Mining a Brand's Flashbulb Moments

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby that personality is forged by an "unbroken string of successful small gestures." And as with people, so with brands. Brand personality takes root in the soil of its own heritage and history.

Some brands have to make up a past. Others have ancestry galore to utilize if the brand's stewards can strike the right tone without relying too much on nostalgia. I call this brand mythos -- the archetypal true back-story, the legend of itself told to itself and its fans.

The rule to remember, but not to be slavishly tethered to, is mythos. Crest started out as a cavity-preventing toothpaste but evolved into an "oral care system" that appeals to nearly every age. It's a fine line to walk the organic trajectory of a brand's DNA, staying within a logic that consumers can follow while allowing the brand to be alive, vital, and continue to delight.

Why I Love this Brand

Yet, there is another aspect of mythos to consider. The personal mythos -- "How I Came to Love This Brand" -- stories. These are part and parcel of passion brand legend and lore, and are often kicked off by what researchers Harper and Michelle Roehm term "flashbulb memories." Crucial elements of the "flashbulb" phenomenon are how "vividly detailed, resistant to forgetting and enduring over time." The flashbulb event is so powerful that many of the details become bound up in a profoundly personal context.



The Roehms (academics at different universities in North Carolina) looked at the phenomenon from a marketer's perspective. They quote a 25-year-old memory as told to them of a first experience with Krispy Kreme doughnuts. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I was 11 and we were visiting my cousins, who lived in the South. As a special treat, my aunt and my cousin and I went to the Krispy Kreme one morning. There were some hot doughnuts that had just been made and we had them right after they were done. I remember the smell, the taste of the doughnuts. I remember my cousin making fun of me, because I ate mine so fast and I got glaze all over myself, on my face, my hands, everything."

Novelty, Surprise are Crucial Elements

The conclusion is clear: Novelty is crucial. A sense of surprise can produce the requisite flash. Naturally, first movers can offer such novelty cues. BuildaBear Workshop is a brand the Roehms found that met the criteria. But novelty is more than innovation. Novelty is personal. It may not be new to the marketplace, but if it's new to me there's the opportunity for a flashbulb moment.

It seems that some brands are poised to enter our lives at key moments, when a flashbulb really does go off. In my work with Hal Goldberg, who hypnotizes consumers, I always have him follow that same syntax of questions: First, what is the most powerful and most recent memory of the category? Second, what is the most powerful and most recent memory of the specific brand for which I'm consulting?

We find that these first and most powerful memories meet the criteria of the flashbulb experience. Such memories -- which are more easily accessed through hypnosis -- are wonderfully rich, detailed, sensory, and contextual. The most recent memories, however, are typically dull, flat, and disappointing. It's the dissonance between the promise of the brand experience -- as felt in those early memories -- and the letdown of the reality of today's mundane usage that points the way to reinvigorating a brand.

What we're attempting to do is to get the current personal brand story back in line with the original compelling personal narration the consumer tells herself. It is these personal narrations that are the harbingers of a brand's true equity, its profound connection woven through our personal memories. Every brand has this resource to rely upon, whether or not there is a fabulous back-story to the brand itself.

2 comments about "Mining a Brand's Flashbulb Moments ".
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  1. GR Hansen, September 22, 2009 at 12:07 p.m.

    The "Flashbulb" moment is a catchy name and a memorable tool for marketers to consider as they work to best define a brand. But waiting for and expecting such a moment may mean the true brand message slips away. The flashbulb moment is great for special occasions, but what brands need today is a message that resonates through the "everyday" moment.

    The brand promise needs to be delivered when the flashbulbs are not flashing, when moments are not so memorable, and when people really need them.

    Too often, the memories that stick are those we don't want as brand managers. The flashbulb catches us at the worst popular times. Marketers need to prepare for every moment - I would call this the Facebook moment instead of the Flashbulb. That's where people live today.

  2. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, September 22, 2009 at 12:58 p.m.

    Kate, excellent observation of the role that "surprise" plays in the realization of flashbulb moments. A lot of marketers unfortunately equate "surprise" with "exceeding expectations." That's not necessarily the case. If my car repair place delivers my car a few hours early, that exceeds my expectations, but it probably isn't a flashbulb moment that would be part of the story I carry forward. If, on the other hand, the repair place totally detailed my car as part of their service without me expecting it, that is the kind of surprise that could create a flashbulb moment.


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