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The Brain and Branded Content

By Shauna Houlton and Kevin Keane

The Brain and Branded Content

The story of Corus Entertainment and consumer neuroscience

Branded entertainment, branded content, brand integrations, product placements. Sponsored posts, experiences, advertorials. There are many terms to describe the increased blending of advertising and entertainment. This explosion of interest and popularity has led many advertisers to call for a better understanding of performance. The research and measurement industry has answered the call in a number of ways.

There are those on the media side of the equation who would just as well treat this as a function of reach. But “media equivalency”, which looks at some combination of a brand’s percentage of screen, placement on screen, and time on screen, only gets at part of the value proposition of branded content. And the risk of this approach is that it reduces to an “impression function” what is ostensibly an emotional storytelling opportunity.

On the content research side of the equation, a more qualitative evaluation is sought, with the belief that branded content isn’t simply a function of the quantity of impressions served, but the quality of impression made. The risk that this group face relates to the reliance on traditional surveybased methodologies to discern response: How can we hope to comprehensively evaluate an emotional storytelling experience – and one in which the brand may only appear momentarily, sporadically and imperceptibly – with a postexperience survey?

Finally, there’s the behavioral side of the equation – measuring shares, comments, and other various actions taken on varying levels of business importance. The gap in this approach is the implicit notion that an absence of a behavior means an absence of impact: branded content – like any advertising - can have an impact on the consumer even if the behavior is not immediate, or immediately attributable. 

To address these gaps – of evaluating the emotional, of getting at the real-time, granular response, of understanding the passive impact of communications – branded content creators are turning to neuroscience.

The ability to measure the passive, unconscious, emotional response of consumers in real-time and with unrivaled granularity drew Corus Entertainment into a multi-year engagement with Brainsights. Using EEG and eye-tracking technologies, the partnership has studied the brains of more than 1000 Canadians across the branded content and integration ecosystem, to understand how the various elements of branded content work together.

But the story of Corus Entertainment’s measurement journey begins long before its foray into consumer neuroscience.

It’s 2005. The iPhone hadn’t even been invented yet. Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” was the year’s top song. Tony Blair’s Labour Party has just won a historic third term. Bono and Bob Geldof sought to “Make Poverty History”. Facebook was only a year old. Google wasn’t even a year old as a public company (and hadn’t yet bought YouTube).

Corus Entertainment, meanwhile, was quietly laying the groundwork for a revolution in branded content measurement.

The company started to explore this work of measuring the variety and combination of media elements to help advertisers understand the impact of their media investments.

Shauna Houlton, Director of Advertising Research, explains: “We created a test/control scenario. We mocked up one of our programs with different combinations of media elements. For example, in one cell there would have been only a lower third - a snipe that covers the lower third of the screen for a few seconds. In another cell, we might have that lower third, and a 30s spot with the same brand as the lower third. In another, we’d have a full integration, where the brand was mentioned, and used, and otherwise fully integrated into the storyline of the show.

We told respondents that they were doing show testing. After asking some program diagnostic questions, we asked them about what ads they saw - first unaided and then aided.

What we found was a multiplier effect - multiple integration components delivered greater unaided awareness.” Corus repeated the studies in 2010, and again in 2017. The same trends were observed.

By early 2017, the environment had changed. By now, branded content was well established as an industry. New players had entered the market, with new value propositions. Consumers’ media consumption behaviors had shifted rapidly, and ad avoidance was on the rise, making the integration of brands into shows ever more valuable – for both advertisers and broadcasters.

Corus was able to use key learnings from previous studies leading up until this point however, advances in data, analytics and measurement across media meant that advertisers were becoming more sophisticated and demanding more from their partners. “The challenge we now faced was we had correlation, but we needed to establish causation”, says Houlton. “So, we tapped Brainsights.”

Corus embarked on a systematic and methodical neuroscience analysis of each of their core findings using Brainsights EEG-based brain measurement platform. The objective was to isolate the impact of branded content.

Corus’ studies have each taken a similar format and approach for consistency purposes, but with minor modifications in the stimuli, order of stimuli presentation, and/or audience composition to test the questions of interest.

One study, for example, sought to understand the effectiveness of brand integration elements in the news environment. 150 Canadian adults were invited to watch a recent morning news program from Corus Entertainment’s Global brand on TV. The news show was one hour in length and contained a range of billboards - short “closed captioned” messages integrated within the program - from hospitality brands, non-profits, and financial institutions showcasing their charitable causes.

Six sessions of 25 participants were conducted with each participant wearing a portable EEG reader to record their moment-by-moment levels of Attention, Emotional Resonance (Connection), and Memorability (Encoding) in a naturalistic, living room-like environment.

Various iterations and configurations were tested, so as to isolate the performance of billboards and determine which ads and billboards worked best in this environment in capturing the “passive engagement” levels of participants. Results were then aggregated across sessions and analyzed across each metric.

Two key findings from the study included understanding the effectiveness and role of billboards within the news environment, and what tone of billboard works best. Given the information-seeking nature of the news environment, information-based messaging - on billboards and ads - worked best in this environment, delivering high doubledigit lifts in Attention, Connection and Encoding.

In another study, Brainsights deployed eye-tracking goggles in combination with EEG headsets to evaluate the impact and role of lower thirds (messages that show up in the lower third of screens within a show), revealing what tone and composition of lower third was most effective in driving audience passive engagement within the show environment on the DIY network.

Over the past three years, Corus has deployed neuroscience technologies to understand the passive and emotional response to brand integration and advertising so as to quantify performance and understand how the various branded content layers – Billboards, Lower-Thirds, In-show (product placements, mentions), Signposts, Brand sell ads, etc. - work together to drive advertiser goals.

In doing so, Corus has pioneered an approach to branded content measurement in Canada that at once quantifies both the media impact and the emotional value. The approach - which one might call “impression quality” - reconciles the competing viewpoints of treating a brand integration as a media vehicle, or as a creative vehicle. In reality, it’s both.

Cumulatively, this body of work has enabled Corus to quantify the impact of targeting custom audiences through its properties (Food Network, Sept 2018) and understand the patterns of best performing branded content videos (February 2017). It’s revealed the roles of each branded content and integration vehicle, as well as the power of programming to shape audience mindsets.

It’s also helped them to grasp that elusive “causation” – by isolating the impact of brand integration components to pair with their survey results.

Most importantly, it’s helped to drive their business forward.

“The research resulting from these studies has helped give Corus a better understanding of how to enhance traditional brand advertising, delivering our clients robust strategies to effectively tell their brand stories,” says Houlton.

About the authors:

Shauna Houlton has spent the past 20 years turning insights into targeted strategies that address business challenges across a variety of sectors including not-forprofit, public, media & technology, consumer packaged goods and financial services. As Consumer Insights Director, Shauna is responsible for leading Corus’s Insights practice to ensure Corus’s Television and Radio properties and advertisers are connecting with audiences in a meaningful way.

Kevin Keane is the CEO and founder of Brainsights, an award-winning Toronto-based neuroscience technology and human insights company that works with the world’s leading advertisers and media and entertainment companies to deliver growth-driving insights

This was originally published in Insights Magazine, NMSBA members have access to the full archive of this quarterly magazine on neuromarketing. Interested in joining? Check the options