2020 was a creative experiment of two halves – here’s what we learned

Can advertising be strongly branded and creative? We found out the answer this year…

March 12, 2021

2020 was the biggest creative experiment in history –here’s what we learned

As marketers, we know that creativity matters. Research from Nielsen has found that the quality of creative makes the largest contribution of any factor to an advertising campaign’s effectiveness. But what makes great creative? That’s an extremely divisive question – but it’s one that the extraordinary circumstances of 2020 have gone a long way towards answering.

Studies by Les Binet and Peter Field proves that the most effective creative is focused on building brands by generating an emotional response – and that this holds true for B2B brands as well as their B2C peers. However, there are many different ways to approach the task of generating an emotional response.

Many marketers focus their attention on the message and believe that reaching the right person with the right message at the right time is the holy grail of marketing.

The great creative experiment part 1: doubling down on messaging

In the first half of 2020, that’s exactly what the first brands to respond to the pandemic in their advertising tried to do. They understood the importance of staying visible and connected to audiences even when their ability to sell was constrained – and they felt most comfortable doing this by doubling down on messaging.

But the problem with focusing on the right message in the moment, is you can very easily saying the same thing, in the same way, as everyone else.

That’s what happened. We got lots of slow panning footage of empty roads and office buildings, sombre piano music, endlessly repeated words like “unprecedented” and “extraordinary” and then a lightly faster, higher-pitched piano accompanying promises that “we’re here for you.” The sheer uniformity of it all was brilliantly captured in the YouTube compilation clip, Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same, which is just as well because otherwise nobody would have remembered any of it.

This experiment proved several things. It showed that many marketers tend to find themselves at a loss when there’s not a product message to fall back on. It showed that setting out to be emotive is not the same as being creative. It showed that we often think far too much about what we have to say as opposed to how we say it.

Above all, though, it showed that marketers don’t instinctively value the distinctiveness that you get from looking and sounding like yourself. One of the main reason those ads were so uniform and so forgettable is that they made minimal use of brand codes. Sure, there was the odd logo on a building or a car radiator but nothing about the creative itself was distinct to the brand behind it. The assumption seemed to be that, when the message is important, the best thing an ad can do is to get the branding out of the way. It’s somehow disrespectful or distracting to include too much of it.

Creativity’s long bias against overt branding

Of course, the ads during the first phase of the pandemic were produced under great production constraints. There were limits to what could be filmed. Rich storytelling with actors and high production values wasn’t always an option. But using the distinctive assets that brands had built up over time would have actually been far more practical. Marketers didn’t use them because they were more comfortable delineating what they stood for rather than looking and sounding distinctive.

Stepping away from branding when you have something important to say hasn’t come out of the blue. For decades there’s been an assumption that the boldest, bravest, most creative thing that advertising can do is get rid of the logo – or anything like it. Some of the most celebrated ads have avoided featuring anything that might give away the brand behind them, until the very end. Most people in marketing still don’t know which brand actually created the famous Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street. The Doc Morris ad that lit up social media this Christmas was just one in a long-running line of examples where people could watch an entire film without working out who it was for – or what it was selling.

It’s not that these campaigns can’t or don’t work. Volkswagen has won countless awards for putting creative ideas ahead of overt branding. But there’s a high tariff involved with this approach. The ad has to captivate an audience so completely that the brand pay-off at the end comes like the superbly satisfying twist in an early M. Night Shyamalan movie. Most of the time, this doesn’t happen. Most of the time, an ad that excludes branding has less to engage an audience with. That’s what the first half of 2020 proved so spectacularly. It’s easy to characterise the consistent use of branded elements as limiting creativity and limiting the scope of what ads can say. Actually, the opposite is true. The distinctiveness that comes from brand assets is one of the most effectively memorable ways of saying anything.

How brand distinctiveness drives creative thinking

Partly this is because audiences need to recognise your brand in order to return your investment in advertising. You can’t drive actions in the short term or build memories in the long term if people instantly forget who an ad was from. However, distinctiveness does more than just label creativity effectively. The last year has reminded us that it also drives it. The elements that make up your brand are an emotion-triggering toolkit. They’re what audiences recognise and respond to.

The work of research agencies like System1 Group is encouraging marketers to think of their brand assets in terms of “fluent devices”. These are creative constructions that can act as the vehicle for long-running campaigns because people always recognise them as coming from your brand. They can be characters (like Aleksandr Meerkat, Salesforce’s feral raccoon-child Astro or Tony the Tiger) but they can also be slogans (like “have a break, have a Kit Kat”), musical phrases (think McDonald’s or Intel’s), colours and shapes.

Fluent devices are designed from the start to produce an emotional response, but their real power comes from the rigorous consistency with which they’ve been applied over the years, which magnifies that response. It adds the weight of familiarity and associations. As a result, an established fluent device is able to hop nimbly across channels, contexts and circumstances, summoning attention and (in times like these) nostalgia, running on emotion, picking up associations and laying down memories wherever it goes.

The great creative experiment part 2: unpacking the brand toolkit

I mentioned earlier that 2020 was a creative experiment of two halves. The first half featured some creative own goals when marketers abandoned their brands. The second half featured a spectacular creative turnaround when other campaigns responded differently– and threw in their lot with distinctiveness.

The most inspiring and impactful campaigns of this second phase in the pandemic haven’t just been more strongly branded. They’ve involved marketers going carefully through the brand cupboard looking for assets that they could leverage as fluent devices. If they’d had the foresight to create a recognisable character or slogan, great. But even if they hadn’t, there was more to play with in the brand toolkit than there was outside it.

The results were inspiring. An early outrider was KFC – a brand that’s a dab hand at using distinctive assets to get a specific message across (think of that famous FCK campaign a few years back). When the chain re-opened drive-in restaurants in May, it made the announcement with a campaign imagining how people had tried to re-create the branded KFC experience in their own homes. KFC ads’ distinctive vertical shots of fried chicken falling into buckets were re-created in a slightly less tasty-looking version on stove tops at home; its branded paper bags of fries were lovingly recreated with crayon. It was a campaign that unlocked the emotional component in brand familiarity.

Sony PlayStation found its brand fluent devices in the abstract shapes of its controller symbols – icons that are fundamental to the experience players have of the brand. The red roundel that marks every London Underground station happens to match one of these symbols. PlayStation took this to the logical next step for the launch of the PlayStation 5 console in November, rebranding station entrances and platforms with the rest: neon X’s, squares and triangles. It was a creative idea that came down to the fact that something you see everyday reminds you of something you love. It tapped into the emotional currency that brand devices have.

Others followed suit. Spotify stuck with its highly distinctive wrapped posters summing up the events of the year in data on the tracks that people streamed most often. It showed how to adapt and be relevant while remaining distinctive, in this case through the brand’s striking colour palette and the way it has carefully embedded it over time. At the Super Bowl, Heinz built an entire creative idea around the fact that its bottle is both instantly recognisable – and comforting to anyone who sees it.

When evidence hides in plain sight

As fans of plot twists in movies know, the evidence is often in front of you all along, but it takes a dramatic turn of events to illuminate it and put it all into context. Marketing thinkers like Mark Ritson and Jenni Romaniuk have argued for years that “brand codes” and “distinctive assets” are essential for creative effectiveness; that they act as passport to the mental availability that’s part of any brand campaign’s objectives. Research from WARC in 2017 showed that fluent devices are 70% more effective at driving gains in market share and 40% more effective at driving profit gains than devices and conceits that a brand doesn’t own. The data always suggested that creativity and brand distinctiveness were inseparably linked. But we could always convince ourselves (sometimes with the help of awards juries) that repeating the same brand cues wasn’t original, interesting or meaningful enough.

As B2B marketers, we’re vulnerable to other biases that can cloud the picture as well. Colourful brand logos and distinctive characters don’t feel serious enough for our subject matter. Audiences will think we’re being frivolous – or worse, trying to be cool. They want to hear considered, rational messages that they can digest at their leisure. The undistinctive, message-focused ads that dominated in the first phase of the pandemic came from brands of all types. But it was a style that felt very familiar to anyone who’s watched a lot of B2B ads.

Why it’s time for B2B to embrace distinctiveness

The evidence has been piling up for a while that B2B marketers’ focus on rational content isn’t really working. Recent research from the B2B Institute found that 77% of B2B creative fails to register emotionally or create long-term impact. This builds on the breakthrough research from Binet and Field that showed B2B businesses are more profitable when they invest in building famous brands rather than focusing on rational messages. And if we needed any more convincing of the value of distinctiveness, we just have to look across the marketing landscape at the start of 2021.

The last year is not a creative experiment that anybody wants to repeat. That makes it all the more important to take on board the most important lesson to come from it. In good times or bad, great creative is distinctive creative.