Do award-winning ads work for pharma?

Apr 15, 2008

Increasingly, brands owners need to predict advertising and marketing effectiveness to inform their budget allocation and ad copy choices. What can we learn from our understanding of advertising effectiveness and research into neuroscience to guide our advertising strategy? Are adverts that win awards more effective than other ads in selling product and improving brand equity?

Described as the second oldest profession in the world, billions of pounds are spent on advertising every year. No wonder then it is one of the most written about and a talked about topics in marketing. Indeed, it's become an integral part of our everyday lives and everyone has an opinion.

Celebrating great advertising has become a regular occurrence. As has the discussion and debate about how ads make us feel and whether or not we like them. Hardly a month goes by without some feature or mention of the latest awards evening celebrating winning advertising campaign. A casual flick through the press throws up the PM Society awards, the IPA Healthcare awards, the EPICA awards, the Rx Club awards and more — and this is just in the healthcare sector.

Most of these awards are there to celebrate creativity. They, quite rightly, recognise great creative talent; and presumably also operate on the implicit assumption that highly creative ads are more successful than less creative ones. Other awards are based on the subjective opinions of doctors and other target audiences — presumably on the assumption that doctors can tell you directly which ads are most successful.

But what really makes 'successful' advertising and is this the same as award winning advertising? Well, let's first of all define successful and be crystal clear about it — whether you are advertising a Supercar, a soap powder or a stain, the first and most important function of advertising is to sell. So why are advertising awards not based solely on sales effectiveness?

I suggest it's nothing sinister, but probably because it's hard to prove sales effectiveness — or at least hard to untangle it from all the other sales and promotional activity that every company engages in.

However as this industry starts to take return on investment (ROI) more seriously and, rightly, demand that advertising achieves a desired objective, this needs to change. I can see a future where proving effectiveness — as in other industries — will be core criteria of advertising awards. I challenge the awards in our sector to recognise that we need this now if we are going to improve best practices in our use of advertising.

Further, is there any evidence that the award winning ads in the pharmaceutical sector are really worthy of their accolades when rated on their ability to sell?

With continuous advances in the understanding of advertising effectiveness in the last few years, Millward Brown has analysed some award winning ads against criteria now known to be predictive of sales effectiveness. What these studies have shown is that, what I 'like,' what you might 'like' and what the target physicians might 'like' is, taken on its own, irrelevant. These opinions don't matter. What does matter is whether the advertising results in more prescriptions for the advertised brand — and there are two ways main ways of influencing this:

1) Having 'stopping power' and drawing attention to the brand 2) Saying something new and relevant about the brand

These have additive affects and each can be more or less influential depending on the life stage of the brand.

How ads get stopping power Let's start with creativity. Creativity is the most important thing in successful advertising copy. While creativity is hard to define and measure, you can measure reaction to it.

With both print and online channels the reader is in control of the length of exposure to an advert. The reader can flick or click immediately to the next page, or stop and take notice. Creativity is key because it gives print and online ads stopping power — ie it makes them more likely to be read and remembered. Analysis of our own database of measuring advertising effectiveness in the last 30 years for more than 50,000 adverts, tells us that ads that are memorable have a much greater chance of increasing brand share. This is because memories of the ad creative or the message contained in the ad are more likely to come to mind when the GP is making a prescribing decision for a patient.

Memorability can be predicted and diagnosed using key metrics such as 'interest' and 'engagement' — for example creative may be seen as involving and distinctive or even disturbing and irritating. But of course memorability, and by definition creativity, on its own is not enough. An ad can be creative and memorable, but unless we associate the ad with a brand, the ad hasn't achieved what it set out to do. All metrics are not equal and brand stand out is always the most important.

I'm sure we can all recall 'great' ads that we talk about to our friends, but can't remember what was being advertised? For the brand funding the ad, these are not actually such great ads!

So research shows that creativity is key but also needs handled with care so the creativity does not distract you from remembering what was being advertised or what it was supposed to be telling you about the brand.

Saying something new and relevant about the brand New news, highly relevant to the target audience, is the most motivating short-term communication for ad content. But it needs to be credible and, ideally, differentiating too. It's likely to lead to a good uplift in prescriptions for new brands and also for brands with genuinely new information. For other brands the challenge may be to find a new way of presenting the same information so it's seen as fresh.

However not all brands have something new to say all of the time. Often for established brands there is little new information so expectations of the advertising have to be tempered by this. What it means for these ads is they have to work even harder on the 'stopping power' since they don't have the benefit of new news to drive sales.

The most sales effective ads of all are likely to be those that have both stopping power and say something new, relevant and motivating.

Whilst some may still claim this is all mumbo jumbo and advertising cannot be 'measured' in this way, recent experiments in neuroscience support this approach. In a test we carried out with a US company, Brainwave Science, we compared the results of our advertising pre-test research to those using Brainwave's patented brainwave measurement (EEG) technique. The results were compelling. The scenes in the test ad which generated the strongest brain response were the same scenes that quantitative research identified as the most emotionally powerful. This suggests that Brainwave Science's approach is meaningful, but equally it that the introspective questions and related survey-based approaches employed in our quantitative research are measuring genuine responses and tapping into what's going on 'in consumers' heads.

So are awards a good enough judge of advertising success? To answer this question, we recently conducted a study of six award winning ads from Xenical, Duac, Versatis, Canestan, Detrusitol and Reductil against both the stopping power and news criteria.

The good news is that four out of the six were above average in being memorable for the brand. In fact the Versatis 'Backpain' and Reductil 'Elvis' ads scored as well as almost any ads over the last five years. Both ads generated interest from GP's with the Versatis ad being 'intriguing' and 'informative' while the Reductil ad scored most highly as 'original'.

The Xenical campaign has probably received more awards than any campaign in recent years. And results from the study showed the Xenical 'Cheese' ad is also likely to be sales effective — our research showed that the ad tells GP's something relevant and associates this message strongly to Xenical — not least because of a consistent campaign theme that is recognised. Consistency is a feature of many of the very best campaigns.

The Detrusitol 'Toilet Head' ad is both 'original' but also 'irritating' for a significant minority — both likely to aid stopping power but not always in a positive way for everyone.

The Canestan 'Boxer shorts' ad disappoints with GP's. Their reaction to it is typified by words such as 'ordinary' and 'unattractive' and 'it doesn't say anything new'. Used on it's own this advert is unlikely to maximise it's ROI. But it could work better when used as part of the wider campaign.

Interestingly, the Duac 'Silly' ad scores well, not because it is a particularly engaging creative with GP's but because it is seen to say something new and relevant to them — and this is likely to be the sales driver for the ad.

It is reassuring to clients then that, based on these ads taken in isolation, award winning ads are likely to be more sales effective than your average healthcare ad.

Creativity is a key component of most award judging and a key factor in getting ads noticed. But it's clear there are more ways than one of being successful; and being seen as creative is certainly no guarantee of success. Pharmaceutical marketers need to embrace creativity and also need to embrace the learnings about advertising that improve the brand's chance of success. And, with increasing need to justify marketing budgets, being able to predict advertising effectiveness will help inform budget allocation and ad copy choices.

We are continuing to look at brainwave activity on exposure to advertising copy. What we learn from this promises to further challenge the approach to advertising evaluation and pre-testing in the next 10 years. We may not see awards judges and GP's with electrodes plugged into their brains yet — but watch this space!

Trevor Acreman is Head of Healthcare at Millward Brown UK.

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