Why boundary-breaking ads win through

More distinctive ads are more memorable, and the holy grail is creative that stands out while also conveying the brand’s core message.

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What’s the first ad that you can think of, right now? There’s a good chance that it’s something distinctive.

That’s not speculation. The research company Zappi analysed 2,300 US ads on its Amplify ad system and found ads that viewers deemed distinctive were far more likely to be effective. Across the database, viewers on average rated ads at 3.81 on a five-point scale in terms of distinctiveness (with higher numbers representing greater distinctiveness).

However, those scores changed when Zappi cut the data by the most effective ads. The top 10% of ads had a distinctiveness rating of 4.03; for the top 5% it was 4.1. And for the top 1%, it was 4.15. In contrast, the least effective ads, those in the bottom 5%, had a rating of 3.6.

The more effective the ad, the more likely it was to be distinctive. Of the ads that outperformed the average rating for distinctiveness, 75% also outperformed standards for effectiveness.

This isn’t a coincidence. There’s strong behavioural-science evidence to explain why being distinctive can have such an impact.

To create strong memories, use concrete language

Stand out to stay in mind

For an ad to work well, you want your brand to come to mind at the right moment. And this is where distinctiveness may wield some of its greatest power.

The classic study showing the link between memorability and distinctiveness dates way back to 1933, and German psychologist Hedwig von Restorff. She gave participants long lists of information, and later asked them what they remembered. And she found that they were far more likely to recall the pieces of information that stood out from the rest. So, if you gave people a long list of animals (eg cat, dog) with a few items of furniture (eg table, shelves) mixed in, it was the furniture they’d remember.

There’s strong behavioural-science evidence to explain why being distinctive can have such an impact.

It’s a phenomenon that’s just as powerful today as it was 90 years ago. I carried out my own exploration into the von Restorff effect with a group of 500 UK participants. I gave them a list of numbers: 15 written in black font, and one in blue. Sure enough, respondents were 30 times more likely to recall the coloured outlier than any of the black numbers.

You may wonder how well a list of numbers represents brands – and I looked at that too. Respondents saw a list of logos: 11 car brands and one fast-food brand. Again, after an interval, we asked which brands they could recall. Consumers were four times more likely to mention the fast-food brand than the average car brand.

The implication for advertising is clear. If you blend in with the rest, your customers may struggle to remember you. But if you’re the one coffee table among a menagerie of animals, you’re more likely to find that your brand springs to mind at the right moment.

So, what does that mean in practice? Well, have a look at this Doritos ad, ranked in the top 0.2% of Zappi’s ads.

The inclusion of a 2D Matthew McConaughey is surreal enough to make sure it’s distinctive.

But the copy does more than just stand out in a random fashion. The way that it’s unique reflects the central message of the ad. That’s the difference between good and great creative.

Pique interest for peak impact

One way to stand out is to take your customers by surprise. Evidence shows that this is likely to capture attention – and thus boost persuasive potential.

One study showing the power of the ‘pique’ effect comes from Michael Santos, Craig Leve and Anthony Pratkanis at the University of California, in 1994.

The researchers asked three confederates to pose as beggars, asking passers-by for money. When the confederate asked “can you spare any change?” or “can you spare a quarter?”, on average 23% of people complied.

However, when the ‘beggar’ made a surprisingly precise request – “can you spare 17 cents?” or “can you spare 37 cents?” – then 37% of people were happy to help.

The psychologist explained this finding by arguing that people made their lives easier by using what they termed ‘scripts’. The psychologists meant that when people encountered regular situations, rather than evaluate them on their merits they just deployed a prefabricated reaction.

So, in the case of begging, many people have an automatic script – just say no. They don’t evaluate the individual merits of the request, but react in a reflexive way.

However, the script is only activated when there’s a standard request. If the beggar asks for a surprising amount, the passer-by has no premeditated response and they have to at least evaluate the request on its own merits. That gives the beggar an opportunity to persuade.

Taking the route least expected by your customers is likely to generate more of a response than taking the predicted route.

Something similar happens in commercial situations. Most people have a script in their head when they encounter commercial pleas: they assume it’ll be of limited interest so their knee-jerk reaction is to ignore it.

For brands, this means that taking the route least expected by your customers is likely to generate more of a response than taking the predicted route.

In the world of charitable donations, Crisis does this well. It doesn’t ask for £20 or £30 at Christmas, it asks for a specific donation, say £19.41. It naturally makes you wonder why, and once you get the story behind it, you’re more invested in the idea of donating.

But there’s no reason you should stop at numbers. How else can you give a moment of puzzlement to your prospects? A pause for thought can be enough to drive action, and this is one trick that some of the strongest-performing brands harness creatively.

80% of marketers deem creative quality key to marketing effectiveness

Showcase self-confidence

Being noticed and being remembered are important, but you’ll have more success if your customers rate you highly.

And there’s some evidence that breaking conventions can help with this too. Specifically, non-conformity can signify status and competence. It’s been termed the ‘red sneakers effect’ by Harvard professor Francesa Gino.

Several experiments have demonstrated this effect. In a 2014 study, Gino asked 159 respondents to rate the status and competence of a professor, based on a short description. Participants were randomly assigned to hear one of two descriptions, in which the professor either conforms (“he typically wears a tie to work and is clean-shaven”) or doesn’t (“he typically wears a T-shirt to work and has a beard”).

Gino found the nonconformist professor was rated as 14% more competent than the conformist.

Of course, being distinctive is just one of many options for driving effectiveness. But it’s clearly a valid approach, and here we can see why. And from a creative perspective, it may be a simple place to start.

So take a good look at category conventions — and consider which ones you can cast aside. As Barbara Noakes famously wrote for BBH’s Levi’s ad, “When the world zigs, zag.”

Richard Shotton is the author of The Choice Factory, a book about applying behavioural science to marketing that’s available in 13 languages. His new book on the topic, The Illusion of Choice, is on sale now.