Matthew Miller
May 12, 2021

Creative effectiveness ascends in a post-cookie era, but requires fresh approaches

A return to old-school fundamentals, coupled with use of new-fangled tools, can ensure that creativity continues to deliver. Here are some simple pieces of advice for brand marketers.


First, don’t panic. Yes, marketers are facing an unprecedented change as tracking tools they have come to rely on evaporate. And yes, the need to reach consumers across an ever-increasing number of channels continues to push content-creation demands skyward, where they crash into marketing budgets.

Despite all that, a blend of old and new approaches promises to help marketers chart the course forward, according to participants in a creativity-focused panel discussion during last week's Campaign360.

The old? Something of a return to fundamental marketing principles like understanding the consumer and communicating with them authentically. The new? AI- and neuroscience-based tools that can help analyse consumer responses in order to create and optimise effective content at scale.

A burning platform

There’s no doubt Apple’s iOS 14.5 change and the impending loss of third-party cookies will have a significant impact.

“Just as companies and brands are starting to really leverage first-party and third-party data more effectively, this change has really thrown a spanner into the whole works,” said Michelle Yip, executive director of group strategic marketing and communications at DBS. “I think we are all learning how to deal with the new reality.”

Yves Briantais, APAC vice president of marketing for Colgate-Palmolive, invoked the 'burning platform’ analogy to explain the situation marketers find themselves in, but stressed that there are reasons to embrace the leap off of it.

“It's a massive challenge,” he said. “A good one though, because somehow it's forcing us to go back to the origin of marketing, which is why we're here—to improve the lives of people. And if we truly do it, people will really start talking to us, and they will exchange their first-party data with pleasure.”

Annette Male, APAC CEO of Wunderman Thompson, said the transition will be easier for some brands than others. 

"One of the big concerns is around cost of acquisition,” she said, “and how far is the marketing spend going to go, and how can we maximise it.” 

Brands that are lucky enough to have already collected a significant amount of first-party data will be able to retain targeting capabilities similar to what they have now, and attain similar levels of response, she said. Brands without first-party data will face a stiffer challenge as they invest to obtain it, manage it and mine it effectively.

Create lifetime value

A brand’s primary task is to reorient its efforts around a long-term view rather than efforts driven by short-term KPIs.

“If you take the example of China, which is five to 10 years ahead, cost of acquisition will not go down,” Briantais said. “It will only go up. That forces you to really work on the lifetime value of people. And that changes the way you do marketing.”

Once upon a time, a brand like Colgate knew that it only had to convince people to make a purchase in a physical store every few months, with no interaction in the meantime. “It doesn't work like that anymore,” he said. “The only way you can optimise your media investments as of now is by really working on this lifetime value...If you want people to stay with you, there is only one way. It's if you put them at the centre of what you do, and you really care about them. If you lie to them—if you're only there to sell them products they don't need—they will go away, and they will never come back.” 

Know thy consumer, in great detail

Nicola Eliot, vice president of BBC StoryWorks, brought to the panel the perspective of a publisher that is using a mix of old-school techniques and new technology to create more compelling content and move the needle for the brands it works with. 

Part of this involves old-school research using BBC’s Global Minds Panel: talking directly to a representative group about how they feel about particular pieces of content. 

Another part involves neuroscience. "We use people’s webcams, only with their permission of course, to track their micromuscle facial movements and really understand what they are feeling when they watch our content,” Eliot said. This reveals reactions that people wouldn’t necessarily mention if you ask them, but that can have a big impact for a brand, she said. 

"For example, we noticed that where we were seeing very strong peaks of emotion, we were seeing really strong brand uplift, and commentary from our audience around how they were connecting with those brands,” Eliot said. “And what we discovered by monitoring the long-term memory encoding centres of the brain was that the higher the spike of emotions, and the more frequent the spike of emotions, the more memorable the piece of content was, and the more likely it was that people would remember the brand associated with that piece of content far down the line—at the point of purchase.” Emotional spikes also correlated with "quite radical shifts” in opinions about a brand, and solidification of whatever sentiment or messaging the brand was trying to put forward.

"That level of data, with truly representative groups from your audience, is actually far more effective than something like third-party data, in our view,” she said. “And I think you'll see a lot more brands doing this level of in-depth work with their customers going forward.”

Tell good stories

“Storytelling brings the audience closer to you,” said Yip of DBS. “It's not just that ad you’re serving, but you're having a conversation, a relationship. How you keep them within your ecosystem through storytelling, and not just relying on targeting alone. I think this would be a topic that many marketers will be looking at.”

DBS long ago realised that people don’t go looking for a loan. They look for their dream home. And rather than seeking a car loan, they need mobilty to get their kids to school. At the same time, they care about making sure they’re not harming the earth their kids will inherit. 

“So we started embarking on these topics a few years ago,” she said. The clear conclusion has been that engagement levels are higher when the brand doesn't just talk about products. Consumers still care about product information, but they also care about something deeper. And when a brand also backs up its storytelling with action, then "When the coin drops, it hits harder home,” Yip said.

Briantais agreed, mentioning his company’s “massive change in communication”, based on the fact that people don’t use whitening toothpaste to whiten their teeth, but rather use it to look more beautiful and feel more self-confident. 

But he warned that the demand for authenticity is not to be taken lightly.

“If we have an advertisement talking about how we want to help people have a better life, but at the same time we are using palm oil that is impacting the forests, or we are putting tubes of toothpaste in the ocean that are not recyclable, it doesn't make any sense to people, and they know it. So we need to focus a lot on the authenticity of our message.”

The flip side of that danger is that authentic commitment really works.

"You tap into the things that they care about, that interest them, that draw their attention,” Eliot said. “And where you can align that authentically with the brand and create that level of trust and interest, you really see massive uplifts in brand opinion.” 

Male added that despite everyone having short attention spans and the rapid pace of ecommerce development, this kind of brand-building work still goes “an incredibly long way in ensuring effectiveness, loyalty and repeat purchase”.  

Test and evolve

AI is increasingly coming into play to not only test creative content, but predict what will work at a point further toward the start of the creative process, Male said.

"We've built an AI tool in APAC, and it uses AI to develop much more human-centric creative, developing something that connects with consumers at a much deeper emotional level,” she said.

Like the neuroscience work BBC’s Eliot mentioned, the tool helps determine the emotional responses people have to specific content. This helps predict whether people will actually watch the content in question, and whether they will carry away a positive impression of the brand. "The most relevant connections between businesses and their desired audience is making sure that through the creation of unforgettable and indispensable experiences, this actually helps serve and stimulate both the functional and the emotional needs that consumers have,” Male said.

As three-month long campaigns have given way to always-on communication—or "shorter bursts of meaningful conversations in pockets”, as Yip put it—marketers face increasing demand to spin out massive amounts of content. 

Building a brand up through tons of small impressions over time is demanding, Yip said. “This requires marketers to really look at social, and think of these conversations, think of embedding ourselves in these conversations, as a much more important part of the creative process...We can't just rely on share of voice across ad platforms anymore. It is really share of voice also in social conversations."

Two years ago, Briantais shared, Colgate was creating about 20 pieces of content per campaign. Today, that number is 4,000.

“So, it's gigantic. If we keep applying the cost of the 20 pieces of content we used to create, to 4,000, can you imagine where you get to? It's unmanageable.” 

The brand is tackling the challenge by making sure brand guidelines are crystal clear, and by exploring dynamic-content-optimisation tools. 

“We used to create content, test it, and use only the content that was doing well,” he said. “Now we create content before we know if we're going to use it, and we put it out there, and we check by doing testing to see if the content is delivering or not, and optimising it.”

While Yip said her number is more like several hundred pieces of content rather than several thousand, she agreed the challenge is severe, especially when it comes to keeping on top of how best to use particular channels.

“TikTok has a huge community of sustainability-related content streams,” she said by way of example. “And that wasn't there before. It used to be all dancing videos, but now it's really evolved.”

The key, she said, is to think of the consumer as an individual that cuts across multiple platforms, using different ones to fulfill different needs at different times.

“Just like in your home, you go to different rooms for different needs, and you go to different places in your city for different needs,” she said. “That's what social channels are today. So for us, understanding that, and seeing that pattern evolving through the data, has really helped us to think about curating the content and designing it.”

Briantais agreed. “When I talk to people, I need to make sure that my messaging is adapted to what they expect at the time they use that touchpoint, what they expect from that touchpoint in their life. It's not about creating something in a vacuum anymore. It's about creating something that is making a meaningful difference in the life of people anytime we talk to them.” 

Campaign Asia

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