There is a rule of thumb you can use to work out potential advertising effectiveness for your campaign and if you have distinctive advertising. After looking at the creative and ticking off that it meets the creative brief put it away and then after several hours, ideally the next day, try and remember what you saw, read or heard. Then ask yourself these four questions:

  • What was the first thing that came to mind?
  • How clearly did it come to mind?
  • How quickly did it come to mind?
  • Was the thing that came to mind clearly linked to your brand or message?

When reviewing creative, the amount of effort you had to put into recalling the advertising is a good indication of its potential success. Distinctive advertising is easier to recall.  If what came to mind was more of an idea rather than something you could see or hear, you can feel confident the execution is going to be recalled by consumers. It is amazing how even advertising we have lived and breathed for months conjures up only vague and generic images.

While this rule of thumb is useful, having worked on a campaign strategy can lead us to feel that recalling strategy related information is proof of a campaign’s assured success. What motivates us is not the same as what motivates consumers who are rarely motivated to care about our advertising. Communication pre-testing, when done correctly, gives a much needed independent read on the likely success of our advertising. It can also easily fit within the fast time frames needed in most businesses.


Have the Right Framework

For pre-testing to give us actionable results we need it to be based on what determines advertising effectiveness so that we know whether or not to proceed with that approach and to provide diagnostic information that we can use to improve current and future advertising.

An effective framework needs to anchor its approach in how communication works in influencing decision making. In the past, these models were based on the hierarchy of effects models that assumed a linear process from awareness to decision, such as the AIDA model (Attention, Interest, Decision and Action). Many pre-testing approaches are still based on this assumption. While useful in providing the basis of brand funnels in brand tracking reports, for communication testing this approach is not always the most effective.  Advertising happens at a point in time, in a cluttered environment, with consumers whose attention is on something else, and that the behaviour we want to influence may happen months later. We need to take this context into account when creating distinctive advertising that has an impact on your brand and sales. Focusing on how information gets our attention and is processed in our mind provides an alternative approach.

We remember great advertising. It gives us a reason to pay attention to it.


Be Memorable?

Information that we do not have in our minds cannot be used to affect behaviour. Information that we have in our minds but is not recalled when making the decisions is similarly useless. Recalled information – even without our awareness of it being recalled – provides the foundation of decision making. The only time when memory is relatively less important in consumer decision making is when all relevant information is present at the time of a consumers’ choice.  Even then, prior brand exposure creates familiarity effect that increases the chances that your brand is selected.  How we get attention and guide behaviour is more important in this context.

The chart below shows results from a study showing how increased memorability is seen in increased detailed recalled about an execution, behavioural intentions across a number of studies we have undertaken.

Impact of Advertising Memorability on Intention and Message Recall


While we tend to trust and like things just because we can easily remember them, memorability also indicates how much effort a person has exerted to process information. Unlike using persuasion as the key criteria, it does not ask a person to incorporate non-advertising influences or perceptions of self-susceptibility to advertising to report their reactions to an advertisement. Also, unlike ‘Like’ measures we are able to look at styles of advertising and emotional appeals that are not inherently likable, such as fear appeal.

While processing information is critical for it to become part of our understanding of a brand, this does not mean the message has to be laboured. Much information reinforces and refreshes our world understanding and the existence of a brand. While the elaboration process makes for stronger memories, mere association if done frequently enough can also make our advertising memorable.


What Makes Advertising Memorable?

Each and every moment of our lives there is a vast amount of information in our environment, parts of our mind are continuously monitoring what we sense to determine what we should attend to and how much effort we should pay. There are two key things that drive this rapid process: Relevance and distinctiveness. Relevance is the message; distinctiveness is the style.


memorability dimensions


What message is relevant to our goals gets our attention. Assuming you are not looking at painting your house and this article is of interest to you, the colour of the wall nearest to you is not something you were paying attention to until I mentioned it. Now it is relevant. In an advertisement, it is the message relevance that is key. This message may be spoken, in text, or imagery. It is the subject we are trying to convey, including our brand. Crafting a message that consumers can readily identify as relevant is critical to communication success. Knowing what your market wants and what triggers their interest, often comes from your brand and product research.

Part of message relevance is category engagement. Your sample should reflect the market in which the campaign will operate. For a number of years, I worked on advertising development for a grocery product in which half the sample was made up of brand loyalists. Our pre-test results were almost always fantastic. Sadly our sales were not. The reason was that less than 5% of the market were anything that could be defined as loyal. Our messaging was relevant to a minority who already bought our product and not the majority we needed to engage. When we changed our focus to become relevant to our non-buyers, our sales grew. We made relevance the focus.

Without creative distinctiveness, our relevant messages are unlikely to get much attention. It is the advertising’s distinctiveness that is first to get our attention to a message and it is what we later use to help us recall a message and its source. What makes something distinctive is that stands out against its background. Distinctive can be sensory-based on what we see, hear, physically feel, or conceptually based on our expectations. A powerful example of visually distinctive advertising is the iPod advert when they launched the product. Conceptual distinctiveness is often the basis of comedy.


What Else Do We Need to Know?

Once we have a good handle on the potential effectiveness of our advertising we need to understand how we can improve. This understanding needs to take into account how different elements of the communication assisted with audience engagement to make the advert memorable, and how well consumers integrate the message with your brand. Below are some of the areas you should cover in your standard approach.

  • Branding. How well is the advert branded so that consumers can identify the advert is from you and that it is integrated with message?
  • Comprehension. Was message relevance undermined by misunderstanding or difficulty in understanding the message?
  • Impact of Creative Elements. How do the different communication design elements work together or compete with each to maintain attention?
  • Points of Emotional Engagement. For television, radio and other non-static advertising, how do emotional reactions evolve during the execution and how does this affect effectiveness?


Your Next Steps?

If you do not have one, then create a simple standard process for advertising market pre-testing. Start the four question rule of thumb and have others not directly involved in the advertising to be involved. Tell them you are initially interested in their initial impressions and that later on, you have other follow up questions. Letting someone know they are in a memory test changes their goals and as a result, they will put in more effort than normal in to ‘pass the test’.

Second, set-up a standardised pre-testing system that provides fast results for you to action. Creative copy from agencies always seems to arrive at the last minute before it needs to be sent to the media agency, so the testing approach needs to give you time to make changes. Once set-up, a pre-testing approach can be done within 24 hours and depending on your market and when the copy is available, top-line results are available on the same day.

Finally, implement and implement consistently. Building up a history of pre-test results and in-market performance gives additional insight into what pre-test results are needed to achieve your objectives and how to fine-tune your approach for improved success.



For those who like to dig deeper. . .

  • Du Plessis (2005).The Advertised Mind: ground breaking insights into how the brain responds to advertising., London Kogan Page
  • Kahneman, Daniel (2011).Thinking, fast and slow (1st ed. ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Petty, Richard E; Cacioppo, John T; Schumann, David (1983). “Central and peripheral routes to advertising effectiveness: The moderating role of involvement”. Journal of Consumer Research: 135–146.