Word. Image. Message.

Discussions about message architecture, content development and branded narrative have a funny way of focusing on words. That’s not surprising, since many messages we receive are word-only affairs. But consider the expression:

 Get the message?

Clearly, our collective consciousness is fully aware that messages are transmitted many different ways, including a range of visual and sound cues, not to mention the implications of a string of text. From an audible sigh to a flick of an eyebrow, to a hand gesture or a subtle shift in posture, we experience the multidimensional aspects of human communication every day.

What does surprise me is the common practice of treating message and design as two separate elements, the one accompanying the other—like a night club band clucking softly behind a yearning chanteuse.

And while that may sound convincing in a boardroom, out in the real world, it just doesn’t play. Why? Ironically, it’s just beyond the power of words alone to explain that. But maybe a few comparisons will help reify this somewhat slippery concept.

Flowing together, creating context.
Consider the home page of Citibank.com as of 3-19-13.

While it’s hardly path breaking, it conjures up a specific train of thought: contentment and satisfaction at achieving your goals. As a backdrop to the distressingly functional copy, it does more than accompany the words. It puts the copy in perspective so that together, word and image transmit a branded message.

Compare it to the credit card imagery on display at Chase.com and feel the impact. Where the Citibank home page is about me, the Chase home page is about merchandising.

At a different place in the spectrum is the Wells Fargo home page, where consumer imagery is jammed between price point copy and a call to action—the price point being emblazened against a bright orange background. The message? You can save on car loans and take a car trip with your family. But first, you gotta get the loan, Baby.

Hence, an ill-considered message rings out bright and brassy—from creative elements stacked side by side. In this case, the result is true to formula, an exemplar of frozen TV dinner Web design, with each component of the page walled off in its own little bin.

Dollar menu messaging.
Not that American banks are the sole owners of this brand of miscommunication. The absence of human connection at McDonalds.com is no less real for being slightly more subtle.

The disconnect is palpable, between the words, chirping about love, and the images, retouched to Botox blandness, as if they were made out of 100% U.S. Grade A plastic. The token salad, surrounded by food items that practically cross-promote the stent industry, conveys a mixed message at best.

Now, I’d be the last one to say the food at Burger King is any healthier. On the marketing front, however, they are better aligned with my sense of taste. Throughout the site, the BK product line is presented in a human context with a more naturalistic touch. While no people are present, you can at least imagine yourself entering the frame and reaching for a drink, a ‘wich, a dessert.

Yet, here too, the balance is off, as the virtual absence of copy is more dehumanizing than the lack of people. After all these years, apparently, this mainstay of American business has nothing more to say to consumers than “Here. Food. Now.”

Trite and false.
Meanwhile, at KFC.com, you come up against a different kind of message architecture malfunction. On an interior page, lovingly photographed sandwiches are juxtaposed against a trite headline, “Mouthwatering Sandwiches.” At the very least, the status of the adjective “mouthwatering” as a hoary holdover from 1950s promotional lingo ought to have been enough to make someone at KFC intervene.

Such a literal approach is a triumph of Marketing Anxiety on a grand scale, topped only by a stunning shot of a luscious desert, captioned “The Grand Finale.” Brand differentiation? Not so much. While the photos convey a viable brand promise (“We deliver a sensual experience”), the copy merely informs us that dessert is typically served at the end of a meal. For this, you don’t need an MBA in marketing.

As I see it, the consequences of treating art and copy as if they operate on separate planes include a radical downgrading of brand identity, trust and engagement. However you approach consumer outreach, know this: your message architecture is too important to be trusted to mechanical cobbling, committee-think or, God forbid, search engine optimization. It needs to be created, with an eye and an ear to where your core value lies as a brand.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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