Selfies: an exploration into the brand effects of visual imagery within earned media

Ruth Marciniak, Corinna Budnarowska

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Over the past decade, online social media, for example, the use of blogs and online discussion forums, has created novel opportunities for companies to engage in various marketing communications initiatives (Stephen and Galek, 2012; Anderson et al., 2014). As a consequence, academic literature has emerged exploring the use of social media in marketing, for example, its impact on traditional marketing (Papasolomou and Melanthiouearned; 2012) and; stages of social commerce (Harris & Dennis, 2011). In particular, examination of earned media, media that is directly related to a company or brand but the company does not directly generate, has spawned much interest. For example, motivations for shopping on retailers’ Facebook pages (Anderson et al., 2014) and Hollenbeck and Kaikati’s (2012) work which, explored consumers’ use of brands on Facebook. However neglect within the literature is an exploration of the use of visual imagery in earned media.

It is well established that visual imagery plays a significant role in most advertising, for example, television advertising, bill posters and in magazines (Branthwaite; 2002). Visual imagery serves as a powerful tool in influencing brand recall and familiarity (Mikhailitchenko et al.; 2009). It has been studied extensively within consumer research (Babin and Burns; 1997) and, most importantly, reliance of imagery has grown in importance over recent decades, which Branthwaite (2002) attributes to the growth of global brands. More recently, with the growth of interest in social media, and in particular, the growth of social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest, offer attractive vehicles for consumer generated visual media. In particular, the selfie, a photograph wherein the photographer has taken a picture of themselves and subsequently uploaded it on to a social media site, have emerged as an opportunity for companies to tap into people’s desire for praise (Griner, 2014), and in so doing, foster consumers with a compelling way to engage with the brand experience. Indeed there are numerous campaigns that have been built around selfies, which have sought to access a ready made audience, that being, the photographer’s own online community.

The aim of the research is to examine the way in which, earned media, specifically selfies, can influence consumer attitudes towards brands, in particular, the appeal of the brand. Explicitly, the research aims to identify the extent to which the selfie serves as a brand communication vehicle thereby contributing to increasing attention to a brand, and, ultimately influencing brand choice. In so doing, recognition of the role of the selfie to create brand differentiation is explored. Output of the research has relevance to brand companies looking to engage in brand extension, reposition the brand or possibly engage in sub branding. For the purposes of the study, the researchers selected to explore fashion brands.

The research is informed by theory based on Underwood et al.’s (2001) work on visual imagery, which explored packaging. The research identified two dependent variables, attention to a brand and brand choice, which were explored through examination of perceived level of experiential benefits and level of familiarity with the brand.
For this current research, which examines these concepts within the context of earned media, brand choice is the fashion brand, amongst a set of competing brands, selected by the individual to wear when posing for the selfie. Alternatively, attention given to the brand is the posts or comments made by the individual who posted the selfie about the brand, that is, their engagement in promotion of the brand. Both brand familiarity and experiential benefits serve as moderating effects (Underwood et al., 2001). For example, if an individual’s selfie serves to promote a brand but a friend of the individual who posted the selfie had a previous poor experience of the brand, the effect of the selfie will have a negative impact on brand attention or influence brand choice. Alternatively, if it was a positive experience, the selfie would function to enhance the experience of the brand. Likewise, if the brand was unbeknown to the friend, on viewing the selfie, an awareness of the brand would follow. Increased familiarity would follow if the friend was already aware of the brand. Given that it remains to be the case that word of mouth can contribute towards positive brand communications, as cited by Richins:

‘customers continue to purchase those products with which they are satisfied and in telling others about particularly pleasing products, they may influence the brand perceptions of those with whom they communicate’ (Richins, 1983:68),

the selfie has the potential to be a powerful marketing tool.

In order to examine how selfies, a form of social earned media, may bring attention to a brand and, in doing so, influence brand choice, the research adopted an exploratory approach wherein qualitative data was obtained via semi-structured face to face interviews. In total, 20 interviews were conducted with consumers who, in response to a screening question, had direct experience of posting selfies wearing selected fashion brands. Interviewees were recruited via convenience and multiplicity sampling. The resulting pool of respondents varied in gender, education and employment. Interviews were conducted in a location convenient to the respondent and followed a semi-structured interview protocol, wherein an open form of dialogue was encouraged. In conducting the interviews, the same themes were presented to all the respondents. Themes were based on Underwood et al.’s (2001) work. The aim of undertaking multiple interviews was to achieve theoretical saturation. This was accomplished when the later interviewees failed to extract any new information. It was then that the data collection was concluded.

Results of the empirical research contribute to the growing body of literature on social media, in particular, earned media. In additional, the results contribute to theory relating to brand effects of visual imaginary and marketing communication.

Key words: visual imagery, brand effects, earned media, selfies


Anderson (2014) Influence of hedonic and utilitarian motivations on retailer loyalty and purchase intention: a facebook perspective, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services 21(5):773–779
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Griner D. (2014) ‘Infographic: How brands became selfie obsessed,’ Adweek, 11th February 2014, accessed 15th July 2014 []
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Underwood R.L., Klein N.M. & Burke R.R. (2001) ‘Packaging communication: Attentional effects of product imagery,’ Journal of Product and Brand Management, 10(7):403-422
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • visual imagery
  • brand effects
  • earned media


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