Commentary

Root Your Brand in Consumer Memory

Advertising is ultimately an exercise in shaping the memories and associations that consumers hold of a brand. And memory, as we know from neuroscience, is a lot more complicated than we originally thought. The old model of memory oversimplifies the much more complex processes that occur in the brain when a consumer interacts with the many touch-points of a brand. 

Endel Tulving, the senior editor of the Oxford Handbook of Memory, described three primary memory systems in the brain: the semantic, episodic, and procedural (or physical). In practical terms, we can equate this to marketing to the head, the heart, and the hand (or the senses in general). This three-dimensional model of memory represents a significant shift in viewpoint from the simplistic “rational” versus “emotional” approach that is frequently used to frame the discussion about how advertising works to build a brand. 

Although there’s not an exact formula, using advertising to speak to your consumers across all three can better root your brand in your consumer’s memory. Let’s look at some examples of the three memory systems at play in advertising.

The semantic memory is the rational, logical, data-driven part of the brain. Semantic messaging is common when introducing a new product or announcing product improvements. Ads heavy in semantic messaging might include a special price offer, product ingredients, the word “new,” or an announcement of a holiday sale or promotional event. This DerMend ad is almost entirely semantic in nature. While rational messaging can drive a behavioral shift, it often helps to combine semantic communication with episodic and physical or sensory elements to improve the impact of an ad.

The episodicmemory system is based on personal, autobiographical memories including our sense of the world and the people around us. Communications that build episodic memories largely focus on human emotions, interactions and relationships (live characters or trade characters). They can even include the body language and non-verbal expressions of a presenter talking to the audience. These types of memories address, “How do I feel about these characters and the situation they’re in?” “Can I relate to the experience?” “Do I want to be in that situation?” This Sabra ad engages consumers through the social and emotional impact of sharing a snack. 

The Sabra ad also demonstrates the physical act of dipping the hummus. This engages the third memory system, the procedural memory system, which triggers our “physical self” and our senses. At a basic operational level, procedural memories tell us how to perform physical activities like riding a bicycle. Strong advertising often evokes a sensory reaction (e.g., the tactile reaction to cheese stretching on a slice of pizza) and a “rehearsal behavior” (e.g., the physical act of a bite-and-smile).

Our understanding of the power of the physical memory system increased significantly in the 1990’s with the discovery of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons fire in our brains when we watch someone else perform an activity. When we watch someone in a commercial enjoying some hummus or washing their hair or touching an iPhone screen, our mirror neurons react as if we are actually performing the action ourselves. Effectively we are mentally “rehearsing” an action —it’s what we call “virtual consumption.” This can help build a memory of using a product when, in fact, the consumer may have never interacted with it in person. This Johnson’s ad relies heavily on procedural imagery. The act of applying lotion and physically bonding with the baby demonstrates how it will feel to use the product.

As a simple mnemonic, remember “Head, Heart, and Hand” and craft your marketing and advertising to build a robust set of memories in the mind of the consumer. Leverage all three memory systems to build a three-dimensional brand. And when evaluating your next creative output, ask yourself is the idea is speaking to the head, the heart and/or the hand.

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