Editor's note: James Forr is a director at Olson Zaltman Associates, a Scottsdale, Ariz., research firm.

One of the key challenges in market research is how to assess the effectiveness of a creative concept before it hits the airwaves, reaches print or goes online. Everyone has an opinion – the creatives, the account executives, the client and the outside researchers. These competing voices can come together in cacophony. The result is that some potentially brilliant ideas are eviscerated and left to die on the vine.

What makes a great campaign great? Many are merely mind candy: funny, emotional and memorable but not so effective at persuading consumers to buy the product. (The much-derided Pets.com sock puppet is a classic example.) Other communication concepts do an excellent job of illustrating product benefits and perhaps even the emotional benefits of using the product but they lack that hard-to-define “special sauce” that elevates an ad from the level of good, solid workmanship into the category of advertising artistry.

From a researcher’s perspective, it is of no value to tell an agency, “This ad is pretty good. It hits all the key ideas. But there’s just something missing.” They need more concrete guidance than that.

In an effort to help understand what that “something” might be, I examined the Ad Age list of the top 100 campaigns of the 20th century and also a handful of subsequent campaigns that have been recognized within the industry as both memorable and persuasive. These 113 campaigns reach across decades, span many different product categories and appeal to a wide swath of consumer groups. However, despite their diversity, they share a few common threads.

These threads form the A-B-4C model of winning advertising. The model consists of six elements that make up the core of these iconic campaigns. No single campaign includes all six elements; however, each contains at least one element – and sometimes two or three.

This should not be interpreted as an attempt to reduce the wonderfully creative process of communication development to a color-by-numbers formula. These six elements can be brought to life in an infinite number of ways. However, brands and agencies looking to create distinctive and effective messaging (which should describe everyone) would be wise to make sure that at least one of these creative elements is clearly represented. Each element has stood the test of time as a strong lever with which to move consumers.

Attribute metaphors: Depicting key attributes and product benefits using symbolism

This involves making a single product attribute a primary focus and describing it using a vivid (often amusing) metaphor.

One of the first attention-grabbing Super Bowl ads was one that Xerox ran in 1977. Beleaguered Brother Dominic toils away, copying an old manuscript by hand, before sneaking out a side door into a copy shop. That is where he runs his document through the Xerox 9200, which creates 500 copies “at an incredible two pages per second.” Dominic proudly presents his stack of copies to his abbot, who looks skyward and proclaims, “It’s a miracle!” The monastery metaphor conveys the importance of speed but gets the message across symbolically and with humor.

In the U.K. in 2000, John West Salmon was looking to emphasize the freshness of its product. A viral video viewed a reported 300 million times depicts a fisherman in hand-to-hand combat with a bear that had just plucked a fresh salmon from a stream. The man ultimately kicks the bear in the groin, escapes with the fish and (one can infer) hauls that fish back to the plant so you can enjoy it on your dinner plate.

While consumers are apt to question serious and direct product claims, brands can cleverly circumvent this skepticism by shielding their claims in a veil of absurdity. In the early days of television, Timex demonstrated the durability of its watches by putting them through a series of bizarre torture tests, including running one through a dishwasher and attaching another to a baton wedged in the jaws of a performing porpoise. The watch inevitably emerged unscathed, as newsman John Cameron Swayze proudly proclaimed, “Timex. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

Other examples of brands making brilliant use of metaphor to illustrate product attributes include Energizer, with its ubiquitous bunny serving as a symbol of the batteries’ reliability. In the late 1980s, the patently ridiculous claims of Joe Isuzu (“How fast is the new Isuzu Impulse Turbo? How does 950 miles per hour sound?”) made that character a pop culture icon and raised the profile of a previously obscure brand. Rice Krispies introduced the mischievous gnomes Snap, Crackle and Pop to both represent the sound the product makes when it is immersed in milk (a somewhat frivolous but undeniably unique attribute) and to create a fun, child-friendly image for the brand.

Brand image: Creating a provocative and differentiated image of the brand

Do real men smoke filtered cigarettes? In the early 1950s, the answer was no – and if they did, they certainly didn’t smoke Marlboro, which for years had been targeted at women and featured the tagline “Mild as May.” Enter the Marlboro Man, a ruggedly handsome cowboy, astride his steed with a Marlboro dangling from his lips. The cowboy metaphor, with all that it represents in American culture, changed the image of the brand almost overnight. Within a year of the campaign’s introduction, Marlboro catapulted from a niche player in the category to the fourth-best selling cigarette in the U.S.

Another floundering brand was Motel 6, which was struggling to differentiate itself from the growing panoply of budget motels. Beginning in the late 1980s its radio ads featured the folksy drawl and lighthearted humor of Tom Bodett, who initially improvised the now-famous tagline, “We’ll leave the light on for you.” Unlike other discount hoteliers, whose communications revolved around low price, Motel 6 has forged an emotionally appealing brand persona – like a warm, welcoming, quirky uncle, ready to welcome you into his home after your long day on the road.

IBM’s “Little Tramp” ads, which starred a Charlie Chaplin imitator, made its technology seem accessible and unintimidating in the early days of personal computing. Chrysler’s “Born of Fire” campaign projected an image of strength and resolve in the face of the existential struggles of the U.S. auto industry. The catchphrase “The Instrument of the Immortals” gave Steinway and Sons a high-end patina and boosted sales of the brand in an era when overall piano production was falling.

Consumer image: Giving the consumer something to aspire to

Many successful campaigns seem to suggest that by using a particular product or service the consumer will be transformed into (or at least perceived as) an idealized version of themselves.

The aspirational image is often extreme and likely unattainable. Most people who wear Nikes will never be world-class athletes. Most men who use Axe body spray don’t have women falling at their feet as they stroll down the street. Most people who wore Foster-Grant sunglasses in the 1960s and ’70s were not glamorous stars. Nevertheless, the often playful, Mittyesque tone of these campaigns obviously appealed to consumers’ self-concept.

A recent example is Unilever’s “Fear No Susan Glenn” campaign for Axe in 2012. One ad features a narrator earnestly reminiscing about his unrequited high school crush, the unattainable Susan Glenn. In hyperbolic terms, he recounts Susan’s many splendors. “As she approached, Susan Glenn didn’t walk. She floated, accompanied by pyrotechnic spectacles that left me feeling a foot tall,” he declares, as the visual depicts Susan ascending above the ground surrounded by a heavenly nimbus of fireworks. “In my mind, I was a peasant before a queen, so Susan Glenn and I were never a thing.” The camera then pans to our narrator, a wise and confident Kiefer Sutherland, who stares hard into the mirror and asserts, “If I could do it again, I’d do it differently.”

Nearly a century earlier, U.S. School of Music introduced a print campaign that featured the headline, “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, But When I Started to Play!” The ad is a vignette told by “Jack,” who rises to play the piano at a dinner party as his snarky friends titter about his presumed lack of musical chops. However, as his first notes ring out, “[t]he laughter dies on their lips as if by magic. I played through the first few bars of Beethoven’s immortal “Moonlight Sonata.” I heard gasps of amazement. My friends sat breathless – spellbound!” This led to an appeal to the reader to sign up for the U.S. School of Music’s series of at-home lessons.

These two campaigns reside worlds apart in time and in execution but they share an implied promise that the product will elevate the consumer to almost heroic status. The young man who uses Axe will shed his adolescent insecurities for manly confidence. The duffer musician who takes lessons from U.S. School of Music will become a virtual virtuoso.
Other brands that have successfully used this device include Nike (“Just Do It”), Wheaties (“Breakfast of Champions”), American Express (“Do You Know Me?”), and Chanel (“Share the Fantasy”).

Contrast: Using subtlety or metaphor to demonstrate how a brand is unique from a key competitor

Advertising often attempts to draw contrasts between brands. Many times, though, those comparisons are literal and somewhat ham-fisted. Memorable, iconic campaigns are more deft and metaphorical.

In 1915 Packard had begun to assail Cadillac for the reliability problems in its new V-8 engines. Cadillac fired back with an ad headlined “The Penalty of Leadership,” which ran just once in the wildly popular Saturday Evening Post. It is unlike any ad we would see today – no pictures, no mention of the brand anywhere except for a logo in the upper right-hand corner, just a page full of words. But those words packed a wallop. The copy begins with, “In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity,” and ends with, “That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live – lives.” Cadillac had issued a full-throated statement of its values (one that remained part of the Cadillac culture for more than 50 years) and dropped a rhetorical bomb on Packard – without ever mentioning its competitor by name.

Apple was a bit more direct but similarly effective in its “Get a Mac” campaign, which ran from 2006-2009. Rather than explicitly comparing the product features of Macs and PCs it cast a nerdy, slightly overweight John Hodgman to represent PCs and juxtaposed him against the younger, hipper-looking Justin Long as the face of Mac. The dopey Hodgman (PC) character bumbled his way through 66 of these memorable ads and served as a metaphor for the perceived problems with the Windows operating system, while Long (Mac) came across as the cool kid who had all the answers. As one commentator observed, “Rather than sell Macs to certain consumers, maybe these ads wanted to sell everyone on a Mac way of life.”

Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad repositioned Barry Goldwater, his opponent in the 1964 presidential election, as a war-hungry madman. Around the same time, Pepsi’s “The Pepsi Generation” campaign used images of active, vivacious young people to distinguish the brand from Coca-Cola. Southwest Airlines’ “Bags Fly Free” parodied the maddening bag fees charged by its larger competitors and framed Southwest as the traveler’s ally in the not-so-friendly skies.

Creative devices: Recurring characters or mnemonics

These creative devices can be characters that appear in a series of ads over a period of years or memorable mnemonic devices (sounds, jingles, visuals) that become synonymous with the brand.

The most effective recurring characters actually tend to be more caricature than character. These aren’t everyday folks; there is something attractively weird about them. Dos Equis’ hilarious Most Interesting Man in the World is a descendent of the exotic, eyepatch-wearing Man in the Hathaway Shirt, a 1951 creation of David Ogilvy. Both feature cosmopolitan men of means who are preposterously comfortable in their own skin. The shirt maker’s long-running print campaign “put Hathaway on the map after 116 years of relative obscurity,” wrote Ogilvy.

Progressive Insurance set itself apart from competitors in a stodgy category with the madcap exploits of Flo, the world’s most enthusiastic insurance salesperson. The United States Forest Service’s anthropomorphic ranger Smokey Bear has spent nearly 70 years warning us that only we can prevent forest fires. These odd characters become metaphors for the brand and magically imbue the brand with some elements of their robust personality.

Characters are not the only tropes that we see over and over in successful campaigns. The California Milk Processor Board used a milk mustache as a symbol of the childlike fun of its product in the long-running “Got Milk!” campaign. Absolut Vodka’s unique bottle was the centerpiece of an iconic print campaign that ran for decades. The sound of a duck quacking out the name “AFLAC!” became a ongoing symbol of that insurance company, increasing brand awareness 67 percent in two years and helping to double revenue within three years of the campaign’s rollout.

Cultural relevance: Highlighting a brand’s place within a larger cultural frame

Campaigns that tap into the cultural zeitgeist can create an intense emotional impact and drive consumer affinity for a brand. Interestingly, many brands that have used this technique over the years in the U.S. have focused on gender issues.

Dove’s long-running “Campaign for Real Beauty,” insists that every woman is beautiful, even if she does not conform to cultural stereotypes of female perfection. For example, in a 2013 viral video, women described their physical appearance to a sketch artist. Each woman was separated from the artist by a curtain so that the sketches were based solely on her own words. Next, the artist drew a second sketch based on a stranger’s description of that same woman. Inevitably the second sketch was more true-to-life – and also more flattering. Some of the women dissolved into tears when they saw the sketches side-by-side. Although “Real Beauty” has been polarizing to some extent, one estimate claims the media coverage it has generated for Dove has been worth at least 30 times more than the Unilever’s actual media buy.

More than a half-century earlier, starting in 1949, Maidenform raised eyebrows with its “Dream Campaign.” In an era in which the media typically characterized women as demure and chaste, these print ads depicted beautiful women in public places, naked from the waist up save for their Maidenform bras. One ad showed an elegant woman in a witness box, bra exposed, with the caption, “I dreamed I swayed the jury in my Maidenform bra.” Another provocatively-dressed model stares seductively from an Old West wanted poster, Stetson hat on her head and two guns in her holster, over the caption, “I dreamed I was WANTED in my Maidenform bra.” As Maidenform president Catherine Brawer wrote, “The campaign remains a classic example of wish-fulfillment psychology: the fantasy situations of the ‘I Dreamed’ ads fed women’s hunger for romance, independence and, above all, personal achievement.”

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, blue-collar men were feeling devalued as traditional manufacturing jobs disappeared and the nature of work changed. Budweiser’s “This Bud’s For You” campaign saluted that working-class man and his valuable contributions to society.

Of course, not all cultural trends center on gender politics. Coca-Cola’s famous Hilltop ad celebrated humanity’s commonality at a point in history when American society was fraying at the seams. Apple’s “1984” ad was a counterpunch against conformity and fears about the malevolent impact of technology. The Hyundai “Assurance” campaign, which helped Hyundai skyrocket from ninth in brand loyalty among carmakers to first, was an empathetic response to 2008’s economic crisis.

Similar in structure

Production values evolve over time. On the surface, a great ad produced today looks much slicker and more sophisticated than a similarly effective ad from the 1950s. However, beneath those cosmetic differences the “best of the best” are more similar in structure than they might initially appear.

Marketers need a conceptual framework for making sense of the consumer feedback they receive from communication effectiveness research and also for harnessing the gut feelings they have about advertising concepts. The A-B-4C model consists of six broad elements that have proven to be timeless in their potential to influence the mind of the market.

This model can serve as a tool not only for evaluation but also for inspiration. The six elements provide a blueprint for bold, unique communication that sends a meaningful message about a brand and its role in consumers’ lives. Because features and benefits tend to be easily imitated, the competitive advantage they provide tends to be ephemeral. A more enduring edge comes not merely from great products but from great products whose stories are well told.