In our connected world, many people actively block content on their digital devices and skipping video has become second nature, especially among younger viewers. It's widely suggested that marketers need to be much more creative in developing digital ads if they expect to overcome blocking and beat the skipping.
"Our research shows that ads consumers engage with perform much better. Ads that fail to engage have a one-in-three chance of driving a sale, and those that consumers do engage with deliver a 75% chance of creating a sale"
Yet, many advertisers create the same product messages they've sent for years, not just on digital platforms but across every channel. Kantar Millward Brown recently conducted research to explore a typical week's advertising across TV, pre-roll and social media. We found that almost two-thirds of the ads reviewed delivered an explicit product message.
This approach isn't conducive with the way consumers make most of their decisions about brand choice. Functional 'message communication' has only a modest impact on sales because the approach tends to focus on specific benefits or reasons to believe that may not be relevant, or compelling, to the consumer – or, even worse, may not register.
As much as we may not like it, people's engagement with advertising is shallow, and at best they will take out a broad idea or feeling about the brand from the vast bulk of communications. We believe brands should stop focusing on detailed messages and put more effort into building emotional relevance and creative engagement, which can have a much greater impact on sales.
Our research shows that ads that consumers engage with perform much better. Ads that fail to engage have a one-in-three chance of driving a sale, and those that consumers do engage with deliver a 75% chance of creating a sale.
It's time to move beyond the message, to stop selling product features and to focus on building brands, instead. To help brands make that leap, we've identified five key creative development rules that can be used successfully by brands around the world.
1. MAKE A MEANINGFUL IMPRESSION
Brands that are seen to be meaningfully different have the greatest chance of financial success. While the relative importance of being meaningful, different and salient differs by category and country, all brands should set out to deliver impressions that are meaningfully different.
Sustainable competitive advantage comes from building a brand's emotional meaningful difference. Emotional meaningfulness is about creating affinity for the brand, and emotional difference is about a brand behaving in a way that makes it seem more dynamic or progressive than other brands.
The way a brand communicates can be valuable in conveying meaningful difference. Meaningful impressions are often suggested, or demonstrated, rather than claimed. One powerful solution is to identify a purpose for the brand – one that it can legitimately be linked with – and build creative around the purpose.
A good example came from Amazon in 2016. Its 'Priest and Imam' ad celebrates interfaith friendship, airing first on TV and then achieving viral fame. When we researched the ad for this project, the response was very positive. It triggered very strong emotional responses, with enjoyment in the top 20% of ads tested in the UK, and the app usage drove strong linkage to the Amazon brand. Most importantly, the ad's Power Contribution score was in the top quarter of ads tested, showing that it gave people reasons to be predisposed to Amazon in the future.
2. WORK WITH THE BRAIN, NOT AGAINST IT
People are bombarded with thousands of brand messages every day, but few of them are consciously processed. They simply don't care much about brands or ads, so their brains filter them out. There are two implications for marketers here. First, ads need to have instant meaning. When developing ads based on an idea or feeling, make sure these can be easily grasped. The viewer shouldn't have to stop to think it through. Second, we need to make people feel something. People feel first and think second, so ads which take an emotional route have a better chance of breaking through. This is why ads that generate emotional responses are more likely to generate sales effects.
This emotion doesn't always have to be positive, but when the brand does play a positive emotional role in the narrative, it can lead to associative learning, which does pair the brand with positive feelings.
3. GOOD STORYTELLING LEAVES AN IMPRESSION
People are fascinated by stories. They present the opportunity to engage audiences, to leave lasting memories, and to provoke emotional (and rational) responses. Our work has shown that ads that use storytelling are more involving and help make the ads more noticeable and more memorable, both of which contribute to sales. And we've seen that ads that feature stories create higher levels of expressiveness, which has a direct linkage to a lift in sales. Yet, fewer than four in 10 ads that we studied used storytelling.
The most viewed and most viral ads of 2016 provided many great examples of storytelling that benefit the brand. One such ad was retailer John Lewis's Christmas ad 'Buster the Boxer', in which we see a little girl's Christmas present – a trampoline – enjoyed by wild animals and then by her dog Buster, on Christmas Day. This story works so well for John Lewis on a number of levels. It is thoroughly enjoyable, easy to understand, and differentiates the brand from other retailers. It has the ability, not only to generate short-term sales, but also to support the brand's longer-term equity.
4. GET THE CHANNEL RIGHT
It is important to place the right creative with the right people, in the right channel, on the right platform, and at the right time. That's a lot to get right, but it's critical to delivering the right impressions.
When choosing channels, we need to consider not only where people's eyes are but their attitudes to ads in that channel. While people are more connected than ever through mobile devices, they don't appreciate ad intrusion: poor channel choice can actually form a negative impression.
We're not saying that digital shouldn't be used, rather it has to be used effectively. One of the key ways to get digital right is to think about the user at the point of exposure: what is their need state or goal and what sort of creative will complement that rather than disrupt it? We have championed the use of digital formats that acknowledge consumers' control. This does mean avoiding non-skippable formats where they're still available.
5. NO BRAND MEANS NO IMPRESSION
We have argued that great advertising can focus less on an explicit message and more on the implicit building of impressions. This is the start of a virtuous circle: by limiting the number of facts or product messages, ads can be more engaging, and the means of engagement can be part of the impressions left behind.
We have found that the single best predictor of in-market sales effects for ads is branding. Creating an engaging film without branding simply won't add value to the brand (Figure 1).
This is also consistent with evidence on the importance of 'mental availability' for brands. Ads with weak branding have no chance to boost the ease with which brands come to mind at the point of decision. Our evidence shows that ads with a strong narrative only result in motivation if they are also well branded (Figure 2).
One of the most viral ads from 2016, from Volkswagen in Norway, showed a driver backing up his car and trailer at high speed – through parking lots, roundabouts and intersections – to demonstrate the trailer assist feature. Much of the ad focuses on the reaction of other drivers and pedestrians.
In the UK, the Volkswagen ad is seen as very highly involving and facial coding reveals that emotional response builds during the ad, particularly towards the end when the secret is revealed. The ad clearly suggests ease of reversing but the focus is on the trailer, not the car. Despite the logo appearing on-screen for the duration of the film, branding is poor, so the ad has limited ability to build impressions.
Another Volkswagen ad used a more conventional storytelling approach, in which horses in a field laugh hysterically as one man fails to reverse-park his horse trailer, but the horses are quickly silenced when another driver with trailer assist does it perfectly the first time.
This second ad, with its storytelling approach, is highly engaging, and generated the highest levels of smiles in the ads we covered in this project. The ad is well branded: ultimately, it's the Tiguan that shuts the horses up – and it suggests ease of reversing more strongly than the previous example, making the brand far more likely to be seen as different.
Coming back to our second rule around working with the brain, we know that people often partially engage with an ad but won't watch it to the end. This reinforces the need to brand before disengagement, particularly in digital channels that give consumers the option to skip.
There are two good ways to do this: make the brand essential to an emotionally powerful storyline, either through use or as a catalyst to an outcome, or through the use of easily recognisable brand cues – visual, aural or stylistic – which require no effort to register with viewers.
In video advertising, brands can't leave branding to the end because viewers shut down and are distracted by the ad or content that follows. This doesn't necessarily mean that the product needs to appear early and often in TV ads. Although branding early on is important in digital ads, simply showing the brand on-screen or as a superimposition isn't enough unless it plays a role in the narrative.
The Skittles 2016 Super Bowl ad 'Portrait' achieves strong branding in a number of ways. The action in the ad revolves around a portrait of singer-songwriter Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith fame, which is made of Skittles. This is done in Skittles' unmistakable, quirky style and tone of voice. The ad closes with a variation on the familiar line, 'rock the rainbow, taste the rainbow'.
On the other hand, an ad for Emirates airline, 'Hello Tomorrow', achieved very poor branding. The brand was revealed at the end of a 60-second series of vignettes based on 'six degrees of separation', which viewers found confusing, or lacking instant meaning. Our behavioural analysis showed that if people were to view online, most would have skipped before the brand was revealed.
In addition, facial coding analysis undertaken with our partner Affectiva showed that even if the brand had appeared earlier, the Emirates ad would have struggled to gain impact, based on people's lack of engagement.
Getting the branding right in ads is a key principle, but even great branding can't save an ad that doesn't also follow the other four golden rules outlined above.
Ads that are emotionally engaging, and build memorable and lasting impressions are more effective than those that do not. Engaging advertising that is developed to work with the brain can seed ideas, associations and feelings that are triggered in people during the purchase process, long after the ad was seen.
Ads that deliver an explicit message won't benefit brands to the same degree as an ad focused on building impressions. When there is a need to reinforce functional benefits, deliver the message in a creative way. In general, 'show, don't tell'. People tend not to remember explicit messages without lots of repetition – but a creative demonstration will help improve memorability.
No matter which ad format is used, it's essential for the ad to be tied to the brand; the brand needs to be integrated into the ad to benefit the brand.
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