Winning People’s Attention From the Start: Balancing Branding and Storytelling

June 2016

Marketers encounter a myriad of questions in the process of creating engaging, compelling video content. We partnered with Philippines’ telco giant Smart Communications to analyze how branding in the first five seconds would impact users’ behavior and product awareness.

We live in a skippable world. Consumers’ attention levels are low and the number of external stimuli are high. Hence, we came up with TrueView to let people choose to watch and engage with brands when they desire. TrueView didn’t really change the way we made ads, it simply reminded everyone that we should gain people’s attention and not buy our way in.

As a result, one of the most debated questions in the industry today is the importance we should give to the brand and its visual and audio signatures when creating content. There’s an underlying assumption that people don’t come to YouTube to watch ads and that branding will necessarily scare people away. We really wanted to challenge this thinking.

The branding experiment: Go all-out or low-key?

We started with an ad created by Smart to promote its new product, “Smart bigBytes Valentines.” We tweaked the opening frames (specifically, the first five seconds) and created three ads with three different treatments of the branded assets. The ads were run on TrueView, YouTube’s skippable ad format.

We ran a Brand Lift study to analyze how each version of the ad would impact user retention (measured by skip rate and view-through rate) as well as key brand performance indicators (ad recall and brand awareness).

The three cuts

“The Original”

This was the first ad Smart developed, created for the web and almost two minutes long. The first appearance of the Smart brand is at 0:40 (as an in-product notification) and the name of the product along with the actual brand logo only come in at the very end of the ad (1:50).

The theory: The quality of the story will be the sole driver of view-through rate. Users won’t be put off by invasive brand cues (audio or visual). This creative resembles content users would usually watch on YouTube, betting on humor and playfulness to obtain high view-through and low skip rates.

“The Strong”

There’s no doubting what brand this ad is for. This version opens with a clear introduction, displaying the Smart logo on a big black frame. While we really wanted the brand to be prominently featured, we also gave users a reason to stay by adding a catch in the first five seconds: “How to survive a breakup.” Who wouldn’t want to know the answer to this life and death question?

The theory: Studies have shown that aggressive branding often leads to lower view-through and higher skip rates while being more efficient at lifting ad recall and brand awareness. We assumed this creative would achieve similar results.

“The Subtle”

For the third cut, we wanted to try something that would capture the best of the first two versions. We started with the same frame as the original version but overlaid a watermark logo throughout the ad to make sure users know who sponsored the ad they’re watching. We also added a call to action to drive users to the official product page.

The theory: We assumed this particular copy would be the winner, achieving good brand awareness and ad recall while retaining as many users as the first version.

The results

The best-performing copy across all variables was “The Strong.” While it might seem surprising when you first think about it, here’s our read on the results:

Prominent branding didn’t scare our viewers away


Interestingly and unexpectedly, skip rates were consistent across the three copies. “The Strong” was particularly good at retaining users, and we believe that the line “How to survive a breakup” played a big role in this.

We were particularly aggressive with the branding for the sake of the experiment (to make sure the three versions were well-differentiated), but we wouldn’t necessarily advise brands to start their ads similarly. Brands aiming at lifting awareness should think about ways to give users a reason to stay in the first five seconds, while finding interesting ways to showcase their products or services. Close shots of on-product logos have worked well across brands and geographies, like this fun video made in Australia for TicTac.

Prominent branding led to the strongest awareness lifts


We observed consistent lift in brand awareness among people watching the ad for more than 30 seconds (we call these viewers “completers”). However, among “skippers,” only “The Strong” led to an awareness lift—which is quite logical as this was the only version that mentioned the brand.

Therefore, while building your ad, you should think about people who only watch the first few seconds. Whether they keep watching or not, you need to make a good impression and deliver part of your brand message.

Prominent branding had a positive impact on user retention


This was another very interesting learning. Compared to “The Original,” 1.4X more viewers watched “The Strong” until the very end of the ad. This is especially interesting given that TELCO brands in the Philippines typically enjoy massive awareness, but suffer from negative online sentiment. One possible interpretation is that having a clear, up-front title and branding filters out people not interested in the content and retains people that are more inclined to watch.

Winning the first 5 seconds: Find the balance between branding and storytelling

Here are some ways your brand can break through and win the first five seconds.

  • Weave your brand throughout the story. Revealingly, the watermark logo didn’t work at all compared to the branded intro frame. We believe the reason is that branding needs to play an integral part in the storytelling versus just being stuck in the background. In “The Strong,” it was clear in the intro frame that Smart Communications will tell you more about how they can help you “survive a breakup.”
  • Understand what your audience enjoys. When you show your brand in a creative way in the first five seconds, whether with an interesting plot (“How to survive a breakup”) or with smart filming (the TicTac ad showed a close shot of the logo on product), audiences might not be inclined to skip your ads and may even be inclined to keep watching. The key to success here is to understand what your audience enjoys watching on YouTube (check out the Consumer Barometer, YouTube Trending videos, or the APAC YouTube Ads Leaderboard - 2015 Edition) and give them a reason to keep watching!
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