During a time of social distancing, people crave human connection more than ever. Shazia Ginai offers some tips on how to achieve that.

The past year and a half has seen a wave of purpose-led advertising campaigns, and in the current climate the need for more emotion-based ads has ramped up further.

With movements around diversity and inclusion, climate change and mental health, campaigns launched across the vast media landscape have taken a variety of innovative approaches, and more brands have been leaning into experience and interactivity-based communication to truly touch the hearts of consumers. It’s not just about selling, it’s about building trust and empathy.

In this context what has become increasingly important is showcasing human connection and care for what truly matters. In terms of how our brains respond, this is exactly the right move, as has been shown by some great examples within this year’s Effective 100 ranking.

Our brains are not actually that interested in brands. What they care most about is stories – humans make meaning of life and sense of the world around them through stories. Our brains look for narratives to string together and these narratives encourage our brain to encode information into our long-term memory.

Direct address

When measuring long-term memory encoding, at Neuro-Insight we measure electrical signals in both the left and right hemispheres. Long-term memory correlates to our future action, decision making and behaviour change, and both the left and right side are crucial to this for brands. The left side processes detailed information – this includes words and images – and research has shown that our brains have a strong affinity to direct address from characters within the story. The right side is responsible for processing big picture information as well as retrieval of familiar information such as celebrity faces.

In a United Nations ad, The People’s Seat, David Attenborough directly addresses the viewers. This utilises both the narrative lever of direct address mentioned, as well as giving viewers a trusted and familiar source to deliver this information. Which explains why this content is so effective.

As per the basic ingredients of a good story, you could say an effective campaign needs four key elements: a hero, a mentor, a magic object and a treasure. Arguably, the hero may be the ‘brand’, in this case the United Nations, but the crucial mentor used in this case is David Attenborough – a trusted source of information and a face everyone intuitively links to nature and the planet, helping to thread the story together.

One of the key drivers of what our brains choose to put into memory is what we call engagement or personal relevance – at the very pre-frontal part of the brain an area activates when people encounter experiences and things that are of personal relevance to them. Again, this campaign addresses a topic of relevance to all people – our planet. This combination of elements drives true effectiveness.

Intrigue for difficult subject matter

Many brands have questioned the use of shocking content, and more negative concepts can be seen as tricky to use. These can result in negative emotional responses at key branding moments if used poorly; if used correctly, however, the brain can go on the appropriate emotional journey, resulting in greater effectiveness. The Project 84 campaign from ITV proved that this can be done effectively. The human brain looks for intrigue in any given story and this campaign certainly gives a hit of intrigue to start. It then goes on to show well-loved and trusted familiar faces, Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby on This Morning, as well as showing true stories from the general public, driving empathy and creating a narrative that shows the impact of male suicide on people like many of those watching the campaign.

On the flip side of this is the Libresse Vulva ad, which talks about an incredibly personal subject but shows it in a more visually comedic light. Again, the use of intrigue is incredibly effective here, providing a reason for the brain to want to initially engage. There is also a clear narrative thread for the brain to follow, but it manifests itself in various visually engaging forms, helping to give the brain incentive to sustain that interest. The lighter nature of this campaign with a clearly hard-hitting message at its core would likely stimulate emotional centres of the brain and for the target audience is incredibly personally relevant. Consciously many may say its jarring, however the key is sustained engagement.

Personal relevance

Research conducted with Twitter looking at how our brains respond to videos on social media showed that the use of characters and interaction (whether that be with multiple people or just direct address to views) resulted in a 133% increase in emotional response vs. those without human beings. Also, ads with a more topical narrative had a higher likelihood of being viewed as topicality creates an underlying narrative to follow. Aligning to something culturally relevant or time-specific triggers the brain to respond since there is a level of familiarity. All the campaigns mentioned here certainly touch on very current, topical themes which is why they prove to be effective.

All this links back to one of the key themes coming through the Effective 100 campaigns – personal relevance. Particularly as we are moving through a global crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are starved of ordinary human connection and are therefore more acutely aware of how important human connection, emotional and values-based messaging is.

Brands need to adapt not only the assets they have but how they bring these to life, steering more towards the use of trusted and personal, faces, places and experiences to enable those key underlying brand themes to be embedded into the memory of their consumers.

This article is taken from the WARC report, Lessons from the Effective 100, an analysis of the world’s top effectiveness campaigns, as ranked by the Effective 100, to uncover shared creative, media and measurement strategies.