Visual influence versus word of mouth: how brands really spread and why men talk about shoes


We recently talked to two quite different audiences about fashion, specifically footwear. The first were adult male runners; the second teenage girls. The former were clearly having a lot more conversations with their friends about shoes.

The explanation for the surprising male garrulousness was fairly quick to find. The cult of Chris McDougall and Scott Jurek and debates over barefoot products were fueling pub arguments better than a craft microbrewery. The real surprise was the comparative lack of conversation among the girls.

Teenage years are about constant watching. Remember that feeling that people ‘are looking at us’. A lot is unsaid when we’re a teenager. We absorb the rules, but we don’t express them. As teenagers we are exceptionally good at the kind of unconscious pattern recognition that psychologists like Arthur Reber have identified, where our ability to learn cultural rules far outstrips our ability to recognise them consciously or articulate them.

Spending time with groups of teenage friends, there would often be moments where they looked at each other and expressed out loud something that they all knew instinctively but had never discussed: what it was that marked the boundaries between different tribes at college; who could and who couldn’t work a particular look; which brands were still right for them and which had lost their kudos.

The girls described how they are constantly, unconsciously picking up on the cues around them – how sometimes when they get to college they realise they have tried to recreate a version of a look they saw online the night before. They were far more interested in fashion than the male runners, but their absorption of fashion was constant, low-key and visual.

The digital world seems to be heading towards this visual influence, or mimesis, and away from what we might call word of mouth. The momentum in social networks is firmly towards the visual, with Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr taking us far away from the early world of forums. We are absorbing and navigating through images; we are adapting our brand choices from what we see rather than what we hear people say.

The most successful brands tend to have a very visible presence, which allows us to absorb how, where and by whom they are being used and thereby make these unconscious judgements. This has been true for many years of Guinness, Nike, Coke. We see them being consumed; we rarely talk about them. It has more recently helped Moleskine, Apple, the resurgence of DMs. For years technology companies sold products via their superior specs and features, which could be earnestly discussed and debated. Apple has come to dominate technology mainly through mimesis.

Few people have a very developed framework for understanding this visual influence. (Although Mobile Youth have interesting things to say about it here.) We certainly don’t have a grand theory or model for doing so. But we are interested in the questions that it raises: What is the relationship between this mimetic influence and what we traditionally think of as word of mouth? How does the importance of each vary by category? And are there categories like consumer technology and social networking which are moving from word of mouth to more visual influence?