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Purple cows and the attention deficit: how brands can turn heads

January 6, 2022

Our attention spans are decreasing. Some say to less than a goldfish. Others say that’s a lie.

Either way, there’s no doubt that the evolution of the information age, social media and a busy advertising landscape means it’s harder for brands to grab people’s attention.

Back in 2005, the average London commuter was exposed to more than 130 adverts on a standard 45-minute journey. Across an entire day, that same Londoner was likely to have seen 3,500 marketing messages. Now imagine how much that number has grown. It’s a testament to how fierce competition has always been for one of the most precious commodities in the marketing landscape. And it’s no different today. In fact, brands are working harder than ever for a finite amount of our brainpower. Welcome to the attention deficit.

To use more refined words, Professor Sune Lehmann of the Technical University of Denmark says, “It seems that the allocated attention time in our collective minds has a certain size, but the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed.” Sune’s hit the nail on the head: there’s an overwhelming amount of choice out there for our little ol’ human brains, which is proving hard for brands to cut through.

Brand engagement isn’t what it used to be

The attention deficit isn’t just a real life problem, it exists in the digital world, too. Take online advertising, for example. Only 12% of served display ads ever get looked at, with only 4% looked at for more than a second. Like almost every business or service, success comes down to how much attention you can attract; it's basically a science. Co-op was one of the first companies to take this attention-focused approach into online media buying, running ad campaigns that used custom Google algorithms to optimize viewer attention based on eye-tracking research. Talk about the future.

So, bar snazzy algorithms and eye-tracking devices, what's the answer? To truly connect with your audience, you need purple cows.

The theoretical meat on the bones

The purple cow theory – we're taking it back to the millennium with this one. Developed in 2002 by Seth Godin in response to our attention-poor economy, today owned by brands who want to stand out. It's not about genetically modifying cattle, more about the principle of building something that can't possibly be ignored. With the advertising, marketing and content landscapes so cluttered, Godin argues that one thing will separate brands from their competitors: being remarkable.

In short: the point of the purple cow is that you'd probably notice it among a field of other cows. Just like you'd, theoretically, notice attention-grabbing advertising over more generic advertising. Your audience will only pay attention to things that pique their interest, only when they want that interest to be peaked.

Draw attention to yourself by adjusting your audience's everyday

It all comes down to disrupting. We're not talking silicon-valley-tech-start-up type disruption. We're talking about taking the everyday lives of your audiences and adjusting them in some way to make your brand stick out. Our brains (and attention) gravitate to the novelty of something new or unusual, which can be big or small.

Take the evening commute. By giving out product samples at a packed station, for example, you're already changing your audience's regular regime. It's a small, inexpensive tactic, but it works. Then there are the more notable changes you can make to someone's day, or even lifestyle, like this urban-farm-to-table pizzeria by Samsung. Traditional pizza meets urban farming – it definitely sticks out.

Optimizing campaigns for attention: the basics

Crafting cut-through. Leveraging traction. Escalating click rates. It's all jargon. The bottom line is: you want to stand out. Or, in the words of Seth Godin's purple-inspired teachings – create something inherently attractive. There are infinite ways to do that. Here are a few of our favorites.

Think about whether you're offering something worth people's attention

Fancy content and activations only work if what you're offering is relevant to your audiences' lives or is emotionally impactful. Take Pip and Nut's February Love Lab, which gave people the chance to blend their own nut butter and personalize the jars with a calligrapher. In the run-up to Valentine's Day, P&N knew its product would make a nice departure from flowers and chocolates, not to mention an enjoyable experience.

Use content formats that are proven to get results

When it comes to socials, image posts get 650 percent more engagement than text-only, while moving image posts attract 3x more inbound links than text-only. We're a visual bunch – which is why it pays to engage with the eyes, like this handy little Instagram animation from Monzo. Play with images and moving content; it can take something as simple as a nice GIF to stop people scrolling.

Inspire your audience to get involved

Interactivity is a great way to catch people's eyes, hearts and thumbs. Think games and quizzes like those BuzzFeed specials we've all (quietly) enjoyed. You know the ones, like 'Which Harry Potter Spell Are You?'. One of their quizzes, 'What State Do You Actually Belong In?' had 1,114,592 likes, 882,243 shares and 1,541,504 comments. Cleaning up.

Freshen it up

Reimagining traditional tactics in unexpected ways is another strategy to captivate your audience without breaking the bank. We had a crack at this recently with Cadbury and VCCP to help launch Caramilk into the UK, popping real-life Australians on out-of-home billboards to share their seal of approval on the down under’s much-loved chocolate. Poster campaign turned interactive customer experience? We’d call that attention grabbing.

Taking it one step further, innovative technologies also never fail to impress. One particular tech that’s enjoying a mesmerising popularity is the anamorphic billboard, which uses 3D animation to help brands immerse and inspire. Or, at least that’s what Vodaphone did when they created these giant digital avatars to smash through a building façade. Mix it up where you can; give people something they’ll struggle to forget.

Attention is the starting point for your brand’s success

If people aren't paying attention to your brand, there's work to do. But, if you can optimize your brand to think and act in a way that will make attention a primary KPI, you're on the right track. In contrast to Denzel Washington's famous line, "the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room," it's time to start standing out in a distracted world.


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