Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

When is different too different?

June 11, 2012

Thanks to David Taylor of the Brand Gym for alerting me to this piece of research via his very good blog. As a planner working with creatives you have to constantly deal with the tension between creatives wanting to reinvent the wheel and do something totally different in order to stand out and your instinctive sense that the ad needs to retain some link to how people perceive the brand in order to be easily appreciated.

Well here’s some neuroscience research that demonstrates the need to resolve that tension carefully – to achieve ‘moderate newness’ or ‘moderate incongruity’ (in the words of the neuroscience consultancy Decode Marketing who have written it up in a paper on their website) or ‘fresh consistency’ (in the words of David Taylor).

Researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands observed nerve cells reacting to familiar and new information. When we are expecting something and the stimulus confirms our expectations, the brain switches off and attends to other matters. That’s the efficient response: why spend time considering something when we already know what it’s going to be? The researchers say that’s why most car crashes happen on roads we know well – our brains have switched off because they think they know what they will find.

However when the stimulus is unexpected the brain actively processes the signal and tries to understand it in the light of existing knowledge and expectations. The trouble is that this active processing of disruptive stimulus is hard work, our brains are lazy and won’t keep that up for long (see Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’) and advertising is not something most people are interested enough to expend effort on.

Further research indicates that a message that is ‘moderately incongruent’ with expectations works best: that total newness has as little effect as total familiarity.

I’d like to see more detail on the examples they used to come to this conclusion (and it would be great if the other research examined a spectrum of degrees of unexpectedness, from a little bit unexpected to totally disruptive) but nonetheless it’s an interesting conclusion that rings true with my personal experience and the proven success of campaigns which manage to balance consistency with newness (Lynx/Axe worldwide a great example).

The tricky call to make with a long-running campaign is when ‘effective consistency’ becomes ‘over-familiarity’. Sainsbury’s worked Jamie Oliver very hard for a long time but eventually they ran out of ways to create sufficient ‘moderate incongruity’. To my amazement the Walkers crisps campaign with Gary Lineker still seem to be pulling it off, but surely not for that much longer?

And did BT end the ‘couples’ campaign too early, when it was still capable of delivering some ‘moderate incongruity’ each time? The new campaign is so incongruous for the brand (in a way that the Adam & Jane campaign wasn’t, even at the beginning) that I bet it’s really ineffective: it’s just too different. I can see that the brief was ‘drive reappraisal of BT amongst younger people’ but you’ve got to retain some linkage with existing brand perceptions or it’s just too much like hard work for our poor brains. Especially when the ads are as painfully unfunny as those are.