How much attention should we be paying to the ‘attention economy’?

Nickie Scriven

  • CEO, Zenith
Nickie Scriven is the CEO of Zenith. Scriven joined Zenith in 2014 as Melbourne Managing Director, and was previously head of marketing and brand at Australian Super. A marketer with more than 18 years’ experience, Scriven has worked with Budding Enterprises Australia, National Australia Bank and News in senior marketing, sales and strategy roles. She has also established her own marketing consultancy business working with many small and medium sized businesses.


There’s been a lot of buzz in the advertising industry lately about what’s coined the ‘attention economy’. And it’s fast becoming the new battleground for media channels to prove their wares and to develop and espouse new attention metrics.

While these metrics are important and indeed relevant, this approach has the potential to distract marketers from the fundamental principles of marketing and, in particular, the brand codes that actually drive attention in the first place.

Attention is much more than the active consumption of a media channel. We pay attention to the things that interest us. Regardless of media channel we tune into, we are fundamentally there to consume the content of that medium; be it a show on a streaming platform or free-to-air TV, listening to music on the radio or Spotify, tuning into a podcast or a social connection with friends and influencers.

As has always been the case, advertisers endeavour to leverage this attention by positioning products and services positively in the minds of consumers.

Yet with the enormity of media channels and advertising we are exposed to, our brains are hard wired to filter the barrage of messages we confront on a daily basis. The reality is we actually don’t pay that much active attention to advertising. We quickly filter out the messages our brains deem irrelevant and home in on the ones that align to our interests, desires and needs at that particular moment in time.

This is where brand codes and all elements of brand identity come to the fore – through sound or melody, a colour palette, tagline, voiceover or a brand ambassador. All individually have the potential to capture our attention in different channels.

Importantly, this doesn’t have to be during moments of heightened attention in a channel.

In fact, penetrating the subconscious with sound and melody is often even more effective in establishing the brand in the minds of consumers, particularly when we are so often distracted and multitasking while consuming media.

The components of a brand’s identity get coded in memory subconsciously and simplified to brand associations we intuitively call on when faced with a purchasing decision. Collectively, these brand codes can reinforce the broader narrative of a brand to ensure it is top of mind when a consumer is making a purchase.

This theory is further supported by Robert Heath’s paper on Low Involvement Processing a new model of brands and advertising in the International Journal of Advertising:

“We process advertising on an almost continual basis, with great efficiency, but at low levels of involvement. This processing takes place passively and instinctively, predominantly using the right brain. Because the right brain is poor at analysis, it collects data as complete sets of sensory associations, and transfers these directly into long term memory. When we come to make a purchase, these associations can exert a powerful influence on the decision about which brand to choose, even if we never ‘think’ about them or actively analyse their meaning.”

Coding your way to brand success

So how do we create advertising that can capture people’s attention to ensure our brands are coded positively in the minds of consumers?

The ingredients to success include creativity, which raises attention levels in the first place to make the communication memorable; and music or other sound to elicit an emotional response and make people feel something. These elements are what drive brand associations.  

Throughout the last decade, many businesses and marketers have been seduced by the immediate gratification of short-terms sales via advertising discounts and sales events. It has been well documented this has been to the detriment of a more equitable balance of brand building communications. This trend has resulted in an absence of brand creativity as well as many important brand codes.

With the popularity of advertising on social media platforms, our focus has been predominantly on visual cues; notably, 3-6 seconds of video without sound. As a result, we seem to have forgotten the power of sonic brand identity and the impactful role it plays in capturing attention, eliciting emotional responses, subconsciously coding the brand in memory, driving brand associations and influencing intuitive brand purchase.

In an Ipsos study, it was found that sonic brand cues capture eight times more attention than any other brand asset.

Some of the greatest and most memorable advertising of all time has a sound, a jingle or a tagline that’s easy to recall and is often sung back or become part of the vernacular. Think ‘Happy little Vegemites’, ‘Louie the Fly’ and ‘Not happy Jan’. These are powerful brand codes that trigger our memory and drive brand associations which keep them top of mind when faced with decision making.

So, while it’s important to develop measures of attention in media channels, we must remember that it is the power of the communication’s creativity and brand codes that will have the greatest impact on capturing attention in the first place.

Tags: audio, brand strategy, marketing strategy, sonic branding

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