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PHIL HARDWICK — Image is everything, even in Mississippi


When I taught a college Communication course a couple of years ago I would begin the first class of the semester with having students interview each other and then introduce the person they interviewed to the rest of the class. Then, without giving them any information about myself except what they could see in front of them I would give them a multiple-choice question.

What kind of vehicle does the instructor drive?
a. 2012 Chevrolet Impala
b. 2015 Nissan 350-Z
c. new Ford F-150 pick-up
d. 2018 Subaru Outback

Typically, about 40% of the class would choose “C,” 30% would choose “a,” 20% would choose “d,” and 10% (or less) would choose “b.”

Most were then surprised to be told that this mature person of an instructor drove the Nissan 350-Z. What followed was a lively discussion about why that vehicle was selected. Part of the discussion was about what people thought when they saw an older man driving a sports car. The most common perception was that the driver was having a mid-life crisis.

Truth be told, I have almost always driven a sports car or sporty car of some kind. My first car was a 1968 Camaro. While still in my twenties, I had a Corvette, an MGB, and a Fiat X1/9.   I just love driving. Still do. Not long ago I sold the 350-Z and bought “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” Perhaps I am an outlier. Maybe older guys who drive sports cars are having a mid-life crisis. Not me.

But this column is not about cars. It’s about assumptions others might make about you, your company, your organization, or your community when they see certain images. It’s about messaging and perception. It’s about how our minds make judgments and perceptions when we see an image. What message or impression is created by the image you, your business, your organization or your community sends.

When I think of examples of company image I harken back to Apple vs PC commercials in the mid-2000s. Most advertising experts agree that it was one of the best marketing campaigns ever. In the commercials, there are two men. One is Mac. He’s young, hip and confident. He dresses casually. The other fellow is also kind of young, but he’s wearing a suit and tie. He has on eyeglasses. He seems very proper. These two images said more about the products than computer specs ever could have. Were they effective? Apple experienced a 42% market share growth in its next year. By the way, Microsoft retaliated, but the damage was done. If you have an extra 39 minutes go to YouTube and search for “Complete mac vs pc ads.” There are 66 of them.

Images often cause us to make quick decisions. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, in which he pointed out that when making quick decisions we judge a book by its cover. He referred to it as “thin-slicing” – using a limited amount of information received over a limited period of time to come up with a decision.

Just to illustrate how effective an image can be, I suggest that you can connect the following 10 images with their companies or products:

1. a koala bear
2. a team of Clydesdales
3. a brown parcel delivery truck
4. a silver apple with a bite taken out of it
5. a little girl with red hair and pigtails
6. a peanut with a black hat
7. Colonel Sanders
8. a white duck
9. white cows with black spots
10. a small green lizard
11. a clicking stopwatch
12. A handsome cowboy

Just in case you could not identify all of them, the answers are listed below.

Image matters. Obviously, it matters to the companies above because they spend millions of dollars in an effort to make you think of them when you see their image.

States and cities also spend a lot on creating an image. Consider “The Pelican State,” “The Sunshine State,” and “The Peach State.” Most people can identify those states right away. And isn’t there a state for lovers? Oh yes, it’s Virginia. Sometimes, a state’s image can be difficult to visualize. Even though Mississippi may be known as “The Magnolia State” or “The Birthplace of American Music,” it still has a problem with its image. During this year’s Mississippi Economic Council Tour the first question asked in its audience survey was “How do you view Mississippi’s Image? – Positive, Negative, Not Sure.” A vast majority of respondents (over 80%) selected “Negative” and in one city, 100% of respondents selected “Negative.”

In summary, image is an impression and/or a conception. It can define a company, an organization, a community or even a state.

Answers: 1. Qantas Airlines, 2. Budweiser beer, 3. UPS, 4. Apple, 5. Wendy’s, 6. Planters Peanuts, 7. KFC, 8. AFLAC Insurance, 9. Chick-fil-A, 10. GEICO Insurance, 11. CBS 60-Minutes, 12. Marlboro cigarettes

» PHIL HARDWICK is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist. His email address is phil@philhardwick.com.


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About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.