Ben de Castella
Mar 15, 2013

Silly stuff matters: Dancing ponies versus boring charts

Which is better for building brand awareness? Dancing ponies or informative content? Ben de Castella, strategic planning director with Digitas Razorfish Hong Kong, makes a serious case for silliness.

You've probably seen Three’s Dancing Ponies spot from the UK by now (above). Fleetwood Mac + moonwalking Shetland ponies = lots of fun. It’s very funny, very emotive and something you can't wait to show people. Which is why it clocked up 5 million views on YouTube in its first week, with 1 million people reportedly creating their own version.

I also liked the end line: 'Silly Stuff. It Matters'.

And not just in the context of the Three ad. I think it's a sentiment that a lot of marketing people seem to have forgotten—or perhaps never wanted to acknowledge in the first place.

All-Bran marketing

There seems to be a movement among parts of our industry to make out that ‘emotion’ is a dirty word. Rather, that our job as marketers is to serve an eager audience of highly engaged consumers with the marketing equivalent of All-Bran cereal. Highly nutritious from a rational perspective but not in the least bit emotionally rewarding.

One recent blog post on ‘content marketing’ was trailed with the headline "Why Winning A Cannes Lion Will Soon Be Irrelevant". An associated article by the same author went on to claim that "It's not about pretty pictures...It's about informative charts, detailed graphs, visually-arresting infographics, thoughtful diagrams."

The difference between creating versus capitalising on interest

This confusion seems to lie partly in the lack of distinction between tactics that create interest and those that capitalise on existing interest. The internet is particularly good at the latter. If a customer is already considering buying your brand’s car then it's important to be visible in search and have a great website where they can find out more about the car, customise it and book a test drive. This is where so-called ‘content marketing’ can play a role, although it’s still important to inspire as well as inform.

However, the idea that ‘useful content’ is a replacement for the type of creative advertising that wins at Cannes is misguided. Successful marketing is not about doing one thing at the expense of everything else—it’s about understanding the role that different channels play in the mix.

It is just not true that having a great website negates the need to advertise on TV. That providing rational facts about your products replaces the need to make the brand famous or move people emotionally so that they think of you in the first place. Or that most people care enough to actively research the majority of the things they buy. ‘Useful content’ may be helpful for those consumers who are already thinking about our brand or category. The problem is that the majority aren’t.

Emotion beats persuasion

The other issue with the glorification of rationally driven All-Bran marketing is that it misunderstands how people make decisions—and therefore how advertising works.

The work of Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and peers such as Antonio Damasio has provided strong evidence that it is our emotions that drive most human decision-making. As Damasio has said, "We aren’t thinking machines that feel, we’re feeling machines that think".

As a result of this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that highly emotive, creative ads are significantly more effective than those that attempt to rationally persuade. Creativity is not some self-indulgent distraction to the serious business of marketing—it is what makes effective ads work.

Analysis by the IPA and research agency BrainianJuicer (see dull looking chart, right) has shown that the most commercially successful ads are those that score most highly on emotional measures. Not only this, these same top performing ads actually score lowest on rational measures such as persuasion and message delivery. This is because creativity isn’t a vehicle for transmitting a rational message or useful fact about our products. How we communicate is actually more important than what we say.

Online fame depends on emotion and surprise

As well as capitalising on existing interest in a category or product, digital channels can also play a strong role in creating or amplifying interest in the first place. However, pumping out more ‘useful content’ onto the internet will not achieve this.

As the analysis of the IPA Ad Effectiveness Databank shows, setting the right communications objectives is crucial. Campaigns that are designed to generate fame (i.e. get talked about) have been shown to be consistently the most effective (see the chart below, which shows the percentage of 'Fame campaigns' versus other campaigns that made a "significant" difference across key business metrics).

However, the ads that get people talking generally don’t contain "informative charts, detailed graphs, visually-arresting infographics [or] thoughtful diagrams".

Rather, as BrainJuicer found when it analysed the 'viral' success of last year's Superbowl ads, online fame comes from aiming for the heart, not the head: 

"We expected overall emotional intensity to be a big driver of sharing behaviour, and it plays a part—the more strongly you feel about an ad the more likely you are to pass it on. But the most important driver was surprise—the more surprising an ad is, the more likely it is to be shared."

I’m not proposing that the answer is for everyone to try and ‘do a viral’. The majority sink without trace. But if we want to make our brands famous, we need to acknowledge the value of creativity—and silly stuff.


Campaign Asia

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