A key lesson taught at the Harvard Business School is the difference between a “manager” and a “leader.” A manager is concerned with optimizing the products and processes of the organization to achieve efficiency. In contrast, a leader must focus on defining the meaning of the work in order to create a culture that sustains growth. A leader is a meaning maker.

Similarly, we who are involved in the marketing of brands are in the business of creating and defining meaning. For a brand to become a market leader, it must be endowed with meaning so that it takes on emotional significance in the life of the customer. Early adopters did not buy iPads merely because they were a more convenient kind of computer. They bought them because Steve Jobs convinced them iPads were cool.

Meaning Can be Defined in Two Ways

In marketing terms, “meaning” can be defined in two ways. First, a brand must establish positioning, so that a customer understands how the brand fits into the multi-dimensional perceptual framework of its category. This is done by finding answers to questions such as, what differentiates the brand from competing alternatives? Or, what are the brand’s advantages versus the competition? Or even, who is the competition? Positioning is a semantic, or rational, way of defining meaning.

Second, a brand must create a brand image, which is the set of emotional and experiential associations with the brand that are built up over time. It is through emotional imagery that the consumer takes mental “ownership” of a brand, the basis for brand loyalty. In contrast to a rational framework, imagination or image making is the key to emotional “meaning.”

In order to keep clear focus on the meaning of a brand, brand leaders will usually develop a creative brief when creating new advertising. A good creative brief is a short marketing manifesto that clearly defines the semantic positioning that anchors the brand, usually with one to three carefully chosen words or values the brand will stand for.

A good brief will also provide some guidance to the creative image-makers, based on a consumer insight, of what kinds of emotional associations would be particularly resonant with the target customer.

Researching the Meaning of an Ad

Because genuine insights are so important for focusing the imaginations of marketers, most marketing research departments have been renamed “consumer insights departments.” This underscores the importance of the ongoing search for new insights that can feed the creative development process.

For agency creatives, the first job in designing an ad is, therefore, to figure out how to communicate the brand’s positioning clearly, regardless of what media they are operating in; television, digital, or print.

But to keep a brand growing, creatives must also continuously search for new stories and fresh emotional imagery that can be used to add rich layers of meaning to the brand’s image.

For advertising researchers, determining whether or not an ad will be effective in communicating the positioning is a straightforward problem, which was solved a couple of generations ago. But predicting the effect an ad will have on the brand’s image has not been as easy, because it involves measuring the non-verbal or image components of advertising.

As a long-time advertising researcher privy to the internal debates of many advertising teams, I can tell you that one of the most frequent topics of discussion in the conference room is whether or not a key scene in a TV commercial, or a graphic element in a digital ad, or the main visual in a print ad actually communicates the particular emotional meaning intended by the creative brief.

Historically, the way ad researchers sought to resolve these debates was to show the ad in focus groups; or, quantitatively, test the ad online with com-checks or copy tests. However, the problem with these traditional approaches can be seen in the term “copy test;” when we talk to consumers in focus groups or interview them online, researchers frequently bump up against the boundaries of language.

Consumer verbatims and rating statements can be helpful in confirming the positioning that an ad communicates, but they tend to be much less helpful in describing specific emotions the imagery evokes. As a result, ad testing has historically been biased in favor of the semantic content of an ad.

More recently, neuro-metric and biometric techniques have been developed to probe beneath the surface reactions to an ad in order to measure emotional engagement. Brain waves, heart rates, facial response, eye tracking and other techniques are increasingly used to provide highly precise measures of consumer’s non-verbal reactions to an ad. Such new techniques are quite exciting to researchers and herald a future golden age of market research.

For today’s brand managers, however, there is much confusion about what each of the different new techniques is measuring. Confronting data that looks like it came from the monitors in an intensive care unit, the first question a brand manager is likely to ask is, “What does it mean?”

In pursuing the quest for meaning, the new techniques of brain science are usually combined with old-fashioned focus groups so that, once again, the consumer can be asked to explain, in words, why their brains were aroused. As a result, many clients find themselves paying for what, in the end, can be very expensive focus groups. And some clients are wary of the small sample sizes inherent in this experimental approach to ad testing.

Perhaps more importantly, at this stage of development, finding experts who have the medical knowledge required to properly interpret the brain science and who also have a working knowledge of marketing and advertising can be difficult. It will take a fair amount of time before experts in brain science can evolve into trusted advisors who speak the language of advertisers and their agencies. This is a real problem in scaling these new techniques.

The Ameritest Approach

At Ameritest we’ve taken a different approach to measuring the processes by which the consumer sorts out the meaning of an ad. It’s less sexy than biometrics, but it does have the virtue of being easy to quantify with inexpensive on-line surveys, anywhere in the world, across all types of media. And it balances the pictures against the words in measuring the total communication of an ad.

We do this with a simple, three-step process using our proprietary Picture Sorts® methodology. To understand how this works, let’s first look at a conceptual model of how advertising works to create meaning, then we’ll look at the mechanics of the process and finally we’ll provide some data that provides interesting insights into the search behavior of the mind.

Regardless of which media you happen to be testing, most ad researchers agree that all advertising must do three things in order to be effective. First, the advertising execution must engage the attention of the consumer. Second, the content of the execution, both rational and emotional messaging, must be linked to consumer thoughts and feelings about the brand. Third, the content must motivate the consumer to buy the brand, either immediately or at some time in the future. As a result, major ad testing systems have developed various metrics to measure these three aspects of ad performance.


In order to provide insights into why a particular ad execution is performing well or poorly on each of these three dimensions, we’ve developed a set of three diagnostic picture-sorting techniques, which are shown in Exhibit 1. I’ve described how two of these techniques work in a number of other papers; this is the first time I’ve explained the third.

In brief, our first diagnostic, the Flow of Attention® is a measure of selective perception, a complex mental process involving both attention and memory. Working as the search engine of the mind, selective perception is a process of filtering out “sensory-spam” so that we can focus the limited work-space of our conscious attention on input from the outside world that’s important to us. It operates automatically, at the level of the unconscious mind and is driven by our unconscious emotions.

A Flow of Attention graph, which is basically a histogram of relative attention to the different images in the ad, looks somewhat like an EEG graph in that it typically looks like a wave, with peaks and valleys. Indeed, based on experiments we’ve conducted with a leading neuroscience firm, the two kinds of data produce a similar insight: the average 30-second TV commercial generates three to four peak moments that determine the overall effectiveness of the ad, both in terms of attracting attention and linking attention to the brand.

Our second diagnostic is the Flow of Emotion®, which is actually a measure of how consumers feel as they look at the visuals in an ad. Since our emotions are unconscious, and our feelings are only those emotions we become conscious of—because the unconscious mind decided that they were important enough that we should become aware of them—a case can be made that the current quest to probe the engagement of the unconscious mind with advertising is a bit of a red herring. If an ad only produces emotion that’s not strong enough to be felt, can it really be that strong of an ad? In any event, the flow of emotion is a diagnostic that’s been validated for thousands of ads across a large number of product categories as being strongly predictive of motivation.

Taken together, these two techniques tell us:

1. What are the images in an ad the consumer pays the most attention to?

2. How highly charged are these images with consumer feelings?

This allows us to predict, with great accuracy, which images in the ad will be added to long-term memory to become another layer of the brand image.

Something is still missing from our analysis, of course. We do not yet know whether or not the images being deposited into long term memory are a good fit with the brand—with “fit” being defined by the communication strategy set forth in the creative brief. To answer this, we need our third diagnostic picture sort, the Flow of Meaning®.

The Flow of Meaning

Like the other two diagnostics, this technique is based on sorting images from an ad based on what the consumer was thinking and feeling as they watched the ad. For this measurement, respondents are asked to sort images from an ad into different categories of meaning, based on the ideas contained in the creative brief.

Typically, up to nine categories of meaning are used in the exercise, with an additional “none of these” option for images that do not fit the pre-determined categories. The sort is usually done with a multiple-choice option, reflecting the idea that an image may convey multiple meanings to an individual viewer.

Frequently, ratings of the brand using the same set of categories are collected to determine the overall impact of the ad, viewed as a gestalt, on perceptions of the brand. By putting these two types of information together, the ad researcher can quickly determine which images in an ad are cueing different ideas and emotions in the total communication of the ad.


An example of the response grid that is used to report results is shown for a McDonald’s television commercial in Exhibit 2. This commercial did a particularly good job of “re-positioning” McDonald’s as being a “healthy” option for kids, as can be seen in brand ratings shown in the bar chart in the lower right hand corner of the exhibit.

While a number of images in the ad did a good job of cueing the idea of healthy—100% chicken meat, apple dippers, salads—the Flow of Meaning® identified the milk shot in frame 17 as the most meaningful image in the ad. This finding was, in fact, a bit of a surprise for our client, and as a result of this insight, they built their children’s campaign for the following summer around milk.

The Flow of Meaning® is a highly flexible diagnostic tool that can be used to explore both the positioning ideas and the emotions in an ad. But the tool is only effective if the list of potential meanings is carefully chosen during the survey design process. Key to success is to study the language of the creative brief.

Brand positioning ideas will, of course, be category-specific. For example, food brands usually try to communicate great taste, toy brands try to communicate fun, and technology brands usually try to communicate innovation.

Identifying the right set of meanings to measure can be trickier because there are so many to choose from. While some of our biggest on-line competitors try to use a fixed list of “primary” emotions (physiologists, for example, have identified 6 primary emotions that can be displayed by the muscles of the face) to describe the emotions being generated by an ad, we find this approach to be too “low resolution.”

While it may be true that combining “joy” plus “surprise” equals “amazement,” if “amazing” is one of the emotion words used in the creative brief, it is easier to communicate the research to the ad team if “amazing” is a category of meaning used in the meaning sort.

Our open-system versus closed-system approach to choosing categories of meanings clearly calls for some up front thinking and brainstorming. Besides the creative brief, looking at the ad itself can generate good ideas for emotion categories. Ask yourself: Do the characters experience any personal transformation from the beginning to the end of the ad? What does the relationship between the characters express? What is the role of the brand in the story?

For instance, a simple story about a mom cooking Pillsbury dinner rolls that brings her sons running in to eat them may convey the idea of family togetherness. The iTunes silhouette ads communicate freedom and individuality. Fancy Feast cat food ads communicate indulgent.

Also, we might consider exploring brand archetypes to generate categories of meaning. What specific emotions might you associate with the hero, the maverick, the sage, the jester, the explorer, the leader?

Of course, some emotions generated by an ad may not be the ones that were intended. The Flow of Meaning can be a very useful tool for identifying mis-cues. For that reason, negative emotional categories are often included.

For example, if one character in a cereal ad is teasing another, it could be perceived as playful (intended meaning) or mean (unintended meaning.) Or, if we see a spike in negative emotions in the Flow of Emotion, we can use the meaning sort to determine if viewers are feeling confused, or if they actually dislike what they are seeing.

The Search Engine

No one still believes in the old model of the consumer as a passive receiver of advertising messages. In the quest for a better model of how advertising works, we now understand that for advertising to be effective the mind of the consumer must be engaged. That means that all the faculties of the mind–attention, emotion, memory, imagination—all have a role to play in the complex mental processes by which advertising leads to brand creation.

To guide our thinking forward we need new models. The one that I find particularly useful is to think of the mind of the consumer as a kind of search engine—the ultimate search engine, that out-googles Google in its ability to find order in the chaos of our heavily advertised world.

And if we think of it as a search engine, the natural question to ask is: What is it searching for?

To provide insight into that question we performed a simple analysis on a dozen high-performing commercials we tested this year for a number of leading packaged goods brands. In this analysis we took a 3-D look at how consumers processed the content of these commercials moment-by-moment, using our three diagnostics, the flows of Attention, Emotion and Meaning.

The first thing we did was separated the images we took from these ads—some 300+ pictures—into two groups. The first group was all the images that we identify as the “brand building moments” of the ad, which are images that are both peak moments of attention and highly charged with emotion. The second group was all other visuals from these ads—important parts of the ad in terms of storytelling, but not images that represent the essence of the story.

Branding moments are, in short, the parts of an ad that are selected by the search engine of the mind, as it unconsciously sorts through the various images in the ad, deciding what’s more or less important. From other experiments, we know that these are the best-remembered parts of an ad over long periods of time.

The second thing we did was look at the meanings the consumer assigned to each of the images from these ads. For these twelve ads, the categories of meanings that we had used included a mix of both brand positioning meanings and emotional categories, including some negative categories or potential un-intended miscues.


When we put these analytics together, we came up with the graph shown in Exhibit 3. What the graph shows is striking. The brand building moments of the ad, the peak images sorted out by selective perception, contain significantly more of the intended meaning of the ads than the other visuals.

This is true both for the meanings that pertain to positioning the brand in the marketplace, i.e. brand benefits and values, and to the emotional meanings that contribute to the brand’s image. The other visuals are significantly more likely to contain unintended meanings, or mean nothing at all in terms of the communications strategy expressed in the creative brief.

The answer to the questions that I posed earlier now appears quite obvious. Question: If the consumer is a search engine, what is she searching for? Answer: She is searching for what the advertising means to her. While not quite the answer to the meaning of life, I think this does provide important insights into the meaning of advertising.