Most of the Cannes Lions award-winning campaigns share a similar anatomy, says Neuro-Insight’s Peter Pynta: they lean on the art of storytelling and build creative tension to light up the brain’s emotional centres and drive memorability.

Congratulations to the winners at the Cannes Lions awards last week, especially to brands like Michelob Ultra, Dove and Cheetos who won Creative Effectiveness Lions. 

When you watch these campaigns, you can feel why they are the winners. However, you may not completely understand why. They align themselves with the context of the times, create a memorable yet familiar brand experience and build a captivating tension through the art of storytelling.

Some people may assume that structure stifles the spontaneity of creativity. However, it truly is an enabler of it. We see nature’s incredible diversity generated by a few basic structural elements: just over one hundred varieties of atoms and a few primary colours, while just 26 letters in the alphabet have unlocked the enormous creativity of literature.

Consumer neuroscience studies have routinely proven the value of these advertising philosophies by quantifying the effectiveness of different marketing messages and by measuring their impact on brain activity. We measure this long-term memory as the input and the corresponding ROI in the market as the output. But it’s always interesting to see how brands build upon classic tactics to push the boundaries of creativity and effectiveness every year.

Leveraging the power of context 

Those marketers who recognise that consumers are often highly motivated by external factors find unique opportunities to use context to make a brand message resonate and excel. They authentically align with the economic, political, health, cultural and social factors that could impact consumers within a particular space and time as they know that these contextual factors are driving people. 

Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign won accolades and drove sales uplift by embedding itself in the social and political controversy that surrounded Colin Kaepernick at the time. The strategy has also paid off for Michelob Ultra who leant into purpose (organic farming) and won the Grand Prix for Effectiveness award.

Climate change and inequality are becoming embedded in our social context and the brands that can meaningfully align themselves with a network of existing memories and experiences are far more likely to be remembered.

Innovation, without reinventing the wheel 

One of Byron Sharp’s scientifically tested rules for brand growth is to refresh and build memory structures while respecting existing associations. That’s exactly why we build brand identities. They become easily recognisable through a consistently repeated message and leverage the weight of the memory network that has already been built to impact consumer actions. The Cheetos “Can’t Touch This” campaign – a Cannes Effectiveness Silver Award winner – is a great example of this strategy.

Branded storytelling

Effective stories usually create powerful emotions, which heighten our ability to commit experiences to memory. Our brain also commits more resources to emotions because they are a signal to the brain that what we are experiencing is important. 

You will often see the most effective advertising campaigns building creative tension through the classic storytelling framework of a setup in which a character faces a problem, embarks on a plan to solve it, faces a series of escalating challenges until they are forced to change, and then experiences some form of unexpected payoff. The human brain loves to follow stories and brands can intrinsically build these associations by authentic narrative integration.

That’s why Volvo’s ultimate safety test campaign, which had barely anything to do with the performance or aesthetic of the car, was recognised by the jury previously at Cannes Lions.

As the main character embarked on his quest for the ultimate safety, he is pushed into more dangerous scenarios until he realises the far more existential threat of climate change when he follows a Volvo all the way to a melting ice cap. There are references to the brand at suspenseful moments throughout the whole advertisement, rather than at the end when the story has closed out, making the message far more likely to be accepted into long-term memory while the brain is receptive.

Structure enables creativity

Advertisers need to routinely delight and enchant their customers. That challenge sees them using the same philosophies, while also testing and innovating their approach to deliver new creative ideas and even better outcomes year after year.

We might now be facing new challenges, like showcasing sustainability or maintaining our social licence, but the latest round of Cannes Lions awards proves that the same storytelling principles can be applied no matter the subject matter or sector.