On Saturday, I had the honor of being on a panel at SXSW Interactive with Oen Hammonds from IBM and Carol Milliron from SheSpeaks that was hosted by Davd Moon from BazaarVoice. The panel explored the role of visual story telling in brands. A key message that emerged from the panel discussion involved the importance of understanding the goals of the people you are trying to reach with visual messages. More broadly, this lesson is true for almost any aspect of innovation.

Many advertisers and designers start with visual images that they want to use to portray their brand in a positive way. The hope is to find the killer imagery to go along with the brand concept that will sway potential consumers or customers. Unfortunately, this approach misses the key role of the goals of the people you are trying to reach.

For example, Coca Cola has a wonderful strategy of creating ads that are engaging and force consumers to watch their logo for the duration of the commercial. This strategy is effective, because consumers are already well aware of what Coke is and when it is used. So, they are just trying to increase the mental accessibility of Coke and to make it easier for people to notice the Coke logo when they are in the store or in a restaurant. This strategy works quite well for any brand that is well-known by its customer base and is only trying to influence how quickly and easily the brand is recognized.

This strategy works less well when a brand has an image it is trying to convey. Products like BMW, Coach, and Armani want to be associated with a lifestyle. The visual imagery they present for their brand is designed to reach consumers who are also conscious of the image they present. In order for this to work effectively, though, it is important to understand the image that consumers value.

It is important to gather data about what consumers value about a brand to avoid alienating them with imagery. Brands like Abercrombie & Fitch or American Apparel can afford to shock people with sexualized images, because their customer base knows what to expect from them. When JC Penney tried to get more hip under CEO Ron Johnson, however, they did not attract devotees of edgier brands, but they did make their core customer base uncomfortable.

Other brands struggle, because they need to help their customers to understand when to use the product. For these brands, it is critical to understand what they already know about the brand and then to connect their knowledge to contexts in which the product can be used.

Many new products need to provide more information about how and when to use the product. This can be done in ads, but increasingly can be accomplished with product placements in TV shows and movies. In order to make this work, though, it is crucial to know when and where consumers use products most often as well as how they currently use the product.

For example, Procter & Gamble struggled to get consumers to use the odor neutralizer Febreze after it was introduced. Consumers loved the product, but rarely finished bottles. Part of the problem was that they did not think about all of the situations in which the product could be used.

Equally important, though, the original bottle for Febreze looked like a glass cleaning bottle. Consequently, consumers tended to put the bottle in the cabinet under the sink. As a result, it was only used on cleaning days. So, in addition to providing consumers with more information about when to use the product, P&G redesigned the bottle so that it could be put in more visible locations. This combination helped to increase the use of the product substantially.

In order to uncover this information about customers, though, it is crucial to engage with them. Asking them questions in surveys and focus groups is a start, but people often have difficulty articulating their goals and decision processes. Instead, it is important to do two things. First, engage with experts in human behavior who can provide a basis for thinking about how people are likely to engage with a product. Second, observe what customers are doing in their natural habitat. Watch their engagement with your brand and others. Use these observations to think about how to reach them with your messages.