Nike 1, Adidas 0: the neuroscience battle behind the Euro 2016 ads
A view from Heather Andrew

Nike 1, Adidas 0: the neuroscience battle behind the Euro 2016 ads

How did the ads from two of the biggest sporting rivals play out in consumers' brains? Heather Andrew, the UK CEO at Neuro-Insight, investigates and offers some wider lessons for brands.

The final whistle has blown on Euro 2016, leaving pundits and fans alike to pore over their teams' championship campaigns. For numerous brands involved in the Euros the same is true. Unlike the footballers, however, there isn’t much time to evaluate their performance before their next fixture: Rio 2016 looms large on the summer calendar.

Luckily, there are plenty of lessons that marketers can take from one of the oldest rivalries in sport: Nike and Adidas.

Whereas only Adidas chose to sponsor the tournament, the numbers suggest Nike "won" with its advertising. Nike’s "The switch" racked up more than 50 million YouTube views while Adidas’ "Paul Pogba: First never follows" got just over 300,000. According to Unruly, Nike’s was also the most shared video (Adidas didn’t break the top 10).

From our brain’s perspective, however, the story doesn’t end there.

For marketers, neuroscience represents an increasingly valuable tool to understand our relationships with advertising, and holds the key to honing the effective communication – and the effectiveness of advertising is rarely more important than during a major sporting event, when brands of all kinds are competing for the attention of the same audience.

So we reviewed "The switch" and "Paul Pogba: First never follows" to understand how, from the brain’s point of view, they made an impact.

Here are our top three comparisons:

Show or tell? Narrative arc vs. product showcase

The most obvious point of difference between these ads is that Nike’s is feature-length by ad standards, clocking in at over six minutes. With the luxury of time, it can tell a real story complete with beginning, middle and end.

For the brain, this is especially compelling: our brains love stories and respond very well to intrigue. As soon as we see the switch of personalities, we’re invested in what happens next, and the creative keeps asking questions and teasing us with the outcome. This is a great combination for keeping the brain engaged throughout the video.

Adidas’ spot lasts just over a minute, so it isn’t able to develop a narrative in the same way as Nike does. So, instead of Adidas telling us a story to engage us, it charges in with an assault on our senses.

It uses a range of devices to do this. The intensity of the music track and the narrator’s voice combine to drive high levels of emotional arousal which primes the brain to remember what it is seeing. Aligning the voiceover and visuals is important, as the brain can then process that information more easily.

Finally, the ad addresses "you" – a decision which should create a sense of personal relevance to the viewer, driving the brain to store that information into memory.

Star quality

The brands’ decision to feature two football superstars is unsurprising, and from a neuroscience point of view it’s a smart move. This is especially true for Nike – Cristiano Ronaldo is a known Nike ambassador, so the ad needn’t worry about establishing associations with him.

Instead, the creative focusses on building new, positive emotional connections with the brand, like humour and relatability, by telling a compelling story.

Adidas can’t rely on the same kind of connection. Therefore, it must work harder to forge new associations between the brand and its ambassador with an "in your face" style.

Product placement: super-subtle or in your face?

The narrative-driven structure of Nike’s ad means that the featured products are introduced in a relatively subtle way. This is useful, but only up to a point. While the brain remains engaged with the creative without overt "selling" messages to distract it, there is just one occasion when the ad focuses directly on a Nike product, which could easily be missed by the viewer.

However, Nike might simply rely on its long-term relationship with Ronaldo to "brand" the story.

Adidas, in contrast, uses the product as a more upfront way: products with the Adidas logo are clearly shown at many more points in the narrative and the alignment of voice and visuals overtly draws the viewer to focus on a particular Adidas product.

As with Sunday night’s final, the two ads are very evenly matched from the brain’s perspective. However, while Adidas does a very good job at pushing its message, in the end it’s hard to beat a great story with humour and character development, which is what our brains really respond to.

1-0 to Nike.

Heather Andrew is UK chief executive officer at Neuro-Insight