How to find your advertising success formula

Dan White, marketing expert & illustrator

I imagine that this scenario will resonate with lots of brand managers. Your brand has been around for a while now and it’s doing OK, but it needs to grow. Your advertising has been fairly effective. Some ads/campaigns have been great, others less so. You haven’t quite figured out why this variation occurs. If this sounds familiar, this article is for you. 

You could be able to take your advertising to the next level by identifying your success formula.

In this article I’ll describe how this has worked for four brands: 1) a food brand in Europe, 2) a tourism brand in the Middle East, 3) a global luxury brand available and 4) a global personal care brand — to help you find your own advertising success formula.

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1. Food brand (Europe)

The brand is Bertolli, known originally as Olivio in the UK, which is owned by Unilever. My recollections are based on ads from decades ago, so I am not at risk of giving away any trade secrets. 

Olivio was launched in the UK in 1991 as an alternative to butters and margarines. It is made from olive oil (which was seen as exotic at the time) and the advertising leveraged the fact that people in the Mediterranean live much longer thanks to their diet of fresh fish, vegetables and olive oil. The ads performed well, but some were much more impactful and compelling than others. 

To help enhance the effectiveness of future ads, I was involved in an analysis of all the brand’s ads up to 1994. The technology at the time was primitive so most of the analysis was done by hand. It was a slow and costly process. We nevertheless identified some clear success factors. 

Olivio’s most effective ads all included several of these features:

  • Elderly people being surprisingly active for their age

  • The glorious Mediterranean outdoors

  • Varied and delicious-looking fresh produce used to prepare a family meal

  • Grandparents interacting with their sons/daughters or, better still, their grandchildren

  • The same, distinctive music

These insights helped the team come up with a string of wonderful ads that resonated with consumers, were hugely impactful and helped accelerate the brand’s growth through the 1990s.

2. Tourism brand (Middle East)

This is a recent example so I cannot reveal too much detail. The project was for a city in the Middle East aiming to attract tourists and business owners. The city is a fabulous place to live and work. It’s clean and safe, full of places to eat and drink and has lots of interesting things to do and see. 

The creative team came up with 40 or so videos, each featuring a different reason to visit or relocate to the city. By comparing the content of the videos with their ability to get people excited about the city, we identified the most compelling themes and content elements. 

Here are some of the characteristics that worked best:

  • Highlighting an area in which the city leads the world

  • Showcasing a unique local attraction 

  • Featuring an individual explaining why they’re happy they moved there

  • Hearing from a happy, successful, independent woman

The findings helped the team develop a new series of stories, all of which performed within the top quartile of the initial batch.

3. Luxury brand (global)

This project looked at advertising for a luxury brand, and its main competitors, going back more than 15 years. The goal was to identify the most memorable and iconic imagery, moments and themes from the brand’s illustrious back catalog of ads. We aimed to understand the elements that had become most strongly associated with the brand and had helped it stand out over the years.

Some of the findings were predictable. For example, the brand’s strongest ads tended to have a refined setting and feature an elegant woman —  ideally someone famous, renowned for their elegance. Using well-known music also helped.

More interestingly, the most powerful ads celebrated the woman and the woman’s story. The most memorable imagery captured the woman’s strength and dignity. These characteristics were much more important than the fame of the actress. Featuring a strong male character, on the other hand, invariably detracted from ad’s effectiveness.

We found that subtle sensuality was far more effective than overt sexuality. We also discovered that using a specific color/visual tone and featuring one of the brand’s symbols in a clever way helped people connect the advertising with the right brand. 

These findings were gold dust (pun intended). 

However, the learning from competitors’ advertising was even more useful. The advertising produced by two of the brand’s closest competitors proved to be far more memorable. The reason was clear: Each had their own, distinctive tone and style, visual effects, music, sound effects, story structure and symbolism which they had used consistently, across all of their advertising, for more than 10 years. 

These observations encouraged my client to define a set of guidelines for all future advertising. The guidelines specified which elements from the brand’s previous advertising (i.e. the elements found to be most effective and memorable) should be leveraged and evolved in future advertising.

4. Personal care brand (global)

The celebrated ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ by Dove is regarded as one of the world’s most effective advertising initiatives. It was the result of a lot of hard thinking and research analysis. I made a small contribution to its development by identifying the success formula of the advertising that came before. 

Up until 2004, Dove used consumer testimonials for most of its ads. They featured an ordinary consumer, always a woman, talking about the product and what she thought about it. The majority worked OK, but some were vastly superior. The meta analysis revealed the criteria driving strong performance.

  1. The Woman: How the woman came across in the ad was critical. The more relaxed, natural and genuine the better. This led to lengthy casting sessions to find the perfect person.

  2. The Conversation: Just talking about the product’s functional benefits resulted in advertising that was quickly forgotten. But if the testimonial also talked about how having good skin made her feel, the ad was more engaging and persuasive.

  3. The Woman’s life: The most effective ads were when the woman also gave us a glimpse into her life. If the conversation touched on something other women could identify with, the story helped make the ad more memorable. Everyday topics worked well. For example, an anecdote from the woman’s daily life or how she tried to achieve a good work-life balance.

It became clear that the target audience loved it when they saw a confident, charismatic woman talking in an authentic way about herself and her ordinary life. 

We conducted further, qualitative research that confirmed what we had learned, and this led to the idea of taking female empowerment to the next level in future advertising. The rest, as they say, is history.

How can you identify your brand’s success formula?

The key is to collect information on a large set of advertising assets and put them all together in a database that allows you to slice and dice the data with ease. This means that the cost of obtaining the data needs to be low (so you can include lots of assets in the analysis) and the platform needs to be designed with ‘general learnings’ in mind. 

This is where Zappi comes in. When you use the Zappi platform for your advertising research, each study you conduct contributes to a growing database of insights. The platform stores and organizes your data in a way that enables learning over time. You can tag your assets (and those of your competitors) with characteristics you want to learn about. Plus, it provides automated analytics to identify patterns and relationships quickly and easily to create an ongoing cycle of improvement.

You can use this database to spot what’s working in your advertising and what’s working for other brands in the category so you can uncover your brand’s success formula.

Talk to us

Get in touch if you’d like to learn more about how Zappi can help.

About the author

Dan White is a marketing expert and illustrator with 33 years’ experience in brands, advertising, and market research. He has worked with many of the world’s biggest brands and advised on over 500 advertising campaigns. His summaries and illustrations have influenced hundreds of thousands of marketing and insights professionals through his social media activities and three best-selling books. In this piece he draws on his experience of the challenges faced by market research of the past in delivering what insights teams and marketers need. And he looks at how much more impact the industry could have today if it embraces recent advances in technology.

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