertising, courtesy of Karen Nelson-Field and The Attention Economy, shows that most of its power comes at the margins: from passive, almost subliminal consumption, working on our neural pathways visually when we’re not quite aware that it’s there.

Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg Bass Institute influentially made a similar point in How Brands Grow. Sharp stressed the importance of “mental availability,” which is not awareness (as he often reminds his Twitter followers), but rather how familiar a brand’s (primarily visual) sensory associations are to consumers.

So be visually consistent, like your brand depends on it.

Second, simplify and streamline your cues. This is another trend that’s obvious to those who’ve looked for it. Logos, fonts, web pages, graphic design – all are retreating from clutter and complexity. It’s almost as though a decline in literacy has extended to the visual realm, or maybe we’re all just overwhelmed and told our visuals that – in the words of Taylor Swift – they need to calm down.

Cut the text. Lengthen the tweet?

Plenty of research confirms that most people prefer simplified designs that are neither complex nor particularly original. Simplification includes increasing the amount of white space, beautifying images – and cutting text.

The rush to simplification is engulfing logos. For years now, iconic brands such as Apple, Mastercard and Starbucks have extracted words from their logos. Coldwell Banker – echoing Hewlett Packard – recently reduced its letter count down to two: CB. And Tinder pulled a Nike not long ago, turning its logo into a wordless flame.

Third – and most importantly – know when to ignore this advice. We have been talking here about mass consumer audiences. If you’re selling advanced hydroelectric plants, different principles apply. And remember that for every trend there is a counter-trend.

Some years ago, I worked at an ad agency doing social analytics for a luxury car brand. Examining the Twitter conversation about the brand, I noticed an odd phenomenon: it was bimodal. I mean that about 80% of the comments were inane, silly, and crass – what you’d expect. But 20% were very different: intelligent, thoughtful, almost nerdy. I concluded there were two different Twitters out there.

If you’re appealing to the second Twitter, the realm of academics and the informed, don’t sound dumb. You may need to increase rather than decrease your word count.

As I suspect you already know, since you’ve made it this far into a 1,000-word essay on marketing, there’s still a lot of life left in words.

Martin Kihn is senior vice-president strategy at Salesforce.

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