Writing for WARC’s Marketer’s Toolkit 2021, Susie Walker, head of awards at Cannes Lions, explains how brands are using ‘lo-fi’ campaign production techniques to deliver results.

Nobody can predict the long-term impact of the turmoil of 2020, but history does hold some clues. Crises tend to accelerate emerging trends, and one such technique is ‘lo-fi’ – an under-designed aesthetic that purposely rejects the stylised and consciously high-spec content we are used to seeing.

Why lo-fi? 

In lockdown, arguably the first thing to change is the production process. We’ve seen brand work shot on iPhones, ads created from B-Roll and a surge in user-generated communication.

It’s not the polish we’re used to, but does it matter? It’s democratised, it’s raw, it’s sometimes even ugly. But it works. This new ‘DIY’ aesthetic feels more relatable to younger audiences and sits more comfortably in their social feeds.

In his talk ‘Ugly Sells’ at Cannes Lions 2019, Tim Leake – SVP, Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer at RPA – predicted there would be a reaction against “over-perfection” in advertising, and claimed there was a “normalisation of ugly” evident in kids’ video games, gifs and memes.

That’s not to say the big idea, beautifully executed, is no longer a driver of effectiveness; rather, we have found that lo-fi work is effective in addition.

But does it work?

In some channels, and for some sectors, lo-fi content is materially outperforming highly-produced, big-budget work. According to DashHudson, in 2019, there was a significant increase in effectiveness in lo-fi videos in the beauty category, for instance.  

We dug into the Cannes Lions archives to get a sense of how things are shifting. When looking at the winners across the most content-heavy Lions over the last three festivals, of those 927 entries, just over 10% included lo-fi content.

Almost half of the work (48%) was aired on social media, and 30% on online entertainment platforms like streaming services and gaming. The Lion with the highest proportion of lo-fi work – about a fifth of all winning work in this Lion overall – was found in Social & Influencer/Cyber Lions.

Budget is not always the key determining factor. Only 25% of winning lo-fi work between 2017 and 2019 was tagged as ‘low-budget’. Lo-fi is in some ways a leveller, allowing start-ups to compete with global mega-brands. 

During our research, we spotted five trends for creating effective lo-fi work.

1. Rethink craft

Lo-fi has forced us to reconsider what we think of as craftsmanship. Success isn’t so much about production; idea, story, performance, character and casting are more important. There is greater emphasis on spontaneity. Unpolished work makes us feel good, because it lowers the bar for everyone. 

Burger King scared its guests by dressing up an outlet in New York as a McDonald’s restaurant, while this work for Palace and Reebok Classics, with knowingly terrible acting and awful editing enhancing the humour, took home a Film Lion in 2017.

2. Get nostalgic

Nostalgia is a natural fit for lo-fi work. While nostalgia works to lure old consumers back in, ‘fauxstalgia’ captivates a new base. What older generations may revere, younger generations approach with curiosity, admiration and sometimes irony. 

Work like the kitschy ‘Xuxa and the missing child’ by Soko Sao Paulo for Netflix and this Silver Lion winning work for Orange Tunisia which leveraged the popularity of retro gaming to create a hugely entertaining gaming experience from FP7/TUN.

3. Customise or adapt to platform

Platform specificity is crucial with lo-fi. Brands should avoid cross-posting – don’t use Snapchat filters on Instagram, or raw video on YouTube, for instance. We’ve seen this exemplified in work like FCB Inferno London’s for UEFA Women’s Football which adapted content into 600 platforms.

4. Embrace the amateurs

Nearly 30% of all the award-winning lo-fi work we analysed was tagged as ‘UGC’ or ‘Co-Creation’.

Embracing amateur content creators might feel scary. But bona fide UCG feels far more natural in a feed, and comes with the added benefit of active, community connection.

Great examples include Dilly Dilly by W+K New York and this five-Lion winning work from J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam, in which auto brand Opel employed would-be customers as dedicated influencers, significantly increasing the brand’s reach.

5. Personality is everything

Lo-fi work strips everything back. This is the perfect platform to be honest and relatable. Humility, humanity and humour reign supreme. Even beauty brands have compromised on their version of perfection in favour of self-shot campaigns. 

In some cases, you can make content that reacts to other people’s content, just like we saw with the #NuggsForCarter real-time response from Wendy’s and this work for CARMAX by McKinney Durham, a Bronze Social & Influencer Lion winner.

Lo-fi can be your friend

Many myths have built up around lo-fi: that it’s inferior quality; that it only works on social; that it’s ineffective. But we have seen plenty of examples of lo-fi work that really works, wins LIONS and drives growth – and we expect to see more and more work like this. 

We know that lo-fi will never replace good craftsmanship – as Sir John Hegarty famously said, “80% is idea, 80% is execution.” But now is the time to be experimental, to get practical and to overcome constraints. This is where lo-fi can be your friend. 

You can find a curated collection of examples that offer insights on how to create effective lo-fi work on The Work.