🧠 What is the Von Restorff Effect?

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Brands spend millions every year tracking and analyzing their competition.

Why?

Because they understand this simple (but surprising) marketing truth:

When you do the opposite of what everyone else is doing, you'll capture more attention.

In other words, if your ad looks the same as every other ad, it’s going to have a hard time standing out.

It becomes like wallpaper that people just walk by and ignore.

Believe it or not, these are (left to right) ads for wine, condoms, and perfume.

Whether it’s a product shot like the ones above, banner ad on a website, a billboard in Times Square, or a Super Bowl commercial, being different makes it easier to:

  • ✅ Grab attention

  • ✅ Build your brand

  • ✅ Drive sales

But why does the simple act of being different create such big marketing impact?

It’s down to a psychological principle known as the Von Restorff Effect.

Today you’ll learn:

  • What is the Von Restorff Effect?

  • How Cadbury’s, Starburst, and Coinbase used the Von Restorff Effect to stand out and snag customers

  • Ways to use the Von Restorff Effect to grow your business (no matter its size)

👉 But before get started, don’t miss my FREE live workshop, “Intro to Buyer Psychology” happening THIS FRIDAY at noon EST (4pm UK time).

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What is the Von Restorff Effect?

The Von Restorff Effect (also called the Isolation Effect) describes how our brain searches for things that are different from their surroundings.

Like the red apple amongst the green apples, when something stands out from what’s around it we notice and remember it.

How Cadbury’s, Starburst, and Coinbase used the Von Restorff Effect to stand out and snag customers

Cadbury’s: Phil Collins and a Gorilla

Cadbury's Chocolate (UK) understood the type of ads people expected to see from its brand.

At the time they emphasized quality and were product-centric: variations on the theme of two glasses of milk and high-quality coca powder transforming into a premium chocolate bar.   

Two glasses of milk transforming into a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk

So when Cadbury’s wanted to shake things up and capture everyone's attention, they created something totally different.

They launched a now-famous ad that showed a Gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins' hit "In the Air Tonight."

In the UK and Australia, this is one of the best-known and loved commercials ever made (it never aired in the US, and as an American I didn’t hear about it until I moved to Australia).  [Watch the ad on YouTube]

Coinbase: Breaking the Super Bowl Noise

In 2022, Coinbase, the cryptocurrency trading app, showed a simple QR code bouncing on a black screen as its Super Bowl ad.

The Super Bowl is full of brash, loud, celebrity-filled and spectacle-driven ads, like the one below from Lays that featured Paul Rudd and Seth Rogan fighting their way through a series of big, expensive set pieces and even included a cameo from Keanu Reeves dressed as John Wick.

Lays Super Bowl ad, 2022

But Coinbase subverted Super Bowl ad conventions to create something attention-grabbing because of its simplicity.

There were no explosions or celebrities, just a QR code bouncing around like a screensaver on a simple black background. [Watch the ad on YouTube]

Starburst: Berries & Cream

Starburst understood that typical junk food and candy ads used bright colors, chaotic music, and close-up shots of delicious candy.

A typical Fruit by the Foot candy ad from the 00s.

That's why Starburst had to create ads that were intentionally… bizarre (even by the category standards of candy and junk food ads):

Yes, this is a man kissing / eating a statue of his girlfriend’s face made of Starburst candy.

But even by Starburst standards, their Berries & Cream ads were out of the ordinary.

The commercials were so bizarre they created a cultural movement (or at least a popular TikTok trend of folks recreating the ad and dressing like the ‘little lad who love berries & cream’). [Watch the ad on YouTube]

Bonus: Zara’s Interesting Model Poses

Zara is the blueprint for many of the fast fashion brands that dominate malls and High Streets across the world. They’re trailblazers in lots of ways, and recently went viral on TikTok for how their models show off their clothes.

Here’s just a random sample:

I wonder how this blazer will hang on my shoul… never mind.

Believe it or not this pose is supposed to be selling these jeans.

Does this jumpsuit have pockets? The world may never know.

While this may seem counterproductive to sales, it actually garnered Zara tons of free publicity and attention (and these poses are definitely memorable).

TikToker and model Remi Bader started recreating the Zara poses and the trend quickly went viral:

If you want to use the Von Restorff Effect to grow your brand start by:

  • Deeply understanding category conventions - how do brands show their products, what types of music do they use in ads, what types of product shots do they use again and again?

  • Understanding your own advertising and product conventions - what do customers expect to see in one of your ads, emails, or on your website?

  • Brainstorming how you can break expectations, conventions, and the status quo with your ads and marketing.

What You Missed in Choice Hacking Ideas Premium

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Read, Listen, Watch

  • “The Art of Scaling Taste”: How artists collective MSCHF turns crazy (but scarce) ideas in to millions of dollars a year [Read]

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  • A new way to think about strategy and business, an interview with the brilliant Roger Martin [Watch]

Until next time,
Jen

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA
Founder & MD Choice Hacking
Courses, Coaching, and Consulting to help brands use psychology, behavioral science, and AI to grow

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