Online Visuals Capture Consumers’ Brand Perceptions

Visual cues are overtaking the text in their messaging in defining online conversations. A new study published by INFORMS, an international association for operations research and analytics professionals, and conducted by researchers from the University of Colorado, the New Economics School in Russia and the University of Washington, found a strong link between the visual portrayal of a brand in online imagery created by consumers and the larger brand perceptions.

The research sought to measure how brands are portrayed on social media and how it relates to brand perceptions. Their goal was to better understand consumer brand perceptions and attitudes toward brands reflected in the imagery consumers post on digital platforms.

“Consumer-created brand images on social media are different from product images on retailer websites,” says Liu Liu of the University of Colorado. “Consumer-created brand imagery posted on social media depicts consumers’ interactions with brands and links brands with usage context, feelings and the consumption experiences.”

The researchers argued that these consumer-generated images send a powerful message as a form of testimonial for other consumers. They also offer the brand owners the opportunities to understand consumers’ brand perceptions.

“In much of the prior research in this area, the focus has been on text content,” says Liu. “Given that images are on their way to surpassing text as the medium of choice for online conversations, monitoring visual content is important to get a more complete understanding of online conversations involving brands.”

In the process, the researchers introduced a “visual listening in” approach to monitor visual brand content that was created and shared by the actual consumers on social media. They developed and validated a model, BrandImageNet, to allow firms to monitor their brand portrayal on social media and evaluate it relative to competitors’ and their own firm’s desired brand positioning.

“Our BrandImageNet model maps images to specific perceptual attributes,” says Liu. “We focused on identifying perceptual brand attributes rooted in brand images. This is different from identifying functional attributes of the product itself. One example we use in our research is a comparison between the Prada and Eddie Bauer brands. Which one is portrayed by social media users, visually, as the more glamorous, and which one is the more rugged one? Our model unequivocally points to Prada as glamorous and Eddie Bauer as rugged. Across all brands in our study, we find a strong link between model predictions and consumer brand perceptions collected with traditional survey-based methods.”

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