August 23 | 2019

“I GIF therefore I am” A brand mantra for 2019.

Author: Alex Araque Diaz

A couple of months ago, one of the designers at SuperHeroes Amsterdam sent me an embedded GIF on Slack regarding my lunch choice of the day. After convincing my colleague that Ramen was the best hangover cure, I asked my co-worker, how did he embed the GIF? (No I didn’t know how to do that).

Sixty days have passed since that life-saving creamy Ramen and I have to accept it, Slack GIFs have become a central aspect of my office lingo. The Graphic Interchange Format (GIF) has been around since 1987 but this often overlooked format is more than millennials and Gen Zers way of wasting time. This format has grown up with the internet to become a pivotal aspect of digital culture. The main reason? GIFs are one of the most engaging formats out there, and as such, they play a fundamental role in digital communication.


The GIF was born four years before the arrival of the World Wide Web when Steve Wilhite and his team at CompuServe created an algorithm that compressed files without cutting down any data in order to make the interchange of images between computers a lot faster and efficient. Nevertheless, it was only until the mid-2000’s that the format really took off. Between 2004 and 2007 Myspace, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Google, Youtube, and Facebook were introduced. Coincidentally by 2004 all of the existing patents on the GIF had expired. As reported by Vox media in an ode to the endless looping format: “The combination of fewer legal restrictions on the GIF and a broader, smartphone-boosted demand for a simple, quick, and more lightweight substitute for Flash animation brought the GIF back in a major way.”



Now, looking into our current digital environment a simple question arises, why do people use GIFs? The biggest scientific study made on the use of GIFs compared to other formats of digital communication (text, video, static image) was done by Yahoo Labs in 2016 when they analysed the engagement (likes and reblogs) of over 3.9 million Tumblr posts. After concluding that animated GIFs are significantly more engaging than other formats because of the use of animations, lack of sound, immediacy of consumption, low bandwidth, minimal time demands, storytelling capabilities and utility for expressing emotions; the team analysed 100k animated GIFs and performed 13 interviews with Tumblr users to discover what specifically makes engaging GIF’s more appealing. In the study, the team argues that GIFs that contain faces, had higher motion energy, uniformity, resolution and frame rate on average performed better in terms of likes and reblogs.


The previous results align with widely accepted research on how our brain engages and remembers more content that includes visuals than text. Nevertheless, these results do not fully answer our main question. From a cultural point of view, one of the most important factors influencing the consumption of GIFs, it’s their ability to convey a feeling or experience in the most seamless and efficient way. This is especially true for reaction GIFs, which as the name indicates, are used to respond to another party about a topic or conversation. These responses have increased in popularity because they are entertaining, fast to consume, have a heavy cultural weight (usually derived from media: movies, series, sports) and have been boosted in private messaging apps by platforms like Giphy, Imgur and Tenor.



Because let’s be honest, reacting to your friend Kevin in your “Wolfpack” Whatsapp group that his comment was the most disappointing thing anyone has said since the last time Trump made a public appearance is not as fun and easy as sending:



What this means for those brands looking to stand out within the increasingly noisy digital landscape is the necessity to create an emotion or feeling around the brand or products that can be illustrated creatively through a GIF format. For a food brands, for instance, this emotion could be that feeling of satisfaction after a delicious creamy ramen. (No, we are not trying to promote any ramen brand in this piece). These emotions are universal and highly shareable and that’s where some of the attractiveness of the format lays: their potential reach and recall.



Since people consume GIFs after a search query (on Giphy, Tenor or similar), this aforementioned emotion or experience has to be directly related to the “intent” of the user at the moment of enquiry. In other words, brands need to think from the user’s point of view: What words will my target audience use in order to find that feeling they want to convey? I , for instance typed in Giphy “satisfied” in order to find the above one. Then, after diving into the sea of gestures that people on internet associate with “satisfied” (thank you internet for giving me those five minutes of laugh) I found the one that expressed in the best way the experience I wanted you to feel. Data from Tenor, showcases the consumer intent when using branded GIFs:


“Caffeine lovers, for example, search for “Good morning” 2.1 million times every month when using a Starbucks-branded GIF. Another 8 million searches for “goodnight” and 900,000 for “hangover” are connected to Domino’s. Netflix fans type in the keyword “sad” 6 million times a month to find looping videos featuring the streaming video site’s shows and characters. And 12.9 million searches for “dance” result in consumers clicking on a GIF related to Coca-Cola.”


Lastly, with the addition of the Giphy search engine to Instagram Stories, users are able to publicly share their favourite GIFs on their favourite platform (let’s remember how Instagram Stories have grown in popularity by double digits during the last two years) . This implies heavy creative thinking on how branded sticker GIFs can play a role in vertical content. One must ask questions like how will my GIF sticker look with my Aunt’s beautiful selfies? Or how will my GIF sticker play a role within those portraits of that super artsy friend we all have? Or how will my GIF sticker interact with that Ramen picture of the food blogger we all tried to be at some point? (No? Was it just me? Ok.) The success of brands creating sticker GIF’s, therefore, will be highly linked to the ease of customization and integration with the user’s personal content in a 16:9 format.


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