A relentless focus on audience and outcomes, underpinned by a channel strategy that remains close to business functions, was a winning combination for three of the winners in this year’s IPA Effectiveness Awards, writes OMD’s Charlie Ebdy.

The IPA Effectiveness Awards tell us that big ideas do work. That patience is rewarded. That my mum should recognise my latest campaign. They also invite us to reconsider best practice, and the winners of 2020 were no different. 

Superficially, Volvo, KFC and wagamama aren’t obviously comparable. Three brands with wide differences in heritage, recent performance and marketing means: what constituted a calculated risk for KFC in Australia, at roughly £500k investment, was wagamama’s annual advertising budget. Yet there is profound similarity: three brands struggling with the weight of competition, lacking the means to overcome it by spend alone, in categories with illustrious competitors. Each recognised the limitations of best practice in closing these respective gaps: KFC had a brand equity problem limiting uptake that foundational mental and physical availability couldn’t fix; Volvo had a penetration problem that consistent investment hadn’t turned around; wagamama saw a key audience defect to new platforms and providers. 

Embracing unorthodoxy

The media decisions these three brands took are illuminating. With each facing, to differing degrees, a penetration challenge, and each understanding that light buyers are critical to solving that challenge, an orthodox approach would have stressed consistent, distinctive and broad paid reach; after all, each is a well-established brand in a large category. Wagamama recognised a total audience of 20 million, whilst KFC and Volvo competed in categories with 80%+ household penetration; the latter two are around 90 years old, while wagamama has yet to reach its 30th birthday and has just licensed products in Britain’s biggest supermarkets. Yet none took an orthodox approach, and the success of their unorthodoxy should be instructive for planners in five different ways.

1: Success is relative, not absolute

Each of these brands understood that what matters is reaching more buyers than you currently have. Reach is an important consideration, but smaller brands don’t need as much in order to expand their footprint: McDonald’s in Australia, with 35% share of market, a broader menu and more dayparts, consistently has to reach more people than KFC if it is to maintain its size. Conversely, Volvo, with only 1.7% of the UK market, needs to reach fewer people than, say, Audi, for that communication to have a positive impact. For bigger brands, single-mindedness in terms of audience or channel often limits reach in a counter-productive way, yet smaller brands benefit from seeing breadth as an ambition, not a tactic.

2: Campaign effects require more than salience

As wagamama recognised, channel effects are positively correlated with their total reach, yet, as all the cases make clear, brands are wise to think qualitatively first and quantitatively second. KFC had access to large budgets and had previously tried – and failed – to overcome negative quality perceptions. If its problem could have been overcome by consistently reaching people with food quality messages, it would have already succeeded. Wagamama, meanwhile, realised that competitive advantage would come from combined proximity to restaurant and quality of impact; reach at the wrong time, without the emotive payoff, would be next to useless, even if it was seen by more people. Especially today – when media is almost infinite – thinking about impact first is imperative. 

3: Not all audiences are created equal

Audiences and business models aren’t all alike: some audiences – even if they are all light buyers in the classic sense – might be more likely to convert or spend big; some business models are margin-led rather volume-driven. Volvo, with a high gross profit, will make more than £3.5k in pure profit from each customer; KFC might recruit a couple of thousand new customers to generate that profit. Volvo’s seeming over-investment into a single, high-propensity sub-group using a single highly-relevant media partner worked for it in a way that KFC’s lower-budget, more populist activity never could.

4: Media isn’t just what you pay for

The ‘brand-building’ we ascribe to advertising too often pretends that we exist inside a marketing vacuum, imagining a need to fight a brand’s every battle with paid activity alone. Yet in choosing not to use its paid budget for the most fundamental need a brand seemingly has – that of consistent, broad presence – these three brands recognised that advertising isn’t always how you create visibility. After all, wagamama, KFC and Volvo had public presence: their businesses had already bought basic awareness by leasing shops and creating packaging, websites and logos. KFC had a huge ‘everyday’ budget doing the basics, Volvo hundreds of thousands of cars on the road. Clearly, in a competitive category, these brands needed more than the functional visibility their business already possessed, but this trade-off can only be made if you can better conceptualise how your brand exists in the world of your customers.

5: Great campaigns are about priorities

Ultimately, all three winning campaigns remind us that strategic thinking has never been so critical to interpreting and applying best practice. Often our most iconic examples are brands that occupy rarefied positions, with few budgetary or procedural restraints. Yet these three brands succeeded with smaller budgets, less equity and little product innovation. They were relentlessly focused on the people and the outcomes that only advertising – and no other part of their business – could affect. Be it wagamama sacrificing promotional activity in favour of its brand promise, Volvo shifting from product detail to driver stories or KFC choosing conversation over information, each took calculated – and deeply strategic – risks. 

Final takeout: Keep media decisions close to business functions

In taking an unorthodox approach to their campaign construction – what they invested to achieve, who they tried to influence and how they sought to influence them – these three cases can help us clarify historic understanding for specific context. They show how – by recognising your constraints – better campaigns need to be scaled not to absolute goals but to relative ones, that audiences and tactics aren’t created equal, and media decisions can’t be detached from business functions. And, most critically, they show how, through this approach, you can succeed regardless of scale or means.

An abridged version of this article appears in WARC’s Insights from the 2020 IPA Effectiveness Awards.