Creative, emotional, evocative: Getting the attention of overwhelmed consumers

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By Leo Valiquette

Do you remember that Knorr commercial about how it had reduced sodium in its packaged side dishes?

Global advertising agency DDB Worldwide took a clever approach to promote a relatively humdrum message by portraying the perspective of that one individual unhappy about sodium reduction. It came up with an ad that features a despondent little salt shaker neglected at the family dinner table who trudges out of the house into a cold dark world.

Such creativity, says Jeff Swystun, is the most powerful force in business, especially in today’s world where technology has fuelled social interaction between consumers and the brands they use like never before. In this new reality, advertisers and marketers can no longer afford to focus on connecting people to brands. They must instead focus on connecting people to people.

Swystun, chief communications officer with DDB Worldwide, spoke at yesterday’s OCRI Zone5ive event about how changes in consumer habits, behaviour and social engagement via the Internet are driving fundamental shifts in how advertisers and marketers must approach what they do.

“Consumers and customers are getting more sophisticated, and yet we continue to treat them like children,” said Swystun.

In recent years, there has been a trend toward bombarding consumers and customers from every side, through every medium possible, with intrusive advertising. This 360-degree approach is costly and, ultimately, a big turn off for the target audience. Instead, brands today must focus on only six degrees — that is, the mere six degrees of separation that is said to exist between every individual on the planet.

The thinking behind this is, if you give people what they really want, when they really want it, and let them pass it on through their own human networks, it will drive a conversation in the marketplace that will secure substantial mind-share and provide invaluable intelligence that brand owners can use to make their product or service more appealing. This applies whether the product or service in question is for the B2B or B2C market.

“Branding will always be a democratic process that is about consumer choice,” Swystun said. “Our job is to help people make that choice without them feeling like they have been manipulated.”

But how can this be done in today’s environment, in which people have full freedom of choice to engage, or not engage, and are overwhelmed by the range of choices before them?


Creativity must be aimed at changing people’s behaviour, and thinking, not just entertaining and informing. Swystun offered an excellent example of this with Volkswagen’s campaign to promote its BlueMotion Technologies intended to reduce the environmental impact of its vehicles without sacrificing performance. The challenge was to drum up consumer interest in buying vehicles with this technology. In other words, change their buying habits.

With a campaign that cost only about $120,000, DDB came up with The Fun Theory, intended to demonstrate through a series of experiments that the easiest way to change people’s behaviour is to make change fun. One of the most popular was encouraging people to use the stairs instead of the escalator by turning the steps into functional piano keys (it worked). The Youtube video for this experiment alone enjoyed more than a million views around the world.

For DDB, the campaign was a clear success, illustrated by the simple fact that this was the only marketing effort Volkswagen engaged in for BlueMotion and consumers responded in droves.


Ideas must appeal on an emotional, not a rational, level. Neuroscience studies show that rational arguments do not change people’s behaviour, emotional ones do. So tell a story that makes people smile, laugh or cry. This  applies even to B2B companies. Sure, tout the rational benefits of your product or service and its ROI, but package that message with some kind of emotional hook, such as sympathizing with the key pain points of your customers that you aim to address.

Watch this McDonald’s spot for a chuckle.


Share ideas people want to share. To promote Phillips’ new flat screen television, DDB came up with a campaign called Parallel Lines, in which five directors came up with their own short films based on the same five lines of dialogue. The premise was “There are millions of ways to tell a story. There’s only one way to watch one.” The campaign was so successful it sparked a competition for other directors to come up with a sixth film. The winner was Porcelain Unicorn.

What’s next?

Reluctant to be tagged as one of those prognosticators who make outlandish predictions for which they are seldom held accountable, Swystun nonetheless offered his thoughts on where the marketplace appears to be going in the next few years.

  • Collaboration: with the trend of six degrees, customers are playing a greater role in the marketing process to drive what marketers do next.
  • Product development: All the chatter and sharing between people through social media is adding value to the entire process of new product development and how brands should position themselves to remain relevant. What people are saying is invaluable feedback for improvement and enhancement.
  • More technological advances: In which direction technology will go way is anyone’s guess, but there is little doubt that more information will be dumped more quickly into the hands of consumers, who will struggle more and more to make sense of the onslaught.
  • Credibility, authenticity are key: With so much information coming at them, people will start to tune out those content streams and sources of content that don’t stand up as credible. Instead of following hundreds, if not thousands of people on Twitter, for example, Swystun believes consumers will scale that back to 100, 50, or even 20. It will, therefore, be vital for a brand to develop trust with its audience.
  • Choice vs. clutter: All of us will be challenged to wade through the range of choice before us. Brands that simplify people’s lives and that are perceived as credible will lead.
  • The process of creativity will have to change: This will be an inevitable result of the previous points.

Swystun finished by saying that one of the most important and powerful metrics over the next 10 years to guide advertising and marketing efforts will be how many messages consumers chose not to connect with.

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