Jan 30, 2019

Brands need more than words to converse with consumers.



Culture of Proximity 2.0 is a docu-series produced by Velocity—Viacom’s in-house branded content studio—that includes insights about millennials and Gen Z which brands can use navigate the new cultural landscape.

This is the first in a four-part series. Explore more:


Images and symbols, in the form of emojis, GIFs, and memes, dominate today’s conversations—not words.

Diving deeper into an examination started in the first iteration of the series, The Culture of Proximity 2.0 opens by investigating this emerging visual language.

Velocity found people rely on visual communication to define themselves, better understand others, and strengthen their connections. Their research decodes this type of communication so marketers can speak these new languages fluently.

The rise of images as speech.

When body language, tone, gestures, and other forms of human context are absent, people seek new means to clarify the messages they receive and the ones they deliver.

As a result, visuals are the new common tongue. In fact, according to Velocity’s research, 87% of people said they used an emoji in a post or a message within the last week, 72% used a video clip, and 68% used a GIF.

As digital communication is devoid of physical context clues, such as body language and tone of voice, visuals can bridge any gaps in understanding. They allow people to feel close when they aren’t.

“We now have a new type of communication between people that makes them feel like they’re in the same space,” said Vivian Rosenthal, the CEO of digital marketing firm Snaps, calling visuals a “universal language.”

Yet, visuals are vulnerable to the ever-present tension between intention and perception. Consider the ? emoji: does it mean your feeling #blessed, or does it mean you’re throwing up a high-five? Is it more sincere to text your friend, “I’m really mad at you,” or a simple “?”? The reality is that people use images differently, and they understand images differently.

So how can brands use visual language for more clear and direct communication? According to Velocity’s research study, there are three ways to lean into visuals: to establish an identity, authenticity, and intimacy.

Create a complete picture of your brand identity.

The languages we choose also reveal who we are. With new communication tools—from animated emojis to Instagram surveys and Bitmojis to face filters—there’s new meaning to the classic “the medium is the message.”

Many rely on the new common tongue for assistance: 73 percent of people use visual communication to be more creative. Half of respondents reported using different platforms for “different audiences” or having fake accounts on top of actual ones. Some people adopt temporary identities. “I’m on a blue kick right now,” a 17-year-old female respondent said. “My whole Instagram is blue – all the pictures, and I only use the blue hearts in my captions.”

In a world with fragmented identities, brands can still effectively illustrate theirs.

It’s simple: Create an authentic identity. (Velocity found just 12 percent of people don’t agree brands should be personable.) And just like individuals, use different voices for different platforms.

But like with anything else, it’s important brands know and practice their limitations. Intention doesn’t equal perception. Consider, for example, when Cinnabon tweeted recently deceased Carrie Fisher had “the best buns in the galaxy.”

It’s better to be honest than perfect.

Most people feel compelled to be honest online—and expect the same from others.

Concurrently, the realities in most people’s feed only reveal a flattering fraction of the real world, and even then, they heavily edit themselves.

Knowing their own behavior, people therefore tend to distrust the authenticity of brands. In fact, 60 percent of respondents agree brands should be honest, but only 27 percent think brands actually are. Brands are held to a higher standard than people, with audiences expecting brands to be more real and genuine than their friends and followers.

This honesty gap is actually an opportunity for brands to build and maintain authenticity through two key ways: highlighting your brand persona with original visuals that are true to your brand voice, and embodying your brand values through campaigns and assets across all platforms.

Establish intimacy by being present.

Your consumer needs to know you’re there for them.

“You want to be virtually present in the same conversation,” internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch told Velocity. “Sending visual elements back and forth is a way of saying ‘I’m here.’”

From digital norms of falling in love to the secret languages of obscure message boards, mass culture has primed consumers to get intimate with brands:

  • Penetrate close culture—defined as the culture we create with the people around us—through a direct relation between product and consumer
  • Engage within the deep culture—defined as the culture we create together— of your consumers through online communities
  • Elevate moments of connection to reach crowd culture—defined as the subculture that shared passions create

In other words, intentionally get to know them. It’s important to rise above just using imagery to lure consumers. They are adept at sensing insincerity and will shy away.

Instead, be real: Don’t just use visual language. Become it.