Editor’s note: Sam Salama is senior research executive at Basis, London. 

While marketers are obsessed with logical and linear frameworks, all brands must face an inconvenient truth: much like the consumers they appeal to, brands are inconsistent and elusive entities with an existence driven more by paradoxes and contradictions than any reliable measure.

Effective advertising can be transformative – econometric data shows that on average, ads (across all media) deliver a total profit ROI of £3.24 in the long term.

Yet on the individual level advertising rarely persuades or converts consumers. And much to the dismay of marketers, it struggles to create brand advocates who buy the brand and nothing else. 

Imagine a world where advertising did have this magical persuasive ability. Brand growth would come from buyers who were extremely frequent, 100% loyal and who considered it to be highly differentiated among the competition.

In the real world we see the exact opposite. Brands rely on lots of very infrequent buyers to grow. These buyers purchase multiple brands in a given category. And they see brands in the category as largely similar. 

So, what does advertising do? Its role is to provide a gentle nudge. It slightly increases consumers’ willingness to buy a brand at the moment of purchase by reminding them the brand exists and building memorable associations in their head. 

Humble work for such a transformative tool.

A central principle of neuroscience is that the brain is hardwired to save energy. It operates mostly on autopilot – ignoring most information and noticing only the unexpected and out of the ordinary. This means that for advertising to cut through, it needs to break expectations, showing something surprising or different. 

But for ads to be processed by consumers they must reinforce existing brand associations: they must stay the same. More consistent ...