Heather Andrew: YouTube as an environment for brands

Heather Andrew / December 2017

Neuro-Insight UK’s CEO give us her views on what it takes to build a compelling brand through online video and a snapshot into their ‘brand room’ analogy.

The YouTube Ads Leaderboard – a monthly showcase for the most viewed brand ads in the UK – suggests a lot about how our brains engage with brands on YouTube. The ads are predominantly beautiful and/or tell intriguing stories – important but not unique to YouTube as a channel. However, the YouTube most viewed ads have other characteristics in common. They are often quite long and music tends to play a key role. Unusually in an online context, branding is often subtle and in many cases doesn’t appear until right at the end. And it’s immediately evident that most are for brands which people care about (like Nike) or about which they have a strong point of view (think Marmite).

Enter the ‘brand room’

At Neuro-Insight, we research many different media to understand their roles and strengths, and to do that we often talk about the ‘brand room’, as an analogy for brand equity.

This assumes that there is a room in our heads for every brand that we come across – some of these, for brands we know and love, are warm and well-furnished; for less-known brands they are more empty and less appealing. But either way, the brand room is important, because when we’re deciding what to do or buy, our brains will access what we know about a brand by taking a look into the brand room.

Advertising tends to play one of two roles in respect of the brand room. It can help to furnish it by adding new associations, or subtly changing something – this tends to be long-term job and media like television are traditionally the best at doing this. But we don’t go around thinking about brands all the time; so a second role of brand communication is to act like a light switch. This is the territory of channels like in-store and online, which can light up a brand room by delivering a branding impact close to point of decision-making. It’s a reminder of the brand, meaning that when our brains access the room, the associations we have are bright and clear. Both roles are vital – a beautiful room is only any use if it’s illuminated; but lighting up an empty room is never going to impact behaviour.

Make your brand room somewhere viewers want to hang around

Thinking about the ads on YouTube’s Leaderboard, it’s apparent that in many cases the channel is playing a different, third role in respect of the brand room. By definition, the Leaderboard ads are chosen, not served up. To continue the brand room analogy, YouTube is offering an opportunity for people to hang around in the brand room and reinforce their relationship with the brand.

For brand owners this has a number of implications. First of all, not every brand can exploit this. If the brand room is a bleak or empty place, people aren’t going to want to spend time there, so getting them to engage with content is going to be more difficult. But for those who do have a compelling brand room, it’s an opportunity to build deeper and more complex associations than most other communication channels allow. Brands can serve up longer content, giving time to really develop and tell a story. Music is more likely to be listened to, and will play its own role in contributing to brand perceptions and associations. And there’s less need to confront people with overt brand logos because by the time people engage with content, the brand link has already been made.

There are some honourable exceptions. The second ad on October’s Leaderboard was a film for Smyths Toys – less well known than other brands in the top ten, but deservedly there for delivering a film with intrinsically strong entertainment value – a clear storyline, narrated by David Walliams and with a central character guaranteed to make children snigger. So of course it’s always possible for great videos to get views on the basis of their sheer entertainment value. But, for established brands, a unique characteristic of YouTube is the opportunity it offers to spend time with existing customers and to build deeper and more complex associations, so that when it comes to making a purchase choice, there’s little incentive to open any other brand room door.

Why YouTube is more than just viewers