Attention please.

By Adam Reynolds on Mar 09, 2021

Prioritise being noticed

When faced with a new brief, start with the view that no one cares. Stop taking it for granted that people will pay attention. No one is interested in what Brand X has to say. At best they’re entirely indifferent.

Brands, like all of us if we’re being honest, think they’re the centre of attention. They’re not. It’s shocking, I know, but out there in the real world, the finer details of our work go unnoticed by people with more pressing concerns. What is my boss thinking? Why haven’t they replied when that message has two blue ticks? What can I feed the kids tonight? How can I pay the gas bill? Have I got COVID? Have I given my mum COVID? Look, two otters holding hands! That’s what real people are thinking.

It’s not just that internal monologue and other ads that we’re fighting against for people’s attention. We’re also competing with everything they can see, hear and click. And those otters are far more interesting than your brand.

It’s no wonder behavioural scientist Richard Shotton notes, “prioritise being noticed above other goals. If you fail there, everything else is academic.” And while she almost certainly wasn’t talking about marketing, I also rather like Marilyn Monroe’s take on this, “It’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”

That’s not to say we should be making work featuring gorillas wearing pink bikinis tap dancing on top of grand pianos. More that our job is to be seen and remembered. Our job is to become part of everyday culture. Like Budweiser’s ‘whassssup’ or more recently, Tesco’s ‘no naughty list this year’. Repeated endlessly everywhere from pubs to playgrounds. Not to blend into the background whispering something or other instantly unforgettable or indistinguishable from your competitors. Who cares if it’s on-brand when it’s that bland? The cold fact is if people don’t stop and pay attention, you’ve failed.

As everyone’s favourite quotable advertising figure Bill Bernbach puts it, “What you have to say, however right it is, will not even be noticed unless you say it in a way that hasn’t been said before. How do you break through? Only with ideas that reach people, that move them, that they respond to.”

Instead of getting wrapped up in perfecting the message (for perfecting read sucking the life out of it) we should focus on grabbing attention. One way to do that is with the Von Restorff effect. This predicts that when multiple homogeneous stimuli are presented, the one that differs from the rest is more likely to be remembered. In plain English, we notice and remember things that stand out.

Take this list for instance; blue, black, red, green, sausage, orange, yellow. ‘Sausage’ is the most distinctive word so is most likely to be remembered.

In a marketing context, your category is that list of words. If your brand is one of the colours, you’re in trouble. Rigidly sticking to category conventions might feel like the right thing to do. It’s what everyone else in your category is doing, right? It shows you know what you’re doing, doesn’t it? But it’s actually a great way to make your brand invisible. People simply aren’t interested enough to spend their time remembering if ‘blue is the brand that says X’ or ‘black is the brand that says Y’. They’re too busy thinking ‘sausage’ when it’s time to buy. Meanwhile, your brand is like that weird brown when all the different colours of plasticine get mushed together. It’s sinking into a sea of same.

Being distinctive isn’t the ‘brave’ approach to creative we hear about. It’s not some reckless charge over the top hoping for the best. It’s common sense. Being bland and expecting to get noticed is brave, foolish even. You might as well get all KLF with the budget and set it on fire for all the impact bland work makes. Whereas standing out, it’s the sensible thing to do. I like to think Marilyn would agree.