Are Value-Themed Ads Making an Impact

Are Value-Themed Ads Making an Impact

Alka Gupta, Senior Vice President, Consumer Goods Research, Nielsen IAG

SUMMARY: Advertisers are aiming to reach the value-minded consumer with creative advertising executions that deliver recession-themed messaging. Nielsen IAG examined 67 value-themed ads across 11 national advertisers and found that breakthrough retention rates were not as expected. It turns out that the same creative attributes that make for good advertising also make for good value-message advertising. Discover which ones worked and why.

Recession has gripped the economy since December 2007, but by the time it was officially declared a year later, the announcement only affirmed what had already been felt by consumers for many months. Consumer confidence had already plunged 17 points from the second half of 2007 to the first half of 2008. Although it leveled off by the second half of 2008 and through the first h alf of 2009, it has remained in a trough—about 20 points below 2007 levels.

National TV advertisers also began reacting to the recession before it was declared—a deluge of value-focused ads began appearing in the second half of 2008, and value

A deluge of value-focused ads began appearing…

brands honed their messages to fit the economic environment.

Consumer or consumed?

If consumer state of mind is any indication, receptivity to value-message advertising should be strong. The American Psychological Association reported in February 2009 that 80% of Americans were stressed due to the economy. And behavioral indicators are confirming that sentiment as consumers are seeking value—spending less and saving more. Nielsen reports that 61% of consumers are using coupons and sales, stocking up, switching brands—especially to private label brands—or switching stores. They are also saving more, putting off buying new cars, and even pulling back on buying property, life and health insurance.

Value Chart

Capturing a captive audience

“Staying in” has become the new “going out” and cocooning consumers are tuning-in to television at record-breaking rates. In Q4 2008, time spent watching TV in the home per month reached a historic all-time high, and then went even higher in Q1 2009 when it topped 153 hours.

Capitalizing on a new consumer mindset, advertisers have flooded the airways with recession-themed commercials. But do these value-messages capture more consumer attention?

Breaking through

In a review of TV ad recall, Nielsen IAG found that value-message and recession-themed ads did not breakthrough TV ad clutter at higher rates than ordinary ads. In fact, across an identified set of 67 value-message or recession-themed ads across 11 national advertisers that aired between late 2008 and early 2009, ad recall was slightly lower than the advertisers’ own historical averages in most cases.

Recession-themed ads did not breakthrough TV ad clutter at higher rates…

Across the spectrum, retention rates varied. Consumer packaged goods brands within this group saw no decline in their breakthrough rates on the whole; retailers saw minor declines; financial services, insurance, automotive and telecommunications advertisers tended to see significant declines.

Yet, not all advertisers who saw a decline in their breakthrough rate were necessarily unsuccessful with their value/recession ads. Breaking through to the widest possible audience certainly plays an important role in ad impact, but for some ads, a moderate breakthrough rate combined with a high-impact message was enough to get the desired effect.


A case in point is the value/recession auto campaign that topped Nielsen IAG’s list for surpassing the advertiser’s own ad performance norms. One Asian auto maker addressed the anxieties of potential car buyers head-on by delivering a unique, innovative and timely buyer protection offer, allowing the owner to return the car without damaging his/her credit score in the event of job loss.

Although it was not the best remembered (auto ads tend not to be well-remembered among general audiences), it was the best liked value/recession campaign and the strongest message conveyor among the smaller base of viewers who recalled it. Most importantly, it generated more ad performance improvement for the advertiser than any other campaign studied. It may also have been the most written-about campaign of the TV season, raising the auto makers profile as a challenger to two bigger American motor companies that spawned rival offers.

A unique value message pays off…

Proving that getting a jump on competitors with a unique value message pays off, the Asian carmaker returned far better sales results than its domestic competitors. Its sales were down just 1.5% in March 2009 vs. 50% for the American rivals in the same month. Yes, in a deep recession, success may be measured in terms of minimizing revenue losses. But the Asian carmaker continues to see U.S. market share gains.

This example illustrates another important finding about value/recession ads. When a creative campaign is designed around the message, it often inadvertently sacrifices breakthrough. Apparently, entertainment value is dampened when the value/recession theme is dialed up. And viewers look to TV primarily to be entertained—perhaps even more so in a recession. Hitting the bull’s-eye with its message, the Asian carmaker overcame the handicap of lackluster breakthrough.

But what happens to advertisers without a ground-breaking value message?

Messaging masterpiece

Walmart and Target came aboard the recession-themed bandwagon in late 2008 with new value campaigns. For Walmart, value has always been a central message, but the shift from “Always Low Prices,” to “Save Money. Live Better” signaled Walmart’s acknowledgment of a tougher economic climate for customers. They showcased a series of ads that demonstrated how to stretch a budget with lifestyle trade-offs, including:

A slight edge in the crowded world of retail advertising…

  • Buying a coffee maker for home-brewed coffee vs. daily coffee shop coffee (save $400/yr.)
  • Making home cooked meals vs. dinner out for a family of four (save $425/yr.)

The ads were short and straightforward with a clear message echoed in the voice-over and in the visuals. They were not blockbuster ads by any stretch of the imagination, but they did capture more viewer attention than Walmart’s previous ad campaigns and gave the retailer a slight edge in the crowded world of retail advertising at a crucial time when consumers were actively seeking value

Messaging miss

Target on the other hand, had less impact with its “Brand New Day” campaign, which also conveyed lifestyle trade-offs, including:

  • The New Movie night—a DVD
  • The New Vacation Glow—self-tanner

The campaign married Target’s playful style-focused approach with the recession-themed message, but the feel-good visuals and music arguably overshadowed the value messaging, and it fell short compared to Walmart’s more direct and unambiguous approach.

Viewers were less able to connect the ads to the retailer…

In its later ads, Target took a completely different path when it introduced the moms who “love Target” because they can get “bargains on basics” and “steals on staples.” The new creative did indeed have more overt messaging, but it came at a price. Without Target’s iconic and stylish visuals and music, viewers were less able to connect the ads to the retailer

Staying true

Brand equity is precious. The core messages associated with a brand will be the ones that consumers are most likely to remember—even when presented in a new way. It may also follow that the primary reasons why consumers bought the brand in the first place will be the same reasons they continue to buy the brand.

Take the example of a major consumer packaged goods manufacturer that launched two similar creatives which were simultaneously aired in late 2008 supporting the message that their brand was an economical way to feed the family. While both ads conveyed this essential campaign message, the second one also utilized the brand’s traditional nutrition/taste message.

Viewers of the second ad had no trouble recalling the nutrition/taste message, but viewers of the first ad were hard-pressed to accurately recall the ad’s value message. This is more remarkable considering that recall measures were based on real-world viewing of the campaign and that most consumers would have been exposed to a heavier dose of the value message because it was in both ads.

Guiding principles

Ultimately, whether an ad is value-focused or not, success is highly dependent on creative execution. The same creative attributes that make for good advertising also make for good value-message advertising. Some rules-of-thumb include:

  • Give viewers a reason to watch;
  • Be entertaining;
  • Use easily recognizable brand cues;
  • Have a clear and simple message;
  • Don’t cram too much information into a single ad;
  • Keep the visuals uncluttered.

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