Neuro-Insight’s Shazia Ginai analyses the 2021 Creative Effectiveness Lions winners to uncover how they delivered impact through emotion, topicality and virality.

Our brain makes sense of the world around us through stories. We do this by encoding the newest, most important and most relevant snapshots of these stories into our long-term memory, which is proven to correlate to future action, decision making and behaviour change. At Neuro-Insight, we ground all our work around creative effectiveness as great storytelling is the foundation of what the brain needs to drive any real connection with a brand. However, not all storytelling is equal, which is why, to put it in marketing terms, not all impacts are equal. 

When looking at this year’s Cannes effectiveness winners in detail, we can see common themes showing why, from the brain’s perspective, these campaign stories drove strong impact for their brands.

Emotional connection and personal relevance

The human brain has evolved to encode memories alongside an associated emotion for our survival, therefore emotion plays a pivotal role in what will drive us to action. The emotion doesn’t always need to be a happy one though: it’s about meaningful connections and emotionally relevant narratives.

This was demonstrated beautifully by Pernod Ricard’s The time we have left. Despite the subject matter being quite melancholy, the execution showed the warmth of human connections. Most importantly, the campaign was focused on people over product. Our research has shown that ads where the product is showcased rather than sold elicit a 17% higher brain response. In Pernod Ricard’s work, the focus is on human interaction – which is a successful tool to drive memory response – and the product is woven into the narrative, as opposed to being the centre of attention.

Another great example of weaving product into narrative is O.N.E.’s heartfelt Sleeping Flags campaign. One of our key metrics is what we call ‘Engagement’: a weighted composite measure in the anterior prefrontal cortex, this is a measure of response to personally relevant information which is a driver of long-term memory. In O.N.E.’s campaign, there are several cues that hold relevance for the audience it targets, such as the colours of the Irish flag. Again, the narrative isn’t jovial by any stretch, but its impact is in its ability to connect in a personally relevant way.

Topical content (even when it’s polarising)

Intrigue is a driver of memory, and intriguing stories can often be polarising. Controversial campaigns such as Babyshop’s Parenthood Rephrased demonstrated this powerfully. This campaign attempted to drive significant cultural change, in this case going against the brain's conditioned responses to language. Within the culturally tricky subject of gender inequality, this is an even more challenging area to play with.

The 50% negative responses the idea received on social media likely reflect the withdrawal response we measure at Neuro-Insight as our differential measure of prefrontal cortical activity, but this is not, in fact, a driver of memory. In some instances, going with the societal norm is the opposite of what communications need to do to capture the brain’s attention and drive meaningful societal change versus just being entertainment that the brain enjoys and does nothing with. In research conducted with Twitter, we saw that ads with a topical narrative were over 30% more likely to be watched and helped trigger a stronger brain response.

Topicality creates an underlying narrative for the brain to follow. In order to re-wire and create new associations, sometimes it’s critical to go against the conditioned response and create new associations. Babyshop’s content leveraged some great tools in its execution, such as the use of people and faces with positive expressions, which we know the brain responds incredibly well to, thus ensuring there were still positive drivers and associations with the brand to compensate for the polarising subject matter.

Immediate impact: Creating a viral campaign

In terms of driving future action and long-term brand building, arguably some of these winners didn’t fulfil the criteria for the brain. Whether that is right or wrong could be debated endlessly, but in this instance the results speak for themselves.

Burger King’s tactical campaign Whopper Detour definitely created intrigue and interest, which we know the brain enjoys and pays attention to. Whilst price-led campaigns can be a turn-off for the brain, a sense of urgency can ratchet up brain response. A recent study on OOH dynamic triggers, has shown that timed campaigns with live updates create a sense of urgency resulting in a sense of relevance, which, in turn, is a driver of memory.

KMSZ took a different approach with its Life Lolli campaign, which centred on a noble cause with an incredibly important message and critical life-or-death purpose. Going back to the fact that our brains can be turned off by a hard sell, micro and macro influencers have been proven to appeal more strongly to the brain because they feel like part of our inner circle as opposed to a brand with a self-serving agenda. In a recent study we conducted with Whalar, we found that priming other media with influencer-first campaigns has a positive emotional impact. We saw a 58% uplift in our approach metric, showing greater motivation when respondents were primed with influencer content before TV, Facebook and YouTube content.

When it all adds up

The campaign that managed to deliver across all these levers and more was Grand Prix winner Nike. Dream Crazy delivered first and foremost on the foundation of all effectiveness: great storytelling. The brain was given a clear and cohesive narrative thread to follow. We know that right-brain memory processing also includes retrieval of familiar information and the use of famous athlete Colin Kaepernick no doubt created that familiarity.

The execution delivered emotive and personally relevant creative, which is a crucial driver for long-term memory encoding. Finally, the famous tweet from Kaepernick delivered on the topicality.

All in all, this campaign is one that will go down in history and has no doubt created new subconscious associations for the brand in the brain, which will reinforce its existing strong equity and deliver long-term benefits.

An abridged version of this article appears in WARC's report, Insights from the 2021 Creative Effectiveness Lions winners.