Jem Fawcus from Firefish outlines why TV is such an effective channel for purpose-led campaigns, enabling brands to tap into audiences that are primed for strong emotion-led messaging.

Brands and companies are now well aware that, if you are going to hook your campaign on ‘purpose’, you’d better be doing something you believe in and you’d better be able to live up to it.

Identifying the right brand purpose comes down to having powerful consumer insight and, to be effective, this must be relevant, inspiring, differentiated, authentic and credible.

The worthy winners of the WARC Awards’ Effective Use of Brand Purpose accolades harnessed purpose well: different products, different markets, different audiences. They met the criteria, then used their creative storytelling techniques to bring them to life. But when we looked a little closer, we spotted another unifying factor: TV.

It emerged that TV was the most popular lead medium for many of these successful purpose campaigns (proper TV, by the way, not online video!) from brands including Vaseline, Reebok, Guinness and Tecate. Incidentally, they also listed ‘emotion’ as their main creative strategy – so it seems that TV is still the tour de force when it comes to packing that emotional punch.

When the scales tipped last year, and digital ad spend overtook its TV equivalent, the death knell for TV advertising rang. But hang on, that same bell has been reverberating to the point of tinnitus since the first bip-beep-boop of dial-up internet in the nineties. And here we are, two decades later, with TV taking a lead role in the most hard-hitting purpose-driven campaigns of the year. And when one also considers that Google, Facebook and Netflix spend 60% of their UK marketing budgets on TV, you start asking yourself, why?

(Of course there could be a simple reason – that the media buyers of these campaigns remain stuck in a world from the past where television is king, but I’m ruling that out!)

Extending beyond utility

I’m sure a large part of the answer lies in emotion. The effectiveness of TV – both linear and digital – goes beyond mere utility. Of course, message-based advertising will remain a box to tick for many brand managers because there will always be a need to communicate certain product attributes. But people base many of their purchase decisions (their response to advertising) not on whether product X has more magic ingredient than product Y, but on the subconscious, less rational, considerations such as instinct, gut-feel, fit or impulse.

Research regularly shows that ads generating the most emotional triggers can boost sales. According to a recent Thinkbox study, 58% of people claim that TV ads are more likely than any other medium to generate an emotional response. This then supports using TV as the main channel for highly emotion-led brand purpose campaigns

In fact, TV is a highly-emotional experience in and of itself. Dramas make us cry; comedies reduce us to tears of laughter, news to the point of outrage. If a brand has an emotional message, tapping into an audience already loaded with emotion can only augment the moment.

Made of More, achieving more

Take Guinness’ excellent Made of More series of campaigns, from AMV BBDO. Guinness was a harbinger for purpose-led marketing, understanding before virtually anyone that ‘purpose’ need not be a didactic sermon about the ‘good’ the brand does in the world, but rather an observation of the role the brand plays.

The whole series is noteworthy, but in terms of understanding why TV is so effective at conveying emotion, one ad sticks out. Recounting the story of Gareth Thomas, the world’s first openly gay rugby player, was always going to be an emotional journey. But tell that story to a global audience glued to a highly emotive World Cup game – many of whom will be drinking Guinness, the unofficial tipple of rugby – and these sentiments are amplified tenfold.

Would this have had the same impact if it had launched on say, YouTube? The short answer is no. A large audience of highly engaged, emotive, rugby fans is harder to come by online. In this instance, the power of linear TV as a collective medium comes to fruition. 

It’s a similar tale with Reebok’s Girls Don’t Fight from India. This campaign, with a highly stirring TV ad at its heart, helped Reebok to close the gap on Nike by creating a new purpose for fitness in the life of Indian women that centred on their safety.

Primed for emotion

A TV audience is primed to experience emotion and the marketers at the Unilever-owned brand Vaseline clearly understand this. The Vaseline Healing Project demonstrates that even the most humble and everyday consumer products can make a purposeful impact if one strategically approaches the core brand, and product truths. Vaseline is one of those products lingering at the back of every medicine cabinet – each of us has a story of chapped lips or minor scrapes healed by the stuff. Likewise, doctors in war zones and areas of natural disaster always have it to hand.

One product, two very different stories. The genius lies in telling these concurrent stories;
conveying emotion through storytelling by demonstrating that what separates us unites us. Showcasing actual missions, real patients, real stories that serve to build the brand.

 The capacity to target masses of highly-captive people at once sets television advertising apart from other mediums. Think of the Super Bowl. The ads shown are themselves an event; the big splash from which all else follows. One can individually reach the same number of people with a digital display campaign, no doubt at a far lower cost. But that event – the big splash that sparks the conversation – is harder to replicate online. The TV viewer is primed to invest passion and emotion – whether they realise it or not.

Mexican beer brand Tecate did just this, creating this sort of ‘advertising event’ for its Gender Violence campaign. The notion of a ‘roadblock’ – whereby a brand runs its ad on every channel at once offering virtually no escape – is possible on digital, but has nowhere near the same emotional impact.

 The campaign reached seven million people at once with a dual message: that Tecate doesn’t want men who hurt women to drink its beer; and that women in abusive relationships should contact its affiliate charity for help. In a country where two thirds of women suffer gender violence, not being able to escape that message is significant. Couples sat next to one another, bars full of men drinking Tecate – each could have ignored the message had it been communicated elsewhere.

Inescapable storytelling

This powerful, emotional, inescapable storytelling is exactly why the medium of TV will always thrive.

That’s not to say it isn’t possible to achieve the comparable impact on digital channels, and Nike’s recent campaign, highlighting racial injustice through NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, could be seen to directly contradict the case that TV is best for emotionally heavyweight campaigns. By the time the ad was broadcast during the first NFL game of the season, it had already produced millions of views, sparked mass debate, and generated $163m in media exposure.

 But I would argue that this fits the pattern, here using a different channel to leverage different emotions. The ad fed off outrage, either in support or against Nike’s point of view. And where else to find people primed for outrage, but the shouting match that is most social media? Nike could reach more people by building hype – teasing conversation online – in anticipation of the event, harnessing both traditional and digital channels. The TV ad, with its emotional storytelling and purposeful message, was still the main event, but fed into the outrage of social media and massively ramped up its power.

Even in the analogue era, TV was never the be-all-and-end-all of a campaign. But it is still a very strong way to tap into those subconscious, emotional drivers of the viewer.

The death knell should stop ringing soon enough.

This article originally appeared in WARC's 2018 Effective Use of Brand Purpose Report: Lessons from the 2018 WARC Awards. If you don't subscribe to WARC, you can still read a sample version of the report here.