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Gorilla Marketing

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Remember that Cadbury ad from 2007 with the gorilla soulfully playing the drum beat on Phil Collins's “In the Air Tonight?” If you've seen it, you probably do. That might sound presumptuous of me to say, but I have neuro-scientific marketing research backing up my claim.

At first glance, it's hard to say what about the ad works. It's irrelevant, it's odd, it's off-brand, and it doesn't have anything to do with chocolate. But despite all that, the thing took home a boatload of prestigious industry awards, including gold at the British Television Advertising Awards and a Grand Prix Film Lion at Cannes in 2008, and helped Cadbury increase sales by 9%. Cadbury saw a 20% uptick in overall brand favorability, and “In the Air Tonight,” originally recorded back in 1980, made its way to #14 on the UK charts.

So, what the heck? How does a gorilla playing drums in a chocolate bar ad leave such a lasting impression? For answers, look to the brain, says Pranav Yadav, CEO of Neuro-Insight US, a market research company that uses brain-imaging technology to measure how gray matter responds to marketing messaging.

“The most important metric when you look at an ad or how effective any communication is going to be is the long-term impact, not the short-term memory,” says Yadav, speaking on the final day of Internet Marketing Week. “Unless something goes into your long-term memory, you're not going to react to it or base any actions on it.”

Memory encoding—the process by which we create new memories—needs to happen at the point of branding in an ad or it's not going to make any kind of lasting impact on the viewer.

Let's take a look at the gorilla spot and see why it resonates. (You can check it about above if you're not familiar with it.)

The ad starts out with a zoomed-in view of the gorilla. At that point, the viewer isn't totally sure what's going on yet, so there's a low level of memory encoding going on. The gorilla's presence is confusing but the song is most likely familiar, so the viewer stays with it. After about six seconds, the camera pans out and it's possible to see the gorilla's face transfixed by the music. Then, at around the 15 second mark, there's an audio cue right before the drums come in, which creates a peak in memory encoding. The rational side of the brain is taking note, but it still doesn't know exactly what it's watching…and then: Boom. The Cadbury logo pops up. The brain says, ‘Ah, it's a Cadbury ad,' and the encoding is complete. In fact, Yadav says it's the highest level of memory encoding at the point of branding he's ever seen.

With this ad Cadbury proved that it's possible for a piece of advertising to fail abysmally in pre-testing (which this ad did), but still have major success in the actual market where it matters most. Whoever pushed Cadbury to follow gut instinct and ignore the pre-launch market research probably got a big fat raise for this one.

“In our center for memory we have explicit memory which is only about 20% and which we can verbalize,” says Yadav. “But 80% of memories come from the subconscious, which is why you can't verbalize them even if you implicitly base your actions on them.”

Simply stated, that means test subjects in a market study can't rationally explain 80% of the motivation behind their behavior.

“The left side of the brain is the rational side and the verbal speech center, while the right side does the more emotional processing,” says Yadav. “So when you ask someone why they did something, they'll tell you why they think they did it, but that's not always why they really did it.”

In other words, ask people what they think of the Cadbury gorilla ad and they might say, “It's ineffective because I don't see the connection between the gorilla and the brand”—but probe their brain and you might just get different results.

It's interesting to note that subsequent versions of the gorilla ad, like the one featuring the musical ape doing an emotional cover of Bonnie Tyler's “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” didn't do nearly as well as the original. Part of what made the first ad effective is the surprise. With the Tyler version, viewers were already familiar with the setup, so the reveal didn't do much for anybody.

The brain doesn't lie, says Yadav. Other measurements out there like eye-tracking, sweat response, facial encoding, and heart rate often claim to gauge what's going on in our heads, but they're really nothing more than variable bio-metrics.

“Things like that can give you insight, but they're not neuro,” says Yadav. “And in terms of ROI, they're worse than a regular survey.”

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