JCDecaux New Zealand’s proprietary research project reveals that out-of-home creative incorporating distinctive brand codes averages a 13% uplift in category mental availability versus weakly coded ads, says JCDecaux’s Victoria Parsons.

Whilst many brands may focus on awareness or consideration for campaign success, mental availability should be the golden metric.

Mental availability delivers commercial outcomes for brands because it predicts that a brand will come to mind in a buying situation, ideally first. It is system 1 thinking and why our brain loves brands for simple, decision making. It sounds obvious but many brands don’t measure mental availability in brand tracking or as a campaign outcome.

For brands to have mental availability, they must be memorable and recognisable. Advertising works by creating memories that we retrieve in a buying situation – this brand is tasty, natural, sustainable, exciting… and is what I need, right now.

Out-of-home (OOH) – a visual channel that ideally says one thing simply – is extremely effective at establishing and growing mental availability for brands though associations linked to emotional images and statements.

Neuroscience proves that large format OOH achieves peaks in long-term memory encoding, well above the memory benchmark of 0.70 (JCDecaux NZ and Neuro Insight NZ Neuroscience Study, Large Format Memory Encoding and Large Format priming for digital study, March 2022).

Large format responses are biased to global memory (right brain) meaning they create emotional outcomes, that are more likely to be remembered.

Creative obviously has a large part to play in whether a campaign is memorable. Research tells us creative, emotional advertising is more effective (WARC Top 10 drivers of Marketing Effectiveness, Effie Awards, Mark Ritson).

However, this is only when consumers can attribute creativity to a brand. If a brand does something moving and surprising, yet no one can remember what it was for, it is simply a waste of advertising spend.

Out-of-home creative needs to be efficient to command attention, convey a message, instigate an emotional response and clearly communicate which brand is being referenced – all within one or two seconds. The use of distinctive brand codes ensures attribution happens instinctively and involuntarily, without cognitive load, so that the viewer can focus on the message. If the message is meaningful, it is linked to the brand, and thus mental availability and relevance grow.

As a leading OOH brand, JCDecaux understands this relationship between message and attribution via brand codes. However, there was no research to validate this. Working with New Zealand behavioural insights research firm NeuroSpot, the methodology consisted of:

  • Online survey to 1,600 people
  • Five cluttered categories with no clear leader – banking, beer, bread, energy, auto
  • Five brands – BNZ, Calsberg, Vogels, Meridian, Mini (brands that had mid to low mental availability in these cluttered categories)
  • For each brand, real current or past large format campaigns were chosen – for each, one with strong code use and one with weak code use
  • Campaigns tested to ensure strong or weak codes before main survey
  • Groups weighted to ensure no over-representation of customers versus market share
  • Respondents split into three groups and were exposed to either weak coded ad, strong coded ads, random creative (control group)
  • Respondents were shown large format creative for two seconds, at a frequency of one in amongst 20 minutes of random questioning about media habits and likeability of certain ads; at the end of the survey, they were asked to name brands that come to mind for chosen categories – mental availability
  • Strong, weak mental availability compared with the control group

The findings gave specific insights into the role brand codes can play in campaign success and mental availability gains:

  1. Out-of-home delivers effective mental availability for brands: 23% average uplift in mental availability for brands (versus control group) from seeing any large format ad (irrespective of brand code strength)
  2. Use of brand codes steps up mental availability gains again: +13% average uplift in mental availability for the group that saw strong brand coded ads versus weak; in some cases, beer and auto, this uplift was >150%
  3. Brand familiarity leads to likeability: Whilst likeability was not a key metric, we noted strongly coded ads were average 31% more liked and liked ads saw average +18% uplift in mental availability

Was likeability driving the uplift rather than codes? NeuroSpot believe no – results are due to the lack of friction of strongly coded work (the lower cognitive load). When brand codes are obvious and easy to understand, the brain can focus on the value in the creativity, rather than needing to expend energy trying to understand who or what the ad is for.

Recommendations for brands

This research reflects some universal principles of how our minds work. The learnings are:

  1. Brands must develop distinctive elements they can leverage in out-of-home creative. This is an effective way to ensure attribution. Neuroscientists talk about every brand having a “brand room in the brain”. Brands must understand how consumers have furnished your brand room and then use those furnishings to tell brand stories.
  2. Out-of-home creativity must be delivered using brand codes. Rather than putting creativity as the first principle, a consumer must understand which brand is delivering the creativity or else advertising investment is wasted. Or worse, it is being attributed to your competitor.
  3. People like what they know. This links to the Mere Exposure Theory (where repetition creates familiarity and people show an increased liking for stimuli they are exposed to more often). Whilst creativity must be surprising by nature, it needs to be delivered with some level of familiarity or understanding.
  4. Brands must understand market share, consumer understanding and brand code strength, to know how far they can push brand codes. Emerging brands need to establish codes and use them consistently as they grow awareness and mental availability. Brands with strong codes can push the boundaries, for example, drop the logo from advertising and let codes do the work.
  5. Brands wanting to evolve must consider existing codes. In order to “refurnish” a brand room, first the brain must retrieve the old codes and overwrite them or else a new brand room could be formed.

As a leading out-of-home provider, JCDecaux welcomes campaigns that are both creative and strongly coded.

Getting the balance right is a fine art, so that the campaign both commands attention but then benefits commercially from this attention earned.