The temptation to over-inform

The temptation to over-inform

Simple words such as ‘yes’ or ‘can’ should apparently mean something different to their true meaning.

Companies that adopt simple words or elements as part of their branding have dedicated a lot of effort to explaining why we should pay attention to their explanation. Commonwealth Bank even dedicated a TV spot where Toni Collette poetically explained the real meaning of ‘can’ when it launched its new tagline in 2012. And recently, Optus created a YouTube clip about what ‘yes’ means to its brand and service. 

This practice is also continued with P&G’s latest campaign, ‘The everyday effect’, with the voiceover gently telling us that everyday things like toothpaste and shampoo have the potential to change our lives.

But do people actually pay attention to the messages when they see ads?

Research by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science found that only one-third of a TV audience watches television ads actively. A further hird would stay in the vicinity of the television but passively avoid the ads by doing other things such as fiddling with their mobile phone, reading newspapers, and the likes. The remaining third opts to remove themselves from the room, or switch the channel altogether to actively avoid the ads.

The same avoidance behaviour is also observed in other media – for example, can you remember the ads in the magazine that you read on the weekend? 

The implication of this is that focusing a lot of advertising effort into explaining and informing what the brand should mean may actually be wasted, as consumers are not really paying close attention.

Furthermore, consumers also tend to disregard unimportant details and make mental shortcuts to brands they purchase. For example, we associate yellow within the banking sector with Commonwealth Bank. Elements such as colours, taglines and jingles are our mental shortcuts to the brand – now, if somebody asks us what the yellow means, we will probably come up with a myriad of answers that may not align at all with the original corporate brief.

The need to over-inform implies that consumers really pay attention to the advertisement and remember the message. This is not true. In an environment where we are bombarded with information, we choose to keep things that we deem personally important and throw away the rest. Unfortunately our consumers are not the typical advertising enthusiasts who would not mind watching and reading ads, and caring about every little detail.

What is more important is to build as many mental shortcuts to the brands, and to ensure that these shortcuts remain fresh in the consumers’ memory. For example, you probably have a certain brand in mind when I say, “red” and “soft drink”, or “zoom zoom” and “car”.

The general public are probably clueless if we ask them the specific message or content of the last ads for Coca-Cola or Mazda – but they will still remember these mental shortcuts. Coca-Cola does not need to explain what the ‘red’ should mean – what we care about is that we have used the colour as a mental shortcut when we are thirsty and we want something to drink.

Rather than focusing on the message, or even constantly changing the look and feel of the brand, companies should build and strengthen these mental shortcuts through their advertising. 

This is also one of the reasons why drastic rebranding tends to fail, as consumers cannot use any of their existing mental shortcuts anymore.  

Companies should commit to the elements that have made the brand distinctive – like Coke’s cursive font or Nike’s swoosh, and keep these elements fresh in consumers’ minds.  Chances are they will think about these things when they are ready to make a purchase – and not the inspirational speech or poem about their taglines.

Arry Tanusondjaja is a research associate at Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.

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