What all brands can learn from Rory Sutherland

by Nigel Hollis | August 05, 2019

Rory Sutherland delivered a highly enjoyable discourse on why advertisers are right and economists are wrong at a WARC session at Cannes. Here are five takeaways that I believe are relevant to any brand and its marketing. 

Sadly I do not think you can get access to Sutherland’s address unless you have a WARC subscription but it is well worth watching if you can. However, given Rory’s style of delivery it might be difficult to glean the key takeaways from the humorous discourse, so here is what I found noteworthy.


  1. The central lesson of advertising is that choice is driven by context, so if you want to change choice, change the context. Rory gives the example of pizza delivery. If you ask people when they want their pizza delivered rather than assuming they want it as soon as possible, it improves satisfaction, partly because people know when the pizza is going to arrive and can plan for it.
  2. Many of our motivations and responses stem from survival traits. We seek to avoid disaster by avoiding uncertainty. Rory states, “Brands are a reliable proxy heuristic for choosing within a tolerable range of acceptability”. In other words, McDonald’s might not offer the best food experience, but it is consistent. You know what you are going to get.
  3. Advertising does not magically add value, rather it multiplies value that is already there. The real benefit of advertising is to take something positive and different about the brand, and amplify it in people’s minds so that it becomes more meaningful and salient.
  4. Evolution has fine-tuned our senses to focus on things that have meaning for us. And if you want to change the meaning, you have to change the story. In a recent presentation I recounted how the question, "Isn't two months' salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?,“ helped change perceptions of diamonds from a transparent bit of rock to an expensive signal of undying love.
  5. Lastly Rory introduced us to the idea of “excitement attributes”. In contrast to threshold and performance attributes, excitement attributes deliver greater customer satisfaction by becoming a focal point of the brand experience. For instance, the map on the Uber app which lets you see your car heading your way.

Rory ended his session with an entreaty that the audience “codify what we know and look for patterns in it” if advertisers are to regain their ascendancy in the world of business. I only have one problem with that assertion. In over 30 years of codifying what makes advertising effective I have found that the ad industry has a strong antipathy to codification. Most it seems, would prefer to follow the advice of 19th century dog breeder referred to by Rory whose recipe for success was “you breed many and you hang many”.

As an insider, perhaps Rory will have more luck in getting the industry to accept codification. But what do you think? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Adele Jolliffe, August 09, 2019
    Really interesting! Will look up the original address. Number 2) feels very relevant to current conversations we're having about the 'Feeling of Rightness' and its role in decision-making, the sense of confidence in the outcome of a given decision... 
  2. Ed C, August 08, 2019

    I think there's an aversion by the artist (advertiser?) to admit that science (codification, research) has a role. Who really likes being judged on anything they do? Yet of course I see the value in it...

  3. Tim, August 06, 2019

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