The state of creative effectiveness in 2023

Zappi

With Cannes Lions, our industry's biggest celebration of branded creativity beginning today, we have taken a look back at the over 2,300 ads we’ve researched with nearly a million consumers in the U.S. over the last four years to answer one essential question: Is advertising getting better? 

In this article, we’ll cover the art and science behind creative effectiveness (a key component to great advertising) and how advertising has evolved in one of the most unpredictable stretches in our history to answer that question.

What produces effective creative?

A good ad is equal parts art and science. In 15- or 30-second clips, brands need to entertain, educate, engage and excite to catch consumer interest – all while building memory structures that make the brand more likely to come to mind in the moment of choice. 

This complicated high-wire act means that ads can’t be judged on just one of those measures. Instead they need to: 

  1. Reach the audience on their terms and break through the clutter of a crowded media environment. 

  2. Resonate with consumers to strike the emotional chords that build long-term resonance with their brand.

  3. Drive response from viewers to want to consider their brand or product in the future through what they now know, think and feel about it.

A great and effective advertisement accomplishes all of these feats, armed with distinctive brand assets, relevance, creative brand linkage, and countless other mechanisms. 

While your overall advertising impact is influenced by factors like brand size, media targeting or distribution, creative quality remains the biggest profitability lever marketers can influence. In his 2023 research, Paul Dyson has shown that creative quality can multiply your profits up to 12 times. To gauge creative quality and help improve it, Zappi uses a comprehensive framework to determine what makes an ad’s creative effective.

We define creative effectiveness by measuring how an ad reaches consumers, how it resonates with them, and how it promotes strong response in terms of purchase uplift or brand consideration. We define an ad’s ability to accomplish those feats into a simple score on a 1-5 scale. A 5 could be considered a perfect advertisement – a true unicorn – while a 1 needs substantial improvement before going to market. 

From testing over 2,300 ads in the US, we’ve created the below U.S. norms for brands to benchmark against. 

Advertising's slow response to change

The state of the world affects the way consumers view advertising. So brands need to understand what's going on and how consumers are reacting to make sure they're creating ads that will land in the intended way.

As you can see in the chart below, creative effectiveness has improved from pre-pandemic to where it is today. But our path to getting there hasn’t been straightforward. 

In fact, we’ve identified four distinct eras of advertising in our data set – each one highly influenced by the social and economic forces that influenced what consumers want from brands. They are:

  • The Pre-pandemic Era (March 2019 – March 2020)

  • The Pandemic Era (March 2020 – July 2021)

  • The Inflation Era (July 2022 – December 2022)

  • The Normalization Era (January 2023 - present)

The Pandemic Era (March 2020 – July 2021)

In the Pandemic Era, a sudden, disruptive change to our ways of working and living forced brands to move fast and rethink their strategies to create advertising that was fit for the moment, which meant bringing more emotion into their ads. 

From our data, we can see that overall emotional response, or how much positive emotions advertising elicits, grew 17% during the pandemic, compared with pre-pandemic. As a result, creative effectiveness grew during this phase. 

Scores: Effectiveness: 4.12, Distinctiveness: 4.12, Emotional intensity: 20.22, Brand recall: 81.62

For example, you may remember seeing ads from the likes of M&Ms, Colgate and Oreo  (shown above), all of which included themes of at-home togetherness or relatable moments reflecting the lock-down release (seeing smiles again, traveling by plane, etc.) that spoke to the current state of the world while still remaining authentic to the brand.

But not all brands got it right during this time. From including pandemic cliches to stepping away from their brand messaging, there were many jokes in the advertising world about a lot of COVID-19 ads being the same, which did not bode well for these brands in the eyes of consumers. This mushy middle of similar ads resulted in brand recall declining 5.6% between Pre-Pandemic and Pandemic Eras. 

The Inflation Era (July 2021 – December 2022)

While brands got used to the sudden changes from the Pandemic Era, a new one was starting under their noses. 

The Inflation Era is marked by a slow burn of behavior change over time. When most campaign cycles can take upwards of 6 months, this often resulted in a final ad campaign with messaging that no longer resonated with consumers, causing effectiveness to dip. As costs rose and savings dwindled, Pandemic Era-messaging started to fall flat. 

In short, the Inflation Era was a rough period for advertisers. 

While creative effectiveness largely remained consistent, we saw dips in emotional intensity, meaning that advertising was pulling less on consumers' emotional strings. But at the same time, they didn’t note feeling any more strong negative emotions either. The only thing worse than a negative reaction is no reaction at all. 

More prominently, earlier on in the Inflation Era, advertisers shifted from highly emotional Pandemic Era ads to more short-term activations, hoping to stake their claim to the excess cash most Americans had as a result of the pandemic. 

The problem: those cash reserves were running out fast as inflation took hold, and the change in the state of mind of the consumer meant the messages didn’t resonate as well. 

This can be seen as we look back at the Pandemic Era where purchase uplift – a percent change of purchase likelihood, before vs. after viewing an ad in-context – peaked at 19.44, or a 32% increase in purchase intent from the pre-pandemic era.

But as soon as inflation took hold, this barrier to entry became more difficult, falling 7% from the pandemic’s peak.

Normalization Era: Is advertising rebounding in 2023?

The good news is advertising is improving again! 

Year-to-date in 2023, we’re seeing that new ads are performing strongly against our U.S. norms. This means that advertisers have pieced together the puzzle of what consumers want from brands.

The key drivers to indicate this upward trend is twofold: 

  1. Advertising is more emotional again: We’re seeing overall emotion and emotional intensity scores that are now outperforming our U.S. norms.

  2. Stronger purchase uplift: Those relatable messages are resulting in a stronger consumer response as we see both higher purchase uplift and higher brand appeal, which means consumers are more likely to consider the brands 

Final thoughts

There are many factors that go into great advertising, from having strong brand messaging, to evoking the right emotional responses and capturing the attention of consumers — but these should also all be considered with the sentiment of the nation in mind.

The past few years have certainly seen some difficult eras for advertising, but we’re happy to share our research is indicating an upward trend for the Normalization Era in 2023.   

If you want to check out what we’re doing at this year’s Cannes Lions, stay tuned for our coverage. And if you’d like to learn how Zappi can help you create great advertising, talk to us

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