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Why Context Matters

Reach is vital but the reason most brands prefer not to be seen in high-reaching toilet media is self-evident.  All impressions are not created equal.

Marketers looking for silver linings around the imminent demise of cookie-based targeted should welcome the return of contextual-based targeting.  Where and when an ad is seen can be just as important as who sees it.

In 2021, Heeyon Kim at Cornell University ran a larger-scale study showing 1,123 participants ads for clothing brands such as J Crew or Banana Republic. Some people saw the messages in the midst of a magazine with no other ads. Others saw the ads in the same magazine but alongside a range of high-status brands, like Chanel and Hermès.

Later on, the participants were asked to rate the prestige of J Crew and Banana Republic. Those who had seen the brands surrounded by high-status firms scored them 17% higher than the group who had seen the ads with minimal context. According to Kim, “mere proximity” to high-status firms boosted the appeal of the test brand.

If you want to boost your perceived quality, then watching the company you keep and appearing next to premium brands is a good start.

This is especially important at launch, when no one really knows what your brand or product stands for.  First impressions really do count, so it is important to take advantage of the ‘primacy effect’ to set your brand up with the required associations.

Beyond the advantages of perceived quality, there are a number of other contextual levers to think about when considering media placement. These include:

  • Location (proximity to purchase but also activities or adapting copy along a familiar route),
  • Temporal (time of day, week, year),
  • Environmental (weather, allergens, pollution),
  • Social (alone, with peers, couples), and
  • Modal (active, focused, rushed, relaxed)

Many of these levers are oppositional choices. For example, is it better for your message to land when your audience is relaxed or focused?  This is great news for brands – it means you can make a conscious choice about the best context for your message to resonate.

Strategic choices are only genuinely strategic when the opposite choice is still a valid one.  So ‘reaching the right audience at the right moment’ isn’t really a strategy (because the opposite would be ignoring them completely). However, the media plan gets a lot more interesting and effective when you can define what that moment is – and isn’t.