How Well Does Your Advertising Convey Your Intended Brand Messages?

An article by Charles Young in the December 12, 2011, edition of Quirk’s e-newsletter focuses on the issue of testing how well your advertising conveys the intended brand messages. Brand creation is the result of stimulating complex mental processes in the consumer. And since, the consumer’s mind is like a search engine sorting for order in the chaos of a heavily-advertised world, what exactly is it sorting for? Young’s conclusion is that the consumer is searching for meaning, and that advertising establishes meaning in two fundamental ways:

  1. Positioning (rational meaning) This helps the customer  understand how the brand fits into the perceptual framework of its category, what differentiates the brand from alternatives, and who is the competition is.
  2. Brand image (emotional), This is the set of emotional and experiential associations that a brand  builds over time by stimulating imagination through emotional imagery. Through brand image, the consumer takes mental ownership of a brand, and it is thus the basis for brand loyalty.

 The “Flow of Meaning Process” Tests How Well Your Brand is Conveyed

To provide insights into why a particular ad execution is or is not doing a good job of communicating the intended meanings for the brand, Young recommends a three-step consumer research process. This process uses picture-sorting techniques to help consumers provide their impressions of the perceptual messages the ad conveys. Three effects are being measured:

  1.  Flow of Attention: Working like a search engine, selective perception is the unconscious, automatic process whereby the brain filters out sensory-spam to focus the conscious attention on the sensory input that’s important to us. This is a complex mental process involving both attention and memory, and is driven by our unconscious emotions. What you are  measuring here is what is selectively perceived.
  2. Flow of Emotion: This measures of how consumers feel about what they see in an ad. These are conscious emotions that are positive or negative,  and the creative tension between the two defines the dramatic structure of the ad.
  3. A Third Dimension: the Meaning of Each Image:  The first two steps can tell you what images in an ad the consumer pays the most attention to and how highly-charged these images are with consumer feelings. This third measure can alert you as to whether the images  are a good fit with the brand (a “fit” in reference to the communication strategy set forth in the creative brief.)

Methodology: Step 1. Obtain Sort Categories

#1. Obtain Sort Categories from the Creative Brief

  • Respondents are asked to sort images from an ad into different categories of meaning, based on the ideas contained in the creative brief. Typically, you will need up to nine categories of meaning and an additional “none of these” option for images that do not fit the pre-determined categories.
  • Brand positioning ideas must be category-specific. For example, food brands typically try to communicate great taste, toy brands, fun, technology brands, innovation.
  • Exploring meaning frame-by-frame in a commercial can provide researchers with insights on which images communicate which ideas and emotions.

#2.  Obtain Sort Categories from the Storyline

  • You should also  reference the storyline to generate ideas for categories of emotion to use in a meaning sort.
  • View the storyline while asking key questions about the emotion conveyed. For instance, do the characters experience any personal transformation from the beginning to the end of the ad? What does the relationship between the characters express? What is the role of the brand in the story?
  • Some emotions generated by an ad may not be the intended ones. The Flow of Meaning can be a useful tool for identifying these instances. For that reason, be sure to include negative emotional categories as well as positive.

For example, if one character in a cereal ad is teasing another, it could be perceived as playful (an intended meaning) or mean (an unintended meaning). If we see a spike in negative emotions in the Flow of Emotion, we can use the meaning sort to determine if viewers are feeling confused or if they actually dislike what they are seeing.

Step 2. Analyze the Consumer Search Process

To analyze how consumers process ad content moment-by-moment in terms of attention, emotion and meaning, you should first separate the images the ad images into two groups:

  • Group 1: Brand-building moments: The first group consists of images that are peak moments of attention and highly-charged with emotion.Branding moments are the parts of an ad that are selected by the mind as it sorts through the various images to determine what’s more or less important. Experiments show that these are the best-remembered parts of an ad over long periods of time.
  • Group 2: Storytelling pieces: The second group consists of other visuals that are important to the storytelling but don’t represent the essence of the story.

After collecting the meanings that the consumers tested have assigned to each of the images from these ads, you can chart them to gain  new insights into the consumer search process and determine how well your ad has hit it’s intended target responses.

An example is shown in figure 3. This chart reflects consumer research on 12 highly successful brand-building ads. 

♦ Orange Bars: Peak images sorted out by selective perception and highly-charged with conscious consumer emotions.

♦ Blue Bars: Less important and less engaging images.

Intended Strategic Message: According to consumer scoring, the (orange-colored) peak images (those that the consumer is highly perceptually  and emotionally aware of) contain significantly more of the intended brand meaning than the less engaging (blue colored) images, (28% vs. 18%)  and far less non strategic meaning (11% vs. 23%)

Emotional meanings: Likewise, the peak images contain more of the intended emotions (23% vs 20%) and far fewer unintended emotions (4% vs. 26%) than the less engaging images.

So consumers are searching for what advertising means to them personally. Effective advertising can pair the personally meaningful impressions with the brand messages.

Snap principle of brand relevance:

Effective brand message delivery pairs perceptually significant impressions with intended brand messages.