In a recent study, researchers at The Ohio State University sought to answer that question. Participants performed a simple identification task: After a split-second flash, they were asked to identify which color in a group of four was surrounded by a white box. They performed admirably at first. In the next round, white dots appeared around a second color to distract the participants. The success indicators dropped. With the intentional distractor at play, participants misidentified the correct color 20%-30% of the time — albeit with just as much confidence as before.
Open to Reinterpretation
For advertisers hoping to send a clear message in our age of distraction, this finding presents a challenge. Not only is standing out increasingly difficult (especially using screen notifications as emulated in the study), but in fact the memory of one message can be altered by the sudden appearance of another.
Adding distraction upon digital distraction will not increase the resonance of your messaging. Consider, for instance, that Americans pick up their phones an average of 52 times per day. Brands jostle fiercely for space on those screens, vying for attention from fickle, distracted consumers. Nielsen research indicates that a mere 8% of consumers actually feel loyal to specific brands, and 46% of consumers are more apt to try out new brands than they were five years ago.
How can a brand prove its value if it’s just another digital distraction? The best way to cut through all the noise is to develop a brand identity that engages the whole person.
Some people have pushed back against the fragmentation of their attention by limiting screen time or adopting meditation and awareness practices. Just as many individuals are personally trying to fight distraction with more mindfulness and concentration, marketers could take a like-minded approach and engage targets as entire human beings, not simply as phone users.
Marketing to Real People
It might seem counterintuitive to suggest that marketers go beyond the digital distraction battlefield. After all, aren’t notifications, tweets, and posts essential to nudging a brand higher in a consumer’s consciousness?
Unfortunately, fighting for screen presence won’t differentiate your brand from the others. Here are three ways to think outside the little blinking box.
- Get out more.
One alternative strategy is to pry customers off of their phones completely and engage with them in the real world. Out-of-home (OOH) campaigns are often nothing more than traditional advertising — posters, billboards, banners — but they also include experiential pop-ups and installations. Done well, their ability to draw customer attention away from the handheld screen is incredibly effective.
For proof, just look at how online and app-based companies have embraced OOH campaigns. Considering the nature of its business, you’d expect a dating app brand like Bumble to advertise mostly digitally, but it recently invested in outdoor advertising.
Bumble didn’t just put up generic billboards. With its Most Inspiring New Yorkers campaign, the brand leaned into the location and tailored its messaging with mentions of local areas and activities. The outcome: 15 million media impressions.
- Appeal to the senses.
Marketers aren’t limited to visual connections. The sound, feel, taste, and even smell of your brand all connect with customers in a very powerful way. Engage more than three senses, and brand impact increases by more than 70%.
“Your perception of the world is not shaped by sight alone — all your senses are involved,” says Logan Andres, director of products and marketing at ScentAir, a scent marketing firm. “It stands to reason that brands are embracing sensory marketing, a practice where marketers purposefully engage multiple senses to create branded impressions.”
Take Dunkin’ as an example. Along with its familiar orange-and-pink logo, Dunkin’s brand relies heavily on sensory cues. In one creative effort in South Korea, the brand installed scent-emitting machines on buses. After the brand’s jingle played, a faint smell of coffee was released, which no doubt triggered purchase intent for many commuters: Sales increased by 29%.
- Engage the emotions.
No business expert would recommend abandoning mobile or online advertising completely. Rather, the key is to remember the person behind the phone, which is why standout brands enable emotional connections.
“Emotions have huge action potential and can enable consumers to receive messages they wouldn’t accurately perceive in another way,” notes Chloe Ellis, the group CEO at Captivate Group. “So if brands want to cut through the noise and optimize messaging to drive action, they need to give much more consideration to the power of emotion.”
For online shoe and apparel retailer Zappos, emotional engagement looks like dependable customer support. Representatives have sent customers flowers and delivered surprise discounts — and one call center employee even stayed on the phone with a customer for nearly 10 hours. For Logitech, emotional engagement involves a healthy dose of fear. The computer accessory brand advertised its security cameras with a simple question: “Who’s babysitting your babysitter?” The ad was meant to trigger anxiety in easily worried parents, but it offered emotional balance by presenting Logitech’s product as the solution.
There’s a deluge of distractions in our daily lives, all contributing to a dull white noise. Brands that want to reach consumers will need to engage with them as more than smartphone users. Marketing to the whole person is the only way to break through the notification noise.