Why research shows you're better off with your existing ad campaign

For marketers, using the same campaigns and spokespeople year after year can seem highly unimaginative.

Brand teams often just get bored with it all. But agency teams can be downright hostile about existing campaigns – which may have been introduced by a previous agency, and/or under the brand’s prior chief marketing officer. Plus, it’s hard to believe that creative concepts developed years ago can resonate with today’s millennial consumers. So why not switch things up?

The urge to 'breathe new life' into the brand with a new campaign can be hard to overcome. But stifling that urge could determine if your brand lives or dies.

Simply put, there’s a good reason agencies and advertisers should keep relying on the same campaigns, despite their strong desire to move on: the existing campaigns nearly always work better than anything new they can come up with.

There are two main factors working against new campaigns, one an artifact of how research is conducted, but one that’s very real.

1. In copytesting, new approaches can rarely beat the existing campaign. This is, in part, because copytesting assesses one ad at a time. But the best advertising works in-market as part of a campaign: consumers see multiple ads, or even the same ad, multiple times throughout their week or month, campaign resonance strengthens and persuasive impact starts to build.

Copytesting cannot replicate this campaign effect. It can’t tell you how an ad would perform after it had become familiar to consumers, and had worked with other new campaign messages to gain meaning (and value) in the marketplace.

2. Worse is what actually happens in market. New campaigns rarely work as well as the campaign they replaced. My firm’s study of new campaigns confirmed our suspicions:

  • We identified 109 new campaigns that were launched by our clients’ competitors despite the fact that research results indicated the old campaign was still working. Of these, further exploration identified 28 cases in which a marketplace-based reason supported the switch. (For example, in one case a competitor had introduced a major new product that threatened to redefine the category.) But that still left 81 cases, or 74% of campaigns, that were replaced for no good reason. These were cases in which personnel or agency changes, or simple boredom on the part of the decision-makers, appeared to have driven the change.
  • Of this group of 81, most new campaigns failed to generate results that were on par with those of the old campaign. In fact, by the end of their first year, only 20% of new campaigns were performing as well or better than the existing campaign. Do you like those odds?

In today’s 'show me the money' world, no one is okay with a plunge in advertising results – even if it were appropriate to argue that the long-term results would improve. Few brands have the luxury of this kind of indulgence.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to refresh an existing campaign – staving off internal boredom while responding to the needs of the consumer.

The MAYA Rule was coined by industrial designer Raymond Leowy in the mid-1900s. MAYA stands for 'Most Advanced Yet Acceptable,' and asserts that people are most drawn to new things that are already familiar, rather than totally original. So if you want to breathe new life into a brand, building on what consumers already know and associate with it – while adding just enough newness to keep it fresh and engaging – works better than confronting them with something completely unfamiliar.

There simply is no rational case for trashing brand elements that deliver value for the brand and have had tens (or hundreds) of millions invested in them. These are brand-linked equities rich with meaning for consumers, that resonate with them and build your brand.

But how can marketers give their campaigns a MAYA-based revamp? A few brands have shown the way.

Unilever debuted the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004, and it’s still delivering value 13 years later. The original campaign was based on what people really believe – that 'real' beauty can be found in shapes, sizes, and ethnicities beyond those typically portrayed in mass media. The adoption of messaging that tapped a universal truth, but ran contrary to the industry’s conventional wisdom, earned Dove and its agencies the 'revolutionary' label.

The rest is history. Real Beauty was wildly successful, and Dove has stuck with it for well over a decade. Since 2004, the brand and its agencies have kept the campaign fresh by reminding us, in new ways, of the original premise.

Dove’s consumer wants to think of herself as inclusive, beautiful, and confident – and the campaign makes her feel that way. With inventive new creative that pushes the envelope ever so slightly more on a regular basis, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has never felt stale – or stopped performing for the brand. In fact, the contemporary Dove as we know it has been built by the Campaign for Real Beauty; it would be brand suicide to give it up.

Meanwhile, in finance, MasterCard’s 'Priceless' concept has been one of the hardest working ideas in advertising for 20 years. It’s also built massive equity for the brand with consumers around the world.

Much of the way MasterCard presents its brand and their product is focused on how priceless experiences are, and how MasterCard can help make them happen. When he joined, the brand’s CMO Raja Rajamannar resisted the urge many new marketing chiefs cave into: scrapping a successful, long-running campaign in order to make his mark. Instead, Rajamannar demonstrated his worthiness for the post by broadening the Priceless concept and making it relevant to a wider scope of consumers.

The result: MasterCard has seen growth of both revenue and brand value every year since it introduced Priceless in 1997. And Rajamannar clearly grasps the issue with bringing in new campaigns. "Many times I think it's the advertising executives who are tired of a platform,” he says. “But if you really look at what consumers think, that may not be true. In all of our brand tracking and research, people do not say they're getting tired of it…There's not a need to change."

Our data validates this: smart advertisers and agencies don’t change too much. They might add a new and surprising twist, but maintain the assets that have resonated so well. These equities continue to connect with consumers, whose minds are drawn to the familiar. After it’s worked so hard and brought you so much success, putting your old campaign out to pasture is not only irrational: It might just cost you the farm.

Jeri Smith is chief executive of advertising research consultancy Communicus

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