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Digital with Feeling: Can Banner Ads Really Build Brands?

By: Tom Ewing, Head of Communications, System1 Group

Banner ads have a bad reputation, and it’s hard not to feel they’ve deserved it. From “Punch The Monkey” in the 1990s to “Are You Smarter Than Justin Bieber?” in the 2010s, display advertising online has too often been synonymous with gimmicks, junk software installs, and general cruddiness. Click through rates started bad and are now at the level where “Punch the Monkey” looks like Apple’s “1984” in effectiveness terms.

garmin ad

Needless to say, this situation makes them a poor tool for brand-building. Or does it? Online ad firm Undertone, in partnership with design agency Pixl, have different ideas. Undertone believe that if you create high quality, entertaining, interactive banner ads, you’ll see far better results. The rich media ads they've built for their clients are the realisation of that philosophy.

At TMRE, Undertone presented alongside System1 (formerly known as BrainJuicer), who specialise in testing ads for their emotional impact. This might seem like an unusual team-up – after all, System1’s reason for measuring emotional response is that it predicts long-term brand building effectiveness. And long-term brand building isn’t generally something you associate with online display. It’s all about immediate, short-term response.

But Undertone’s Laura Salant and System1’s Brent Snider set out to show that the combination of banner ads and long-term growth made perfect sense – if you have the right creative. Undertone used System1 to test several interactive digital ads and predict their emotional response, both on a short-term and long-term basis.

The ads took a variety of approaches. Smartwatch brand Garmin showcased its product with a witty, short video clip, for instance, while Lowes’ Char-Broil Grill used an interactive side-to-side swipe to bring to life the difference between a flaming grill disaster and a perfectly char-broiled piece of chicken. Both these ads achieved serious results for their brands. The Garmin one drove a 635% increase in site visitors during the campaign, and by analysing mobile footfall data, Lowes could estimate that its Char-broil ad was responsible for a staggering 1 million additional store visits.

Both these ads also achieved the highest 5-Star ratings in the System1 test – which only 4% of ads manage. A 5-Star ad is an exceptionally emotional ad predicted to drive long-term profitable growth for a brand. So, Undertone’s ads had hit the target of strong short-term performance without sacrificing the potential for long-term brand-building efficiency.

Why does this matter? Snider laid out the issues at stake. Digital transformation is touching every brand but it’s also driving a short-termist mindset which risks eroding brand health over time. Research by the British analysts Les Binet and Peter Field suggests that the golden ratio for media spend is 60% of budget on brand-building, 40% on sales activation. But last year brands were spending over 70% of their budget on activation – a shift away from long-term thinking that could be dangerous for growth.

Turning the clock back isn’t an option. But creating great digital work that pays its way in the short term and moves the needle in the long term is. That’s what Undertone have made with their rich banner ads.

Undertone have come up with a set of ten best practices to help brands who want to do this for themselves. But as Salant said, it all comes down to one central learning. There is only so much time and mental effort people will spend on an ad. You must use your consumer’s energy wisely, rewarding them quickly with something – like the chicken grill slider – that’s enjoyable and leaves them feeling good. If you waste your consumer’s time, you waste your marketing money – and, as Snider warned, fully a third of marketing spend does just that.  There are plenty of challenges ahead in helping brands rediscover a long-term view and invest in display ads that don’t make people cringe and turn off. But Undertone are in a strong position to meet them.

(Disclaimer: I work for System1, though I have not been involved in the Undertone work.)


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