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READ: The art and science of capturing consumer attention

Whether it’s a legacy brand capitalising on its fame or a challenger trying to cut through the
noise, every advertiser is vying for our attention. In this event report, the IAA UK examines
the marketing challenges and opportunities involved in attracting and quantifying this vital resource.

 

Of all the things advertisers desire, gaining people’s attention is perhaps the most coveted. Without it, there is no message to deliver, no chance for persuasion, no sale to make. Yet the brain, as scientists have shown, can only spare so much attention, making it a finite and highly valuable resource. And it’s a resource that is becoming ever harder to acquire as the media landscape fragments and the competition increases.

Amid this rather complex picture, how can brands manage to capture and retain our attention? How do they use it to build lasting fame? And what methods do they employ to measure their success and optimise their strategies?

It’s a big topic, and one that draws its own attention from every corner of the marketing world as people search for answers. To address this, the International Advertising Association (IAA), with help from Ogilvy’s vice chairman Rory Sutherland, recently leveraged its IAA TALKS event series to delve into the tactics employed by some of the world’s leading brands to penetrate the market noise and refine their strategies.

The compounding effect of fame 

Sutherland, a behavioural economics specialist, began this search by highlighting the “compounding effect” of fame in advertising. He explained how fame fosters brand recognition, and that recognition grabs attention because familiarity cuts through information overload – something much needed in today’s busy and complex media landscape.


Rory Sutherland (Ogilvy) moderated the entire event

An exemplary brand in terms of fame is undoubtedly Coca-Cola. According to James Trott, its senior director of global audience planning and addressable media operations, maintaining such status requires a “relentless commitment” to “optimising the last yard” – ensuring Coke is the last thing a consumer sees before purchasing. Additionally, Trott emphasised that even after more than 130 years, Coca-Cola continuously invests in marketing.

“It doesn’t matter what the market is like, the company has always been committed to being front and centre in the best way,” he said. 

Evidence of this attention and fame building strategy can be seen throughout the brand’s history, from supplying the US Army free Coke during the Second World War (a huge hit with soldiers on rationed treats), to more recent investments in major cultural events – such as the Olympics and World Cup – to secure a leading position in public consciousness.

“Always being present, even when times are tough, is a real quality,” said Trott.

Today, Coke maintains its fame not just through cultural ubiquity, but by pushing boundaries within its market, particularly through the use of emerging technologies. The use of AI, for example, has enabled the creation of highly compelling advertisements, like the award-winning film ‘Masterpiece’

The brand also aligns itself with some of the most globally accessed and accessible parts of culture, such as the Marvel Universe, to enhance its market position.

“We continuously want to try and grab [audience] attention and spark their imagination,” said Trott. 

It’s obviously a successful strategy, but it’s by no means an easy template for others to follow, particularly in a world obsessed with short-term results and highly measurable outputs. This is because an attention strategy that leads to lasting brand fame involves many inputs, follows a non-linear path, takes time and investment, and doesn’t have one clear ROI measure. 

“It’s rather like a pension,” Sutherland said. “The first fifty years you wonder why you bother until you reach my age and reap all the benefits.”

Yet make that investment and brands can achieve what Sutherland calls “fame escape velocity.” This can sustain attention without constantly reinvesting in marketing. 

This has led Coke to develop what Sutherland saw as the rarest of brand properties: “It’s the only soft drink, apart from possibly water, that you can ask for anywhere – and if they haven’t got it, it’s their fault, not yours.”


What if your brand isn’t Coke?

For less established brands, competing for attention can be much harder without having already acquired the cultural capital of fame.

Compounding this problem, the media landscape has also changed dramatically over the last thirty years. It used to rely on single, global campaigns across established channels like TV and print, delivering consistent messages with fewer channels and capturing more consumer attention. Now, the media is highly fragmented, splitting consumer attention across numerous platforms. As a starting position, this presents significant brand challenges, even for big brands.

“There’s a big worry to not only know which touchpoints are going to drive how much attention you’re going to get, but also how many seconds am I going to get on YouTube versus Facebook or Instagram?” said Louise Vincer, marketing & digital acceleration lead at Haleon, which owns brands such as Sensodyne and Centrum vitamins.

As a consequence of these challenges, leading marketers say that it’s important to always try new tactics and ideas to sustain attention.

“To capture attention effectively, we need to be innovative,” said Vincer. “For example, partnering with creators or influencers can be a great way to reach audiences in a more engaging way.”

This is because creators can bring fresh perspectives with their unique voices and styles, injecting novel ideas into brand messaging. They are often trendsetters, intimately familiar with what captures the attention of their audience, allowing brands to craft content that is both relevant and current. They also offer authenticity and have genuine connections with their followers which make their endorsements more impactful.

Meanwhile, for Jamila Saidi, head of digital commerce at the Department for Trade & Industry, a good attention strategy is about doing the unexpected. Highlighting the long-running ‘GREAT campaign’ to distinguish the UK as a global powerhouse for business and tourism, Saidi said: “If I see a proposal that looks like something that another government is doing, we are absolutely not interested.”

Acknowledging that people expect government comms to be boring, Saidi said the DTI keeps the word ‘government’ out of it, and focuses on being big, bold, and in front of people’s faces. “For the most part, we’re trying to catch people in an unexpected way, through an unexpected route, on an unexpected channel,” she said.

Meanwhile, the role of digital transformation is increasingly significant. For instance, Coca-Cola’s ‘Create Real Magic’ campaign leveraged an AI platform that allowed users to interact with the brand’s assets and generate unique content using AI’s suggestive capabilities. This strategy effectively garnered attention by enabling direct consumer interaction, providing tools for engagement in innovative ways.

This approach has been described elsewhere as a ‘multi-player brand‘ strategy. This concept underscores how technology is driving a new era characterised by remixed content, open intellectual property, and community-driven creativity. For brands, this shift could mean evolving into something akin to ‘toolkits’ that empower audiences to collaborate and co-create, a dynamic facilitated by the latest technological advancements. It could hold much promise for boosting attention by allowing consumers to take a much less passive role in brand engagement.


The measurement dilemma 

There are other considerations about attention that can make life challenging for marketers, particularly around measurement and metrics.

Vincer said her team is being forced to constantly prove the value of its marketing investments because it’s the first thing that could always be cut.

“Therefore measurement for attention is correlated to outcomes, which gives us confidence in the short-term so we know we’re spending in the right places and have the right assets in play,” she said.

However, for Haleon, this is not about treating attention as a separate strategy or just another data point. The business already has what it considers to be a successful effectiveness programme across regions and categories, but now they want to see if incorporating new attention metrics can improve this programme without creating a significant workload increase for its teams – a concern given the complexities involved.

For starters, there is a lack of standardisation around attention metrics across the industry.

“The landscape is very complicated,” said Phil Jackson, global digital marketing effectiveness innovation director at Haleon. “And that’s really important to address because everyone’s coming up with their own definition of what attention is.”


Louise Vincer & Phil Jackson from Haleon discuss meaningful attention metrics

There’s also a recognition that attention isn’t just about quantity but also quality and nuance, with considerations for the context in which attention is captured, the type of attention that is being stimulated, and how these translate into outcomes.

For example, Haleon discovered that in one US video campaign it was audibility that was the key driver of attentive performance. By measuring specific types of attention – rather than just counting impressions – the team was given a unique insight with which to enhance their campaign and make more informed decisions in future.

For Vincer this shows why marketers need to bolster their knowledge and skills in what is still an evolving practice. “People need a basic understanding of attention and its importance before we can truly focus on using it to achieve marketing goals and as a robust metric,” she said.

“Not everyone needs to be an expert on attention metrics, but we need to ensure everyone understands how attention plays a role in making successful marketing decisions.”


Media and creative

It is also becoming crucial to align attention measurement across disciplines, and Jackson and Vincer advocate for a collaborative approach between media buying and creative teams to ensure marketing campaigns are optimised to capture attention within specific media environments and for target audiences. This might involve developing supplementary content alongside core brand messaging.

“This year, a key focus for me is ensuring media buying and creative development work in parallel,” said Vincer. “By analysing different media channels, we can learn what grabs attention most effectively. This understanding can then inform the creative testing process. We can test different creative approaches for specific environments and target audiences.”

Here, Vincer noted the need to maintain brand consistency in Haleon’s core campaigns, but said there’s also value in creating “halo content” – supplementary content targeted at specific contexts. This allows Haleon to experiment and maximise attention where it matters most. 

“Ultimately, we want to identify those breakthrough points where attention is captured and our message resonates. By combining insights from media analysis with creative exploration, we can achieve this,” she said.

It’s a strategy that shows how the pursuit of consumer attention is a careful blend of art and science, demanding constant innovation and adaptability. As brands navigate an increasingly fragmented media landscape, they must balance the time-honoured principles of fame-building with cutting-edge technologies and strategies. The insights from the IAA UK Talks event underscore that success hinges on a multifaceted approach: investing in lasting brand recognition, leveraging digital transformation, and fostering collaboration between media and creative teams. By doing so, brands can not only capture but also sustain the precious attention of their audiences, ensuring they remain relevant and influential in a crowded market.

Check out event recordings for detailed insights and discussions.


We’re grateful to the following partners whose generous support made this event possible:

HawkLG Ad Solutions and GumGum.


IAA TALKS
is our flagship thought-leadership event series aimed to encourage debate & discussion on pressing industry topics. Organised by our Thought-Leadership Committee, it’s always held at the historic Royal Society of the Arts in central London. It attracts a wide range of guests from across the industry. Capped to 100 guests with an explicit purpose of bringing energy and ideas, and not passive voices – this event prompts, probes and provokes on key topics shaping advertising industry today.


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