“In Recessions Spend Tends to Move Away From Emotional Brand Building - And That’s Disastrous”
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Orlando Wood, chief innovation officer at System1 Group and author of ‘Lemon’, on the essential role of emotional brand connections
Enhancing the emotion of moving image is fundamental to what we do at CHEAT. Behind the scenes we’re invested in innovation to do just that. Years of technical research and development, colour science and film emulation, mean we are constantly finding new ways to deepen our impact on an emotive level in this medium. This is why we’re sponsoring LBB’s 'Emotion in Advertising' strand, exploring the theme through interviews with experts who share our passion.
In this interview, LBB’s Sunna Coleman sits down with Orlando Wood, chief innovation officer at System1 Group and author of ‘Lemon. How the Advertising Brain Turned Sour’, to discuss the power of emotion in advertising and how brands should be harnessing it to attract attention and build stronger connections with their audiences.
LBB> Where did your interest in the behavioural sciences begin?
Orlando Wood> My interest in the behavioural sciences really took off around 15 years ago when I started looking at the role of emotion in our decision making, and how we respond to advertising, marketing and new product ideas. I researched and learned from psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Gerd Gigerenzer. My academic background however, is not in psychology at all but in French and German literature. For my masters I studied the changing styles of literature in 17th Century France which - when I look back on it now - was a precursor to what I did in my book, ‘Lemon’, when I looked at the changing styles of advertising over 30 years.
LBB> What do you most enjoy about your role as Chief Innovation Officer at System1 Group and what drew you to join them?
Orlando> I’ve been in market research for most of my career, and I started at BrainJuicer - as it was known then - back in 2005. I was attracted to the company because they were very interested in what makes people human and what is it that explains and predicts behaviour.
I’ve been at the company for 16 years now and in that time I have been very lucky to carve out a research and development role that gives me the autonomy to look at lines of inquiry that I think will be useful to the marketing industry and the advertising community. I love working on theories, drawing on culture, music and art, and translating how to best use creativity. I also really enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from others in the field.
LBB> When we last spoke, you mentioned that crises restore meaning. How do you see this playing out in the ad industry over the next year or so?
Orlando> Crises restore meaning whether it be war or pandemic. What they tend to do is get us into a different way of attending to the world with a different kind of attention. We often feel fear in these sorts of times as we can’t control the situation. Fear is a very prosocial emotion that tends to lead to greater unity and pulling together but there also seems to be some kind of tension in these periods because we have this desire to be able to control the world and our lives.
It’s very difficult to say what will happen but I think we will see an acceleration of business practises that were already in motion but that have been made necessity by everything that is happening - a focus on automation, algorithms and digital means of doing business. I fear that we will move even further away from more human ways of interacting and I suspect that in advertising there will be a greater focus and spend on digital. The style of advertising may become even more entrenched in this mechanistic way of doing things. But we may not feel the effects of all this for many years to come. Previous crises such as the Second World War have displayed this; you tend to see a period of conservatism before you see a new creative flowering. It could be another generation down the line.
I’d love to be able to help people see the power of emotional and entertaining work because that’s part of how we get out of this, rather than lurching even further towards very literal advertising that relies on words and messages. We need greater sensitivity towards what people are feeling out there to create work that’s going to connect.
LBB> So in your opinion, what would you say is the most common downfall that brands make when it comes to advertising and emotion?
Orlando> I think what you tend to see quite a lot of at the moment is advertising that tells people what the marketing people want them to hear, rather than saying it in a way that might interest or entertain the audience. And so you get quite a lot of advertising that is basically just telling people what to think and do. People aren’t really interested in brands by and large, and if you’re going to invite yourself into their lives and into their living rooms, you need to do it in a way that’s going to be entertaining to them or they’ll just block you out.
People also talk a lot about storytelling and there’s not very much evidence of it. You see a lot of saccharine sweet smiles - people looking happy without any context to that emotion. I think storytelling itself is quite a blunt term - really what you need in an ad is some characters, an incident, and a place for it to happen in. And those are the things that seem to have been disappearing over the last 20 years or so. There’s been a cultural shift in attention which has resulted in work that doesn’t mean anything to people. It’s not as noticeable, not as memorable and not as effective.
LBB> How has people’s attention span changed over the years and what does this mean for advertising?
Orlando> It’s easy to say that people’s attention spans aren’t what they used to be but perhaps it’s because what they are served and the way that they are served doesn’t sustain attention. I think the type of attention has changed rather than the actual length of attention.
There are different types of attention, and four of them (vigilance, alertness, sustained and divided attention) are dealt with by the right brain, with goal oriented attention dealt with by the left brain. The right brain helps us to understand the world around us and connects us to others. It’s responsible for empathy and understanding people’s faces and gestures. And so, if we want to attract and sustain people’s attention, we need to focus on: the living, the novel, metaphor and humour. These are all things that the right brain and only the right brain understands.
Unfortunately, advertising looks more and more like it’s designed for the left brain which likes to abstract things from their context and break things down into smaller parts. When you get these short, sharp cuts from lots of scenes thrown together with an emphasis on words and no real narrative, you’re only engaging the left brain and that’s not the type of content that sustains attention. You get it particularly on digital channels. In order to build a brand online you need to bring back narratives and characters that can immediately convey a message, arouse attention and make us feel something.
LBB> What makes characters so essential to connecting with an audience?
Orlando> The thing about characters is that they enable you to convey things quickly, and they are engaging enough to attract attention. They focus on the individual and the unique - and the unique is very important for brands because brands need to be distinctive. There’s been a lot of talk about distinctive assets such as logos, fonts and colours but very little emphasis on characters. The trick with advertising is turning these still, static assets into the living because it’s the living that will attract and sustain attention.
Humour is really important too and it is disappearing in advertising. The good thing about humour of course is that it tends to make people more susceptible to your line of argument. People are more likely to agree with someone that they find funny, entertaining and endearing. If brands can be humorous, then it shows that they’ve got a sense of intelligence and a broader perspective on the world. You can achieve this quite well with the use of a character.
LBB> So who have been some of your personal favourite characters in ads and are there any that you would like to see revived?
Orlando> There have been some wonderful characters over the years. I loved the character for Cresta, a milk product in the 70s that wasn’t particularly popular but the advertising with Cresta Bear was phenomenally successful.
LBB> Why is it even more important at a time like this for brands to focus on emotion in their advertising?
Orlando> Emotion does three things: orientates our attention, helps to encode our experiences in long term memory, and helps us to decide between options. Unfortunately, what you tend to find in recessions is that spend goes away from emotional brand building work and towards literal, rational and short term objectives. And that’s disastrous. When you look at the sort of work that connects with people at the moment, we find that it’s right-brained work with characters, people interacting with each other, and an emphasis on place and community. People are connecting even better than they normally do to this sort of work and even less with mechanistic left-brain type of work at the moment.
A great starting point for a brand is to go through its history to understand how it communicated in the past, what it’s known for and what it’s associated with. If it doesn’t already have characters or strong associations, you’ve got to start creating them - creating characters and scenarios that can be repeated again and again in various different ways over time. Many great ads tend to have those characteristics in common and that consistency is key in connecting emotionally to the general public.
The type of work that has been doing well right now is work that is enabling life. So Vodafone and many of the telecom companies and retailers have had an important role to play. The brands that haven’t performed so well are those that tell people what to do and what not to do, that show empty streets, and that deal in cliches.
LBB> What are some of your favourite examples of emotion being used well within advertising?
Orlando> There are lots of historical examples of course such as Heineken’s Water in Majorca and many of Jon Webster’s ads such as Smash Martians and the Hoffmeister Bear. But also where characters are brought to the fore and there is a sense of connection between us, as in the Cinzano ads with Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins. One of the things about actors is that they can help you get a sense of what’s funny and what’s going to work on screen. Rowan Atkinson did this on the Barclaycard ads, rewriting them to make them funnier.
In modern advertising I’m a great fan of long-running characters such as in the M&M ads, and Compare the Meerkat where there is a whole brand world created. But also long-running scenarios such as with Snickers and Warbutons. It’s really difficult to create work that connects with a broad range of people and in these days of hyper-targeting we’ve kind of lost sight of how you do it.
LBB> What can advertising learn from broader culture?
Orlando> Many people have taken the idea of targeting to heart in that you only need to make your work relevant to that narrow target. Whereas actually the real art of advertising is to make your product or brand appealing to as many people as possible. So it’s not relevance to the few, it’s entertainment to the mainstream. The best advertising plays on culture and enters the audience’s world.
One of the points I make in ‘Lemon’ is the importance of range and breadth. We’ve become incredibly specialised, which can lead you down a rabbit hole and very narrow way of thinking. When you look at great artists and writers, such as Shakespeare, many of his plays rested on the classics - Latin and Greek thinkers and playwrights. Rembrandt was indebted to the great masters of the Renaissance. Many of his compositions were based on Raphael and others. You can learn an awful lot from people who have gone before you and advertisers of the past as well.
LBB> How has research into the subject of emotion in advertising developed in recent years and what are you working on next?
Orlando> There’s a lot more focus on measuring emotion and quite a lot of new tools and techniques have been invented for this. I don’t think there is a great deal of understanding around why it is important and how you go about creating work that generates these emotional responses.
At the moment I’m looking at what attracts and sustains attention, and what the features of advertising are that achieve that. Needles to say that the sorts of things that elicit an emotional response tend to be the sorts of things that attract attention and this is really important for us not to forget - particularly in this digital world where attention is difficult to get. The conversation seems to be about how we get everything we need to say into six seconds rather than how we get people to spend as long as possible with us. That’s the question that we need to be asking.