Brands need more than trophy athletes to be memorable

Brands need more than trophy athletes

Once the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that non-sponsors could feature Olympics competitors in their advertising, deploying athletes became a popular means of attaching a brand to the hype surrounding the Games. However, with sponsorship deals getting pricier, marketers may well question the need for an ad full of famous ambassadors.

To see how viewers responded to athletes in Olympic advertising, Neuro-Insight analysed four popular ads from the Games: from Gillette, Visa, Coca-Cola and the National Lottery. A panel of viewers were fitted with headsets and their second by second brain responses to each piece of creative were monitored. We assessed their engagement, emotional response and, crucially, what was encoded into memory; the latter being a key indicator of future purchase intent.

What we found was that athletes don’t have to be famous in order to elicit high levels of memory encoding. In fact, they don’t even have to be real.

Having an interesting story which naturally links the athletes and the product (visually and through narrative development) is far more likely to convey key messages and deliver memorable advertising than an ad that simply showcases a trophy athlete.

Here’s how it works for each ad:

Gillette’s ‘Perfect isn’t pretty’spot showcases big names – like footballer Neymar Jr and swimmer Ning Zetao – and these athletes are, crucially, linked closely to the product. Memory encoding is fairly high when the athletes are first introduced, but response is strongest when they are used alongside messages that are linked to the visuals, such as: ‘Your face takes a beating’ – just as Neymar takes a football to the face. Synchronising lines with on-screen action can help the brain encode brand messages more powerfully, so this is a smart use of brand ambassadors by Gillette.

National Lottery’s ‘I Am Team GB’ animation doesn’t feature any well-known athletes, but the ad neatly links the Lottery and Team GB through flying lottery tickets, literally transforming animated characters into Team GB competitors. The narrative is clear, helping the brain to easily encode the message of the ad and we see a strong peak of memory encoding at the end, when the logo appears.

It goes to show that you do not necessarily need expensive sporting stars to strongly link your brand to the sporting action.

Visa’s ‘The Heart’ elicits strong memory encoding and viewers engage with the “beating heart” story, even though the focus isn’t on a famous athlete. However, despite viewers’ involvement in the story, memory response to the Visa brand is relatively low.

The link between Visa and the preceding story is made at a literal level – “The beating heart of payments” – which requires conscious mental processing to work out. Unlike some of the other ads, the connection isn’t naturally made.

Coca-Cola’s ‘Feelings’ spot uses well-known athletes aligned with a clear narrative; a construct we would expect to work very well, and it does. However, interestingly, what comes across most powerfully of all is the iconic Coke bottle, and this is strongly encoded into memory almost regardless of the athletes around it.

So the ad works well for the brand – but maybe with the suspicion that it might have worked just as well without the expense of the sponsored athletes surrounding it.

Heather Andrew is chief executive at Neuro-Insight

This article was first published in the 31 August issue of The Drum.

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