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Providing positive proof

Advertising is under increasing pressure to demonstrate that it is worth the investment

When the budget environment becomes difficult, marketers demand proof of advertising's effectiveness, preferably in numerical terms. Unfortunately, few marketers and agency directors can agree on what standards advertising is expected to meet, or even what constitutes definitive proof. We are in such a period now.

During a time of recurring recession and in an environment of advancing globalisation of companies and brands, many products are experiencing low growth in unit volume and increasing competition from brands and generics.

In this business climate, advertisers want to know what they are getting for their advertising pounds. Industry researchers are often asked whether research will provide answers.

The proof called for is often short-term: did the performance of the advertising justify its cut of the marketing budget? Agencies scramble to produce facts that indicate a positive evaluation of the advertising contribution. Everyone is on the defensive. Effects are hard to isolate because advertising merges with other elements of the marketing mix and with non-marketing aspects of the message environment.

To further complicate the issue, stress on short-term evidence ignores some of the most important contributions advertising can make. In other industries, the value of corporate advertising is viewed more long-term. It is seen as the creation and maintenance of goodwill that enhances a company's ability to do business.

Such effectiveness can be calculated by taking the difference between the market price of a company's stock and the book value of its tangible assets. However, that's corporate advertising. Selling a specific product to a specific market does not lend itself to similar calculations. However, the long-term value of advertising to the brand is the same.

Feeling justified
Long-term contribution is of vital interest to agencies and their clients, but it is not a key component of the marketing plan, or discussions with the market research department (or research agencies).

Instead, research tends to focus on specific elements within ads and how these elements influence target responses. Which measure is examined is typically determined by the theory used to frame the research. This type of research might best be termed `the study of advertising effects'.

Are advertising effects the same as advertising effectiveness? Although the two are certainly related, distinctions between them must be clearly understood.

Advertising effectiveness is concerned with making a tangible contribution to a brand. To be worthwhile the benefit must exceed the cost. Effectiveness is cumulative over time and affects feelings, attitudes and behaviours. Assessments of effectiveness are typically made over longer time periods than measures of effects. They involve multiple exposures to ads and multiple executions within campaigns.

In contrast, most research into advertising effects involves limited executions and one-off exposures in an experimental setting. Effectiveness must be determined within a real-life environment where competitive actions and other marketing activities greatly add to the complexity of assessing advertising's value.

For a full understanding of effectiveness we need to know which effects contribute to effectiveness, and we need to know whether effective campaigns show similar patterns.

Universally challenged
As 'effectiveness' has tended to refer to whether the cost of advertising is returned to the advertiser in the form of current or potential sales revenue, clients often seek to use its inability to directly influence prescribing as the primary barrier.

However, to understand effectiveness in the real world, we need to have some systematic collection of facts that tell us the intended recipient saw the campaign, what intervening phenomena affected the campaign's impact, and the net effect on prescriber behaviour.

Combining these facts with data about specific ad effects may help us understand the performance of the campaigns.

A further complication is that competitors' budgets, or share of voice (SOV), must also be considered. It has been argued that the most appropriate measure of effectiveness be calculated using the ratio of market share to market voice. An additional, virtually unaddressed area, is the content of the media in which the advertising message appears.

There has been little industry discussion to help resolve these issues. Instead, advertising effects are deployed to study one-shot exposures to single messages over relatively short periods of time.

They fail to capture the effects of multiple related messages in natural environments. This is despite evidence demonstrating the longer term value of advertising as part of the wider mix.

The return ticket
Effects of advertising are clearly individual-level phenomena. Effectiveness is not simply an aggregation of effects across all of the intended recipients. To be compelling and comprehensive in demonstrating value means marketers must:

  1. Make the role of each advertising effort explicit in the context of multiple marketing goals. To evaluate the contribution of advertising it is necessary to specify in advance what particular goals it is intended to achieve. It may be used to build a particular brand identity, to change existing perceptions, or to create trial use. Such objectives form the basis for key performance criteria

  2. Recognise the links between the advertising, its expected impact, and the ultimate prescribing outcome. Not only must advertising and marketing goals be shown to have been achieved, but evidence indicating the contribution it has made to the larger marketing objectives is important

  3. Identify the creative contribution. A major focus of research is the impact of specific elements of the creative message. Measures of effectiveness must take into account the entire creative message and not be restricted just to specific areas

  4. Recognise that advertising has long-term as well as short-term value; specifying these is crucial to a fair evaluation of its performance standards, we should also consider their role in long-term strategies.

Critical issues
Consider two of the criticisms of consumer advertising: that advertised food products lead children to develop poor nutritional habits; commercial messages promote materialistic values; models shown in ads lead to a culture of thinness for teenage girls and adolescents used to start smoking because cigarette ads showed attractive, adventurous and popular people smoking.

Although these issues involve a range of target audiences and outcomes, the common underlying theme is that consistent messages over periods of time have important impacts on beliefs, and that these beliefs influence behaviour.

Short-term effectiveness is best assessed by demonstrating a chain of effects that includes sales data, brand perceptions, and ad awareness or attitudes. Failure to show any of these effects would raise questions about effectiveness.

A long-term perspective of advertising effectiveness would focus more on cumulative perceptions through a campaign's lifetime. Because other elements of the marketing mix will normally be consistent with the long-term advertising image or benefit when a campaign is successful, it is more difficult to identify advertising's unique contribution.

Current criteria
In assessments of short-term effectiveness, the most common measurement is the change in awareness, brand message association, attitudes or sales. Comparisons with competitors can help verify whether there is a market component to the identified changes or some other confounding factor.

In the long term, the goal is to associate a brand with a clear and recognisable attribute or image. Thus, the objective should be consistency over time rather than change, thereby examining the strength of association between the desired image or attribute and the brand. As with short-term effectiveness, it may be worthwhile to compare the performance of the brand with its major competitors. When a campaign has been effective, the brand will have a stronger link to its advertised image or attribute than any rival.

One final difference between the long-term and short-term views of advertising effectiveness is the target audience. Clients tend to focus on current key recipients because non-targets may not respond in the same way, creating an error in the measure of effectiveness. However, when we talk about long-term effectiveness, people who are not currently targets might one day become prescribers and thus could be argued to be the most important group to consider for future growth.

If a brand can project a clear and consistent image, or a strong association with a valued attribute or benefit, it is more likely that future prospects will remember the brand and know something about it when they reach the product consideration stage.

Online opportunities
Advertising is under increasing pressure to demonstrate that it makes a difference and is worth its cost. However, given advertising's salience, there is a surprising lack of consensus regarding its effectiveness. The difference between short-term effects and long-term effectiveness is a key component here. Whenever we task advertising with immediate actions, we will continue to mask its potential greater impact on changing the behaviour of the recipient and, as a result, pile on the pressure to cut the investment to it as part of a wider mix.

Show me a place where the long-term is held in high regard and I'll show you an advertising campaign with a powerful, single-minded proposition.

Where the short-term dominates, there's an ad that has all of the functional requirements that immediacy demands. However, there's also a recipient who, dependent on spend, can confirm the key messages that the ad reinforces beyond the sales call. With the link clearly visible on the latter, is it any wonder that research, and therefore, the challenges set for advertising frequently focus on the immediate?

What is the way forward? Beyond isolated activity, an agency is increasingly being asked to demonstrate its value. The nature of the advertising solution forms part of that evaluation. What are now demanded are increasingly more sophisticated tools - tools that will enable us to decipher effectiveness in the field beyond measuring effects in a viewing facility.

The online environment presents an opportunity to accurately research effectiveness as tools that can measure and track brand perception are introduced that observe and can even influence group and individual behaviour. Through such tools, we will gradually accumulate the data on how brands perform according to different activity investment.

Until then, advertising will remain as much an art as a science and so the debate as to how much to invest in it will continue.

The author
Craig Mills is director of brand planning at PAN Advertising

13th March 2007

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