Noise is the biggest hurdle facing communications today. People are exposed to hundreds – if not thousands – of messages, emails, social media posts, advertisements, group chats, app notifications, mobile games and videos every single day. Our target audiences are overwhelmed by content, and it follows them wherever they go.

So how do we, as strategic communicators, address this? How do we ensure that our messages break through this noise and reach those we want to talk to? And more than that, how do we make our content remarkable, so that it is remembered long after the next news cycle kicks in?

When creating content, marketers would do well to listen to the advice of clutter clean-up queen, Marie Kondo, by asking the question, ‘Does it spark joy?’

I’m not suggesting, of course, that only jovial campaigns can make an impact. But igniting emotion is definitely key to being memorable. In order to land your message instead of having it drown in a sea of content, you need to appeal to your audience’s emotions, which you can only do through knowing your audience well. Emotion is how stories move across media and how people connect.

Marie Kondo’s approach to combatting clutter is to discard what isn’t valuable to you, which is what people do almost unconsciously when they are faced with content overload. Audiences are forced to desensitise themselves to the multitude of messages they encounter, and so are well versed in scrolling past content that doesn’t resonate with them. As brand communicators, it is our job to stop the scroll and encourage the click. Compelling campaigns that tell a story and tap into the emotional drivers of our audience can do just that.

Sparking joy with humour

One recent campaign that really sparked joy – depending on whose side you were on – was adidas’ GOAT campaign during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Football is well known for its ardent fans, and adidas undoubtedly tapped into the debate about who the greatest of all time (or GOAT) was: Leo Messi.

As Messi is adidas’ brand ambassador, adidas’ choice was obvious from the outset. However, adidas didn’t engage in sophisticated rhetoric or reel off stats to support their choice. Instead, their tool was purely visual – a portrait of a seemingly pensive Leo Messi … with a real, live goat.

The irreverent image was simple yet immediate, explosive yet unforgettable. Of course Messi fans loved it, and devotees of other soccer stars cried foul. Even non-football lovers were amused, and unwittingly became drawn into the debate.

By juxtaposing a well-groomed, respected sports player with a hardy farmyard animal, adidas made the clear case that Messi is the only GOAT, and delivered it with a sense of humor and literal visual that they knew would be effective in communicating the belief. adidas’ choice in brand ambassador was key here, particularly as Messi is well known for shunning the spotlight. Messi has also publicly dismissed the idea of one footballer being superior, saying that he and his team play as a unit when they are out on the pitch, and not as individuals seeking glory.

The GOAT campaign also had longevity; adidas could continue to engage its audience through a wide range of media throughout the FIFA World Cup, resurfacing GOAT when it was most relevant. Twitter even speculated that Cristiano Ronaldo, one of Messi’s ‘rivals’ for the GOAT throne, had responded to Messi’s declaration by growing a goatee for some of Portugal’s World Cup clashes and celebrating his goals with a ‘goat beard’ brush to the chin. The jury is still out on this one, but the impact and reach of the campaign is clear.

Sparking joy with pride

Another recent campaign – also sports focused – that was able to successfully break through the content clutter by eliciting intense positive emotion was ‘The Pioneers’ documentary. This two-part series was commissioned by HSBC, the title sponsor of the World Rugby Sevens Series tournament, and focused on the USA Men’s Seven’s team. It chronicled the team’s journey to the World Rugby Sevens game in San Francisco last year, giving a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the professional lives of the USA players.

The HSBC Pioneers campaign had a very different aim to adidas’ Messi campaign – driving awareness of rugby sevens among an American audience. While football is a globally adored sport and needs no introduction, rugby is only ardently followed in certain countries, and the USA is not one of these countries. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that, in the USA, rugby isn’t even cared about enough to dislike it. This is a rather sad state of affairs for the USA Men’s Sevens team, which has been one of the top-performing teams in the sport since 2014, when their season ranking catapulted from 13th to 6th.

So how do you make people care about a sport they’re not familiar with, especially when they are already overwhelmed by too much content? You tell an entertaining and emotive story about the young men and women behind this sport, and appeal to their country’s sense of pride.

The HSBC documentary, which was broadcast to primetime audiences on NBCSN, transformed the USA Seven’s team into Pioneers of Sport. While adidas’ campaign used humor to make its point about Messi, HSBC exalted these young players to hero status. The documentary debut was even promoted like a movie premiere, with movie posters and multiple teasers to drive anticipation for the main film. adidas relied on humor and controversy, while HSBC took a more serious approach.

Both parts of the Pioneers documentary were launched across HSBC’s social channels and achieved more than 1.8 million views on social media. Regular influencer engagement and dozens of pieces of coverage globally made sure that the campaign went viral. Like the adidas campaign, HSBC’s documentary appealed to more than just sports fans because its story transcended the sports field. It was about determination, enthusiasm, talent and pride. It was a human story. It was a story that inspired.

Happily, in early June this year, the USA Men’s Seven’s team ended up securing a second-place finish on the 2019 circuit of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the highest they have ever been placed. Undoubtedly the USA team were spurred on to greatness because they finally felt supported by their home country.  It is also probably no coincidence that rugby is now the fastest growing sport in the US.


HSBC and adidas had two very different approaches to cutting through content clutter with their sports-focused campaigns. adidas chose the element of surprise to disrupt a crowded mediascape, while HSBC opted for instilling pride to inspire a nation’s support. But what they both had in common was the acknowledgement of how important emotion is to getting campaigns to make an impact, and how vital it is to know your audience well so you know what sparks joy in them.