Impactful ad design: Insights from Dr. Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy, a neuromarketing expert at Neurons Inc
In the early 2000s, the so-called “25th frame effect” controlling the minds of consumers was among the most discussed topics.
There was a popular misconception that the human eye can only see 24 frames per second, and the appearance of the 25th frame would directly affect the subconscious, allowing the creator of the video to control the watcher.
People speculated that marketers would sneak that extra frame into ads to hypnotize the audience and force them to buy the products they promote.
This myth was later busted. There’s no such thing as the 25th frame since people usually see between 20–26 frames per second.
However, the very idea of being able to impact customers on a subconscious level isn’t false.
You, indeed, can influence your audience’s response to marketing campaigns by designing a visual in a certain way. You just need to know which buttons to push!
In this article, we’ll crawl under the skin and inside the brains of customers to understand what makes them instantly mesmerized by an ad design, and willing to buy the product it promotes.
Read this article to find out what neuromarketing is, how it can be of use to marketers and designers, and what makes an impactful ad design according to the principles of neuromarketing.
What is neuromarketing, and why should marketers and designers care about it?
According to Harvard Business Review, neuromarketing can be defined as “the measurement of physiological and neural signals to gain insight into customers’ motivations, preferences, and decisions, which can help inform creative advertising, product development, pricing, and other marketing areas.”
To put it simply, neuromarketing is a blend between neuroscience and marketing. It allows marketers to measure how well their marketing campaigns resonate with an audience on the subconscious level.
Neuromarketing uses a range of different tools and techniques to track customers’ neurochemical and physiological responses while consuming marketing content:
Thanks to these, marketers can:
- Understand the level of emotional engagement consumers have with an ad.
- Identify which parts of an ad work well and which ones appear to be less engaging.
As a result, neuromarketing allows brands to tweak their ads to:
- Establish a more robust connection with their target audience by telling them more compelling stories.
- Evoke certain emotions in the target audience to achieve their marketing objectives.
- Increase brand awareness by designing more eye-catching ads.
- Increase brand recognition by creating more memorable marketing campaigns.
- Choose the right message to tap into their audience’s FOMO.
- Boost sales by choosing the right CTA that drives conversions.
An example of a brand that used neuromarketing to test their ads and choose one that resonates best with their target audience is Bolletje, a healthy food vendor.
Back in 2021, the company created two different TV ads to promote the same product, healthy cereal, to the same audience. One of them centered around aqua yoga, and the other one — around skinny jeans.
Despite showing roughly the same numbers of brand link, brand recognition, likeability, and overall grade, the skinny jeans video generated a whopping 250% more sales than the aqua yoga one.
Turns out, eye-tracking and MRI technologies used to measure the emotional response to the two videos detected that the aqua yoga ad featured elicited negative emotions. While watching the ad, viewers felt disgust, danger, and fear.
As a result, they were distracted from the product and weren’t convinced they wanted to buy it.
On the other hand, the skinny jeans ad evoked positive emotions like value, surprise, and expectations, making the viewers more motivated to buy the product.
As can be seen from this example, the key to a successful ad that drives sales isn’t always on the surface. Sometimes, the viewers themselves can’t figure out what they don’t like about what they see; yet, they are affected by it — and, therefore, so is your brand.
If you want to win every time, you need to understand your audience and their responses to your marketing materials on a subconscious level. This includes figuring out the color psychology, the font psychology, the connotations of different sounds and textures, and the rest.
That’s where neuromarketing comes in handy.
How neuromarketing can help you design more impactful ads: Key insights from Thomas Z. Ramsøy, Ph.D., Founder & CEO of Neurons
To find out more about what makes an impactful ad design, we turned to Dr. Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy, the CEO and Founder of Neurons Inc — the world’s leading applied neuroscience company that has worked with Fortune-500 companies to optimize every part of their customer journey, including advertising, retail, user experience, innovation, tech, and beyond.
Thomas is a neuropsychologist by training with a Ph.D. in neurobiology and neuroimaging, who previously founded and directed the Center for Decision Neuroscience, a multidisciplinary research lab at the Copenhagen University Hospital and Copenhagen Business School.
Today, he’s considered a leading figure in applied neuroscience.
Together with Dr. Ramsøy and Neurons Inc, we figured out the rules of creating powerful and memorable ads, identified what design elements have the most impact on an audience, and discussed common mistakes businesses make when designing ads.
Read on to learn the key takeaways from our conversation!
From the neuromarketing point of view, what makes a visual ad as powerful and memorable as possible?
This has been a long-held challenge for marketing, and we realized that we first need to have the right measurements to learn what works and fails in advertising. In doing so, we have identified four steps – or “powers” as we call them – that are critical for the success of ads. To get to this point, we have worked closely together with industrial partners such as all social media companies as well as Fortune 500 companies; interest organizations such as the Advertising Research Foundation and Mobile Marketing Association; and academic institutions such as Stanford, INSEAD, and University College London.
There are four main powers in this model.
First, Stopping Power basically means the ad’s ability to grab and sustain attention long enough to have an impact. This is typically measured with eye-tracking.
Second, we have Persuasion Power, which is a term to describe the ad’s ability to engage and resonate with the viewer. Here, we talk about emotional responses, which include positive to negative responses, and the intensity of the emotion. This is typically measured with brain scanning methods such as EEG, or implicit measures such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) and Fast Response Test (FRT).
Third, we have so-called Transmission Power – the ability of the ad to be cognitively processed and understood, and make the right associations to the brand. This is typically measured with brain scanning as well as IAT and FRT.
Finally, we have Locking Power, which is the term for an ad’s ability to be remembered. This memory should not just be about the recall of an ad, but even more about whether the brand is remembered. Often, we see that people remember the ad but not the brand – in this case, the ad has failed. This is typically measured with survey-based methods as well as psychological tests of ad and brand memory. We can also test brand associations using methods such as the IAT and FRT.
Based on this, we have tested many ads across multiple platforms, and just some of the many important findings include:
🗣 On social media, you need to be interesting within the first second, and on average, you have 3 seconds to convey your message.
🗣 Ads that are compelling are visually appealing and easy to decode; they are not cluttered with information.
Here’s a brilliant example of an ad with great brand attention awareness and recognizable problem-solving analogy:
🗣 Emotional engagement in ads can be good, but not if it draws attention and comprehension away from the brand.
Take a look at this social ad by L’Oreal. It’s bold, engaging, and manages to deliver the key message. Nonetheless, the brand itself gains little to no attention from it.
🗣 An ad that is brand-building needs to be a natural part of the ad, and not loosely connected to the ad narrative – imagine the difference between an ad where the brand or product is a natural part of the ad narrative, as opposed to an ad where the brand is added at the end with no true hook to the story.
If the connection between the brand and the ad is not evident, there will inevitably be a drastic drop in brand visibility.
For instance, in this creative McCafe ad, the coffee eye is the star of the show. In fact, it’s so eye-catching that people fail to pay attention to the key message and the logo:
🗣 Metaphorical ads are risky, simply because viewers are less likely to understand them or connect them to the ad in the short amount of time they see it.
🗣 Avoid the corner of death! We find that almost half of all ads have logos in the bottom-right corner – but this area is only attended by up to 4% of viewers.
From your experience, what visuals perform best in an ad?
Ad performance should first be measured up against the intention of the ad. Typically we distinguish between brand-building and call-to-action ads.
For brand building, you need to create awareness of your brand, and possibly reinforce or add a few associations to your brand. Here, no action is needed.
For call-to-action ads, it’s more important to get the viewer to act on the spot.
Based on this, ads that are brand-building work best when the messaging is simple, and there is only one or a couple of messages to tie to the brand. Most often, the mere act of reminding the customer that the brand is “there” is enough to boost ad and brand awareness.
Besides this, repeated exposure to brand-word associations will work as long as…
- The messaging is simple and uncluttered, and
- The message is consistent and not confused with many other types of messages.
In terms of information, “less is more” is a good dictum.
One thing to keep in mind here is that if you are a strong brand, then a reminder of the industry as a whole can serve you well.
For example, if you’re IKEA, a mere reminder of self-assembly furniture is likely to make customers instantly think of IKEA. If you’re a startup in a competitive market, you need a very different strategy that focuses heavily on connecting your brand to specific associations.
If you are doing a call-to-action campaign, then the actual CTA element is critical.
You need to consider the “micro journey” that your viewers will take. First, they need to be stopped in their path and pay attention to your ad – here, attention needs to go first to your value proposition.
If you’re a strong brand, then brand attention is good before the offer. If you don’t have as strong a brand, then attention to the offer price is primary.
The second most important thing is then the CTA element: is the viewer to press a button, click an ad, or what? Lower the threshold of difficulty for acting on the CTA. The more natural it feels to press a button, the more it will convert.
Where should the CTA be placed in the ad to have the most impact?
It’s context-dependent, but the optimal way is to have the CTA ever-present.
You might think “that’s impossible!” but just look at how Amazon has made their website around having the checkout always available.
For CTAs on ads, it’s a bit more challenging, but still doable.
Imagine that you can only ask your viewers to focus on two things. This means that you force yourself to create a micro-journey to your CTA.
You will likely find that first they need to see your offer, and then they need to find the CTA.
This is what you need to design around – everything else is secondary, and should always be measured up against whether more information actually leads to fewer conversions.
With this in mind, consider other learnings that are relevant to CTA design.
First, avoid the corner of death (bottom-right corner) as noted earlier. Second, design the CTA with affordance in mind. The CTA should be “pressable” and lower the threshold for action. It should actually invite action.
A before and after analysis of an updated button positioning on ASOS using Neurons’ attention AI tool, Predict. With Predict’s attention heatmaps, you can see that the buy button on the image below achieved more visual attention to it, though without drawing away attention from other assets. This was achieved by moving the buy button to an area that already had much attention: the price and product information.
Would you say there’s a specific color that makes people interested in examining an ad they encounter?
As a general rule, not really. Once a typical rule has been set up, we see it being violated, and a new trend is started.
As a rule, though, we do see that certain colors lead to certain associations in certain cultures.
So basically, you need to understand how colors are perceived in different cultures.
We do tend to connect blue to cool/health/tech, red to emotions/cosmetics/fashion, green to natural/environment/relaxed, orange to fresh/different/young, purple to innovation/novel/tech, and so on, but these trends should be seen as culturally and temporarily-bound and changing.
➡️ Learn more about the connotations of different colors in our article.
Just to give you an example…
100 years ago, baby girls would usually wear light blue, and baby boys would wear light pink. Today, it’s the opposite, and we feel that the current colors are “natural”.
What are the most common ad design mistakes that reduce the effectiveness of an ad, and how can one avoid them?
There are two main mistakes that we typically see in the ad design process: a too strong focus on ad narrative and too little testing.
With the first, we see that ad designers are very focused on generating a strong ad narrative. The reason behind this is that they understand that stories drive attention and engagement. The challenge happens when the ad narrative takes over attention at the expense of attention to commercially critical elements. Here, we often see that people remember (and often love) the ad, but they completely miss who the ad is for.
More than a decade ago Sony launched a video that caught everyone’s eye. Colorful, jumping balls down the steep streets of San Francisco. It was such a spectacle and view, and it brought a lot of views and shares.
The problem was that nobody actually understood who the ad was for. It was for Sony’s new television set, Bravia. But upon asking, viewers could not even guess the type of product it was (they suggested paint, children’s toys, or something else, while television sets were definitely not on their minds).
Here’s another example of an ad that has a powerful key message and narrates a good story, but barely evokes any associations with the brand that designed it, Lidl:
The second mistake is actually related to the first: proper testing with the right tools is woefully lacking in this industry.
Why not be driven by data?
If you ask a designer, it’s a combination of a lack of willingness to be dictated by data, but also that they are working under a lot of time pressure.
How can you run a test that takes weeks when the client wants the asset yesterday?
This is where more recent neuromarketing tools have emerged, which allow you to test your materials and get responses in seconds. Today, there’s really no excuse. You can test your packaging, social media ad, banner ad, app interface, website, and much more. You can test whether your visual asset will work or fail, even before you do any form of pretesting.
How can marketers use neuromarketing principles to evoke certain emotions in their target audience?
What triggers emotional responses is a combination of individual traits and cultural trends. It’s hard to make a strong claim in terms of dos and don’ts that will hold for a longer time.
For example, social media advertising is now shifting to a 1-second strategy, which was unthinkable a decade ago.
Where we’re heading in the changes seen currently in the omnichannel world and with the metaverse is difficult to foresee.
So, my recommendation is to have a more general two-step approach.
Here, there are two main ways of working with neuromarketing.
The first is what I call translational research, and the second is what is called applied research.
In translational research, we take learning from prior research in neuroscience and psychology to identify what seems to work.
For example, we know that there’s something called “change blindness” – we tend to miss rather big changes in an image or video. This can be used to inspire us to not make big changes that go unnoticed in a commercial.
So the advice from this is to stay tuned into the latest neuroscience and psychology research that is relevant to how we perceive things, products, and items. This will allow and inspire different types of tests of your assets.
The second time, applied neuroscience is the more direct testing approach. As mentioned earlier, the industry tests too little. It tends to rely on gut feelings and “divine design inspiration”. That’s not the right approach — it would save you lots of money and effort to listen to good data instead.
As I noted before, there are now methods for testing assets very quickly in terms of whether a particular asset, tweak, or something else will produce the desired emotional responses.
Testing is key, but instead of relying too much on testing over weeks, it is now also possible to pre-test your assets with AI prediction tools.
In this crazy new world, it is now truly possible to not only get responses in seconds for what people will see, but also how they will feel and think. In any case, testing, experimenting, learning, optimizing, and pivoting should be a regular part of the commercial work companies do.
Once you understand how your target audience thinks, what they’re interested in, and what they respond to, creating a star ad becomes easy — you just need a reliable tool to aid your creative process.
After reading this article, you should already know what comprises an impactful ad. So, it’s time to design one!
Browse through the vast library of VistaCreate design templates, choose the one that fits your business needs, and put your newly acquired knowledge into action. We believe you’ll do a marvelous job of setting your business apart from the competition!