Why surprise alone does not build a brand

by Nigel Hollis | June 18, 2018

A paper published in WARC claims that surprise is the secret ingredient when it comes to building a brand, but how does this finding hold up in the face of testing people’s emotional response to over 30,000 ads? Not well.

Gordon Euchler, Ton Hollander and Christian von Thaden’s paper asserts that consistency is overrated when it comes to building a brand. Instead they propose that brands need to be surprising. Much as this proposition might appeal to those who believe consistency confines creativity, the evidence presented in the paper is thin, consisting of just one academic paper.

“An electrodermal study by Sieke (2010) shows that the strongest effect to activate people does not come from the usual emotional triggers like curiosity, disgust, joy, fear, anger or sadness, but simply from the ability of communication to surprise.”


And while framed in the context of the latest learning about how brands influence sales the paper actually suggests that surprise is a means to engage active attention not increase sales, stating,

“The big challenge is to surprise not just with one creative idea but with each and every piece of communication, yet make them all strengthen the same takeout about the brand.”

So is surprise really a panacea for disinterest? Much as I agree that surprise can be powerful device for getting attention I have to point out that it can also evoke a negative response.

All Kantar Millward Brown’s evidence from testing thousands of video ads using the neuroscience technique of Facial Coding finds that surprise is weakly correlated with measures indicative of likely sales success. Surprise is not always related to a positive response. People may be surprised because the ad is shocking, evoking a negative emotional response, or surprised by a presentation that contradicts how they already think of the brand. Instead, Kantar Millward brown finds expressiveness – how much someone’s face expresses emotions in total – is a better predictor of how well a video is likely to create branded impact.

The report seems to suggest that consistency is a negative which seems to contradict the Ehrenberg-Bass position (which the authors cite) and our own Brand Imprint research. Our databases show almost all leading brands have clear mental positionings built up over time. Once a brand has found a new and effective way to reframe how people see a brand we find that continuity is important. This does not mean that a campaign should replicate how the brand is presented with every execution but rather refresh and strengthen people’s existing associations by using different creative executions (consistent with the authors own statement quoted above).

Sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to brand building or engaging a disinterested audience, so why do people continue to claim there is? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. sepp baumeister, September 08, 2018
    Surprise is a good way to et across the attention threshold. It needn't be the kind of surprise that ives you a heart attack, but more the kind that makes you pause, and discover something new about the brand, or even yourself. The best surprises are those, that feel familiar, right after you've been touched by them - because you simply shifted your perspective a bit to accommodate it.
  2. Gordon Euchler, July 09, 2018

    hi nigel, good to see your criticism of our paper. And I would love to get my hands on the best of your research on that topic, especially how you conceptualized surpriuse. 

    I think we are mostly in line in the thinking. Brands should try to build a consistent mental image. But to do so, they need to capture people's attention with varying execution. 

    What led us to write this paper is that most brand models these days are bery good at the former. But struggle with the latter. 

  3. Guy Powell, June 18, 2018

    Hi Nigel,

    interesting point of view.  Thanks for sharing.

  4. Dominic, June 18, 2018

    Thirty years ago Gordon Brown argued persuasively - and then demonstrated through experimental research - that the strongest responses to adverting did not cone through immediate response to the ad, but from the effect of their memories and associations on later purchases. 

    It is a pity that that sort of experimental research is not enshrined somewhere for people to refer to before publishing articles like this. Oh, wait - the Enhancement or Persuasion paper is enshrined - on WARC. 

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