Marketers who carefully combine surprise with familiarity will get a bigger bang for their advertising buck because the element of surprise is what engages emotion and gets people talking, thus allowing brands to be noticed and rewarded.

How do we create messages that stand out? What will be talked about and remembered in years to come?

2020 holds useful clues for marketers seeking to cut through the noise and get their brands talked about, noticed and remembered. Our lives were twisted in weird ways last year. Activities like going to the supermarket that were once familiar to the point of being forgettable had become surprisingly different and it got us all talking. It was a surprise that made us feel strong emotions about supermarkets and will imprint lasting memories for years to come.

Changing media tastes

Our media preferences changed too. YouTube overtook TVNZ 1 as New Zealand’s most used media.

  • Over half of us watched a YouTube video on any given day.
  • 44% of the country watched TVNZ 1.
  • Netflix and Facebook were third, with 36% of us using these.
  • Spotify followed with 28%.

For now, broadcast TV is still a highly effective way for mass-market brands to reach many New Zealanders.

But as media preferences continue to morph and change, what are the fundamental unchanging elements of ads that get results?

Familiar brands doing new things

The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. This effect has been demonstrated with words, paintings, pictures of faces and sounds. In studies of interpersonal attraction, the more someone sees a person, the more pleasing and likeable they find that person. 

How does mere-exposure work for brands? One of the biggest advertising spenders in New Zealand, Harvey Norman, has a marketing strategy all about consistent presence to build familiarity.

Shouting about product and price all the time isn’t what works for Harvey Norman. Instead, shouting their brand name all the time is what creates a preference for Harvey Norman out of pure, crude familiarity.

While familiarity is important, relying only on hefty media weight is an expensive way to drive brand preference. Across our brand and advertising research at TRA, we see that carefully combining surprise with familiarity is what gets a bigger bang for your advertising bucks.

Surprise Industries co-founder Tania Luna often speaks on the science and psychology of surprises: “Surprise is a strong neuro-alert that causes humans to generate extreme curiosity in an attempt to figure out what is happening.”

For brands, surprise is a way to “get people’s attention and delight them so you get them curious and excited about what you have to offer”.

The important thing for advertisers is harnessing surprise in a way that is firmly attached to your brand.

For example, Pak n’Save uses surprising humour to get people’s attention and delight them. But it’s their familiar black and yellow brand colours and brand character Stickman that ensures these ads are unmistakably linked to the Pak n’Save brand.

Similarly, Coca-Cola achieved international success by taking their highly familiar brand packaging and surprisingly reimagining it by putting people’s names and other words in place of “Coke”.

The temptation to fit in and the rewards of standing out

Marketers are humans too and as humans, we feel safe when we fit in. It feels uncomfortable to be the odd one out with an ad unlike anything your competitors are doing.

However, if you want to create a favourite ad, you need to be comfortable standing out. Humans are hard-wired to look for patterns and broken patterns get our attention fast. Even the most compelling sales pitch won’t get noticed if it’s part of the same pattern. Surprising ads that break the pattern of sameness will get noticed and talked about: “Did you see that!”

Campaign fame, meaning people talking about and sharing your ad, is globally proven to generate greater business effects than ads which aren’t talked about.

We measured conversation around brands with Zavy social media data combined with Paymark Eftpos terminal data and saw this theory conclusively played out in the New Zealand market too.

What makes an ad great?

When 6,000 Kiwis answered the question “What’s your favourite ad on TV and why?”, our analysis confirmed three common elements – the three Rs – which should be applied to any ad, not just TV. 

  1. Be Remarkable – Don’t ask for an ad “like that one”; ask for an ad like no one’s seen before. The element of surprise is what engages emotion and gets people talking. You can’t buy word-of-mouth space but having a remarkable ad gives you the best shot at getting your brand into customer conversations.
  2. Be Rewarding – Favourite ads add: to the audience’s life and to the brand’s competitive edge. Give your audience more of what they’re looking for when they’re watching TV, scrolling through social media, listening to the radio or flicking the pages of a magazine. And by rewarding audiences with entertainment, a brand is much more likely to be rewarded with ringing cash registers in return.
  3. Be Remembered – An ad that’s remarkable and rewarding is only valuable if it is remembered as belonging to your brand. Don’t let the sales pitch get in the way of entertainment but don’t just rely on a logo at the end either. Weaving your unmistakable brand assets into the story is crucial for getting a return on your creative investment. Think about the recognisable brand colours, characters, shapes and sounds that could play a starring role.

Sky Sport’s summer campaign, “Life Needs more Sport”, took the number one spot in this tracking of New Zealand’s favourite ads. Sky’s head of brand and sport marketing, Helen Fitzsimons, described how it encapsulated the three R’s: “We’re focused on building brand love through more impactful and emotive brand campaigns. Our summer ad with the little boy running down the beach delivered exactly what we were after – a familiar and relatable scenario that captured the freedom and joy of summer with a surprising ‘life needs more sport’ twist.”

The fourth R

There’s a fourth R that New Zealand’s favourite ads have in common: they get results.

  • Top 10 favourites Pak n’Save “Stickman” and Speight’s “The Dance” were winners at the 2019 Effie awards for outstanding sales results.
  • Sky “Life Needs More Sport” and Lotto “Imagine” have been shortlisted at the upcoming 2020 Effie awards.
  • Cadbury “Mum’s Birthday” is a favourite in New Zealand, and was screened around the world, helping Cadbury become Britain’s fastest-growing grocery brand this year.


  1. The marketers who are comfortable standing out are the ones with brands that get noticed and talked about.
  2. The marketers who understand that ads should add entertainment value to the lives of their audience are the ones with brands that people value in return.
  3. The marketers who know their distinctive brand assets and weave into remarkable advertising executions are the ones who will benefit from the greatest ROI.

This article was written for TRA’s Frame Magazine