Do not kill the golden retriever.
One would think this would be a good rule of thumb in advertising: the death of an adorable, beloved childhood dog is subject matter best left untouched.
But for Vancouver-based director Lloyd Lee Choi, that exact story has advertisers knocking on his door.
In February, Mr. Choi and his production partner, Kyle Hollett, posted a one-minute film online telling the story of a girl and her golden retriever. Maddie began with a scene of a woman saying goodbye to her dog in a veterinarian’s office, and worked backward through their life together – to when Maddie was a puppy and the owner still a little girl.
It was part of a competition through London, U.K.-based Mofilm, a company that specializes in crowdsourcing projects for companies. Mofilm manages the increasingly popular tactic for marketers of forgoing an advertising agency on a project, and instead holding a call-out to people to compete to make their ads.
This competition was to create a commercial for Chevrolet to be broadcast on television during this year’s Academy Awards.
Mr. Choi and Mr. Hollett had been doing Mofilm competitions for a few years to build experience and a reel to show prospective clients. “We have not had a response like Maddie,” Mr. Choi said. “We never expected it to go that big.”
Specifically, between video-sharing websites YouTube and Vimeo, Maddie has attracted more than 3.5 million views. Because it was never an official Chevy commercial, those views were achieved without a promotional budget to direct people to go and watch it.
While the commercial did not win the competition, it has led to much more advertising work for Mr. Choi and the small creative collective he and Mr. Hollett started in Vancouver, called The Herd. Agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi and OMD, as well as production companies, have called to discuss possible pitches.
It’s no wonder that it is a highly emotional story that got them noticed. (Warning to dog lovers: You may want to forego Maddie if you are emotionally unprepared or dislike having your heartstrings skillfully plucked in service of a marketing message.)
There’s a good business case for that. A report from the U.K. on global advertising effectiveness has found that emotional ties to a brand have a higher long-term impact on profitability than rational messages do.
Les Binet, the head of effectiveness at agency Adam&eveDDB, and marketing consultant Peter Field analyzed 996 case studies from advertisers worldwide who submitted information on campaigns’ effectiveness to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) awards over thirty years. They found that in the first year following an ad campaign, there was little difference in the number of advertisers who reported a large increase in profits in their case studies. However, as time passed, they saw a higher correlation between what they determined to be “emotional” campaigns compared to “rational” messages (which focus on product details, for example, or sales promotions.)
More than 40 per cent of advertisers that had released emotional campaigns reported an increase in profitability after three years, compared to roughly 20 per cent of advertisers who had used rational messages.
Not surprisingly, rational messages work best on consumers who are already in the market to buy a product, the researchers found. For them, hearing about a car’s gas mileage or an upgrade on a phone is a more powerful incentive to buy than vague brand building messages that tell stories loosely linked to a company’s overall image.
But those rational messages are overwritten more quickly, as well, which is where the benefit of “brand building” marketing comes in.
“Emotional memories last much longer than rational memories,” Mr. Binet said in an interview. “If you were a [marketer] looking to win out, you’d have to be mad not to think about creativity.”
Mr. Binet gave an example from his own agency, which did some long-term brand-building work for Volkswagen. The creative campaign gave the auto maker the equivalent of more than $3.5-billion in additional sales over 8 years, he said; the fastest growth the brand saw in Britain in 40 years.
A 2012 commercial created by adam&eveDDB was indicative of the tone of VW’s advertising: It told the story of a father protecting his daughter throughout her life, from the moment her parents first bring her home as a baby. The father is shown inflating his daughter’s water wings before swimming, clipping a bicycle helmet on her head, and later gently intimidating a suitor who comes to the door.
When she is leaving for university, he gives her a Volkswagen Polo. The tagline: “Stay in safe hands.”
Ads like this aren’t just touching, the researchers say; they help sales. And they encourage people to share the ads, for free, on social media.
They are particularly helpful for packaged goods companies that leave the rational, sales-focused marketing to retailers, and focus on branding. That applies to the digital realm as well as television: A recent report from research firm eMarketer found that in the U.S., spending on branding messages will make up 65 per cent of packaged goods companies’ $4.2-billion (U.S.) in digital advertising spending this year, up from 63 per cent in 2013.
“Big agencies and big brands are making more content to create that engagement,” Maddie director Mr. Choi said.
Of course, the emotional tactic can also backfire: A common criticism of the Maddie story was that it played with dog lovers’ emotions. The heartrending story capped off with the tagline “A best friend for life’s journey,” and a shot of the car.
Mr. Choi says the spot was never meant to be manipulative, but was intended to tell an affecting story – inspired partly by his own childhood pets, a cat named Tigger and a Yorkshire Terrier named Buffy.
Last week, Mr. Choi’s latest project was released: a nine-minute online film, featuring a cameo from singer Lily Allen, for Unilever’s Cornetto ice cream brand. It tells the story of two women falling for each other after a chance meeting on a tennis court – part of a series of love stories Cornetto has been releasing.
“I definitely have noticed a shift from old ads that pitched product,” Mr. Choi said. “Now it’s more about an emotional connection.”
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