The Marketing Association is excited to share an insightful article by Carl Sarney, Head of Strategy at TRA. The article was originally published by Mediaweek on 24 June 2024. Mediaweek has kindly given permission to republish Carl's article, which you can also read in full here.

Carl examines the intricate balance between creative freedom and long-term effectiveness in advertising, drawing insights from the winners of Cannes Lions 2024. In his analysis, Carl discusses how brands can seamlessly integrate innovative, groundbreaking creative approaches with sustainable, strategically sound campaigns. Read below to learn more about Carl's analysis.

As a brand and comms strategist, I must be equal parts optimist and pessimist. When a tough brief lands on my desk, a bucketload of optimism is required to motivate all my collaborators to find an effective solution. A healthy dose of pessimism challenges everyone to sharpen that solution until we feel confident it will be as effective as possible.

The same double lens applies when I look at industry trends. Keeping an eye on Cannes Lions winners this year had me feeling optimistic that creative agencies can still create showmanship that sells. However, I remain pessimistic about the volume of creatively awarded ‘campaigns’ that seem to have been designed as a one-off flash in the pan rather than adding coals to a furnace built to power a brand ahead for the long-term.

It got me thinking about the tension between the perceived creative freedom of singular one-off storytelling, and the proven effectiveness of committing to a lasting creative idea over the long-term.

This further made me think about Creative Commitment, a term coined by Peter Field and James Hurman in their report titled The Effectiveness Code, published a few years ago. With that in mind, let’s review the combination of the creativity and duration levers through the lens of Cannes 2024 winners.

The advertising industry, particularly creative departments, is incentivised to produce fresh executions for the best chance of winning lots of creative awards. Marketing science, on the other hand, suggests that long-term campaigns are what drives commercial success for clients… can you have both? What does it look like to have a long-term campaign made up of fresh, boundary-pushing creative executions?

When there’s a short-term objective with a finite time frame to achieve the objective, then of course there’s a role for highly creative one-off executions. Xbox’s ‘Everyday Tactician’ is deserving of a Grand Prix award in the direct marketing category for almost quadrupling the number of people playing their Football Manager game (if that’s how I’m supposed to read the 190% increase claimed in their hype reel). The game would be in-market for a finite time before the next release. They needed a big flash in the pan to get gamers playing right away, and their idea to put a gamer in charge of the tactician role for a real football team, that started winning in real life, turned gamers’ heads and sold the game like hotcakes. Success in any marketer’s book!

When there’s a long-term brand building objective, why not have both? A built to last platform idea from which loads of fresh creative executions can spring from …for years.

In this year’s winners list, I went looking for creatively awarded executions that ladder up to long-term brand platforms. Here’s what I found, and what marketers can learn from them.

Three themes emerged:

  • Famously strong brands are adhering to the Creative Commitment principle and getting big long-term results alongside creative awards.
  • Long established DBA’s (distinctive brand assets) can become highly effective creative playdough.
  • Creative ideas awarded today can have long-term potential. Can further freshness be squeezed from these?

1. Learn what Creative Commitment can look like from the big guns

The Grand Prix winner for Creative Effectiveness was ‘It has to be Heinz’. If you do a Google image search on this tagline, you will see hundreds of creative executions that all unmistakably link to this built-to-last brand idea. Each execution is attention-grabbing, entertaining, beautifully art-directed and they all send the single-minded message that Heinz is the most popular ketchup in the world. When you look a little closer, you see how they have been able to jump on social media trends and localise the idea for different markets: Hundreds of fresh ideas all springing from one long-term brand idea. It’s a creative commitment masterclass, and that’s why they won the top award.

“So many marketers come into a business and want to change this and that without understanding what the foundations are about.” – Heinz’s global chief growth officer Diana Frost

‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’ is brand idea that first appeared in 2002. Chances are, it occupies more space in your memory than most brands out there (even if you don’t wear spectacles …yet). It’s another exemplar of creative commitment. After more than twenty years of commitment it’s now paying off for the brand in new ways. With a strategic challenge to extend a brand strongly associated with vision loss into hearing loss they could have been tempted to dream up an entirely new campaign. What they did instead was look to the foundations of their brand idea – funny mistakes made when your vision ain’t so good – and kept the funny mistakes angle as they ventured into the hearing category. It means that the stunt to re-record a Rick Astley song with misheard lyrics, and release it – unbranded – to get social media and news media attention immediately made sense when they did reveal the brand. Of course, Rick should’ve gone to Specsavers for help with his hearing.

A fresh take on a decades-old idea that won them the Grand Prix in audio and radio. I venture to say that the same idea wouldn’t have worked without 20 years of creative commitment before it.

Similarly, Dove’s ‘campaign for real beauty’ started 20 years ago, and this year at Cannes they picked up several Lions for fresh new takes on the same brand platform. Another great example of creative commitment as a springboard for creativity, not a strategic straight-jacket.

2. Learn from established brands about the creative potential stored up in very old brand assets

Mixing fresh with established doesn’t just hinge on taglines. By committing to images, colours, characters, sounds, shapes etc over the very long-term, a brand builds a set of unmistakable memory triggers. The more established these are, the more they can be smooshed around and reimagined, like highly effective creative playdough.

McDonald’s has been doing this for some time and continues to be creatively awarded for it today. The golden arches were incorporated into the brand logo in 1962 and are regarded as one of the most recognizable brand assets in the world. This long-term commitment affords them a great deal of inventive potential.

Mcdonald’s picked up a silver effectiveness lion for the ‘raise your arches’ campaign in the UK market, depicting people raising their eyebrows to each other to suggest ‘we should get Maccas’. It’s fresh, it’s funny, it sold lots of burgers and it wouldn’t have been possible without decades of commitment to the Golden Arches brand asset.

McDonald’s whole business has been built on consistency, even the products have remained largely unchanged for decades. This means photography of Big Macs, Fries, Sundaes and Apple Pies also triggers just one brand in people’s minds, so these can be played with in fresh creative ways. Such as the ‘Aaaand’ campaign for the New Zealand market that won Bronze at the Media Lions. Digital billboards have an extra little screen where the billboard company puts their logo. The idea was to have big images of burgers ‘aaaand’ use the little screen for little images of add-ons like fries, sundaes, pies etc. All visual, one word, perfect for OOH and very effective at making people smile about adding a little extra to their order.

Coca-Cola’s logo has been largely unchanged for over 130 years. Around the same time, Mcdonald’s committed to the Golden Arches, Coke committed to their dynamic ribbon device. Now in 2024, Coca-Cola took out the print and publishing grand prix for their ‘recycle me’ campaign featuring the logo squashed like how it appears on a crushed can, yet immediately recognizable. Award winning art direction that wouldn’t have been effective without decades of prior consistency.

Ok, so your brand isn’t 130 years old yet. Why is this relevant? The lesson for marketers leading new brands today is to decide what brand assets you’ll commit to for decades so that eventually you too will have unmistakable brand playdough to smoosh around and grab attention with.

3. Creative ideas awarded today can have long-term potential. Can further freshness be squeezed from these?

To wrap up with an inspiring thought for marketers. This year there have been campaigns that have been highly awarded for creativity, which show promise of becoming long-term campaigns. The question is, will the marketers behind these great executions hang on to what they’ve got?

Cerave skincare won a Grand Prix in the social influencer category for their campaign featuring Michael Cera. It was launched at Superbowl and continued through social media.

Tide detergent won gold in the social influencer category for their ‘gonna need more tide’ campaign featuring comedian Kumail Nanjiani.

Magnum Ice Cream won a Grand Prix in outdoor for their ‘find your summer’ billboards.

The lesson for marketers is that when a short-term idea really takes off in a single channel, recognize that you’ve got a tiger by the tail and take this brief back to your agency: How can we extend this idea across other touchpoints over the long term?

Coming back to the levers of Creative Commitment, you’ve pulled the creativity lever and it’s working. Now get your agency’s advice on whether the same idea can pull on the multiple media channels lever and the long-term duration lever.

It might not be feasible to stretch the idea to meet all your objectives. But it’s certainly worth pausing to consider if it can before moving on to the next new thing. Don’t throw away the chance to establish an enduring icon that makes your brand famous for decades.

Source: Carl Sarney, Head of Strategy, TRA, 6 July 2024