How Brands Grow and advertising research

What Does ‘How Brands Grow’ Mean For Advertising Research?

Over the past few years, work such as Byron Sharp’s ‘How Brands Grow’ has challenged fundamental assumptions about how marketing and advertising work. To my mind, if our understanding of how advertising works has evolved, it follows that how we research advertising – or more precisely what we research – needs to evolve as well.

My own area of expertise is in qualitative advertising development. I’ve helped developed a couple of hundred campaigns over the years, and in that time qual creative development research has – by and large – focused on four key areas:

1. Message take out, relevance, and potential to motivate consumers to purchase;

2. Communication of brand values / personality;

3. Likes / dislikes and emotional reaction (as a proxy for engagement potential); and

4. On occasion, ‘fit’ with past advertising for the brand.

(Other key areas of advertising research are ‘cut through’ and ‘brand linkage’, but as these have largely been the preserve of quant ‘pre-testing’, I won’t be discussing them here).

What Sharp’s work has shown is that some of these areas are less important to an ad’s effectiveness than we once thought. For those who are unfamiliar with the work, a fundamental point of departure from past marketing wisdom is that (once your advertising gets noticed and engages the consumer) it does not work by communicating a differentiated message that persuades the consumer to consider your brand, rather effectiveness comes from communicating distinctive brand assets so as to create memories that give your brand the necessary salience to be considered at time of purchase.

So what does this all mean for qualitative creative development research? Well, for my money, it shifts the focus of what we do in a number of ways:

1. Engaging the consumer remains as important as ever, of course (ideally you want consumers to pay some attention to your ads!). So exploring the likability of an idea, as well as the consumer’s emotional reactions to it, should remain a primary focus.

2. ‘Message take out’ and relevance need to take a back seat (only to be a focus of the research if you have something truly unique / persuasive to say in your ads)

3. …so too does whether a concept is communicating the desired brand ‘values’ or ‘personality’ (distinctive brand assets are more important).

4. Exploring the ‘fit’ and consistency of a new idea with the brand and its past advertising should also be a primary focus, as a way of understanding whether the brand’s distinctive assets (whatever they may be) are being communicated.

This shift in focus isn’t earth shattering, and we won’t be seeing a wholesale change in the way we do things any time soon. But it does mean we should be adapting what we do in light of this new understanding. When we do that, we do our job better.

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