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A Brand to Remember: Why Emotional Memories are Stronger

What did you have for lunch last week Tuesday?

Okay, maybe that’s a tough question. Let’s try: what did you eat at your most recent meal with a good friend?

Chances are, you had an easier time answering the latter question than you did the former. This is because the meal you had with a good friend was most likely a positive, strong emotional experience for you. It’s possible you walked away with a better sense of well-being, or you were relieved to have vented about something weighing on you. Maybe you can even remember the taste of the dessert you ate while you reminisced about a fond memory together, whereas last Tuesday’s lunch is a vague, sandwich-shaped memory. Or was it a salad?

Emotional memories are more likely to be stored by the brain and they are easier for us to recall later. Why is this?

While our brains are incredible, complex organs, they can’t remember everything. In fact, our brains must be highly selective about the memories they put the time and energy into storing long-term. One of the factors the brain uses to decide whether a memory is worth hanging onto is the strength of emotion tied to that particular fact or event.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. In order to survive, the brain would specifically want to remember things that caused distress (so that they can be avoided) or joy (so that they can be sought out again).

From a physiological perspective, it’s a little more complicated. Emotional memories are more likely to be stored because, when the body is in a heightened emotional state, our brain’s amygdala becomes activated and releases hormones involved in the fight or flight response. These hormones cause our heart rates to increase, our pupils to dilate, and blood to be redirected towards our muscles. Our perception and attention also increase so we can be vigilant for danger. While this state means we’re ready to fight or flee more effectively, it also means that the memories we create while in this state are more likely to be stored long term.

This is one of the reasons that advertising which is highly emotional in nature tends to be more effective: it’s more memorable than less emotional advertising. Take, for example, Nando’s wildly successful Mzansipoli ad. It capitalised on the emotional nature of discussing race and politics in South Africa and created a fun, cathartic, tongue-in-cheek game that somehow brought a sense of togetherness. In order to elicit strong emotions in its viewers, P&G’s Thank You, Mom campaign leveraged the intense emotion that people feel about their mothers or parental figures to deliver a sweet, memorable campaign that would cause their product to stick in consumers’ memories.

Focusing on emotion is not a new revelation. A Fast Company article in 2014 noted an increase in “Sadvertising.” This is the term coined for ads that were highly emotional in nature, often resulting in tears. A notably effective example of Sadvertising is Expedia’s “Find Your Understanding” commercial, which combines an elderly father, an estranged daughter, differences over sexuality, and a journey to a reunion. You would be hard-pressed to find a more emotional combination. While this was certainly memorable because of its content, it’s also important to note that it was effective because it linked back to the brand’s messaging: that travel is important and worthwhile. Eliciting tears, or any emotion, for the sake of eliciting it can backfire by being perceived as inauthentic. Good emotional advertising links back to the brand’s messaging and says something that feels profound or important.

Use With Caution

While it can feel like using emotion to enhance memory is a catch-all for ensuring an experience is memorable, it’s important for marketers to consider the pitfalls of eliciting strong emotional responses in consumers. While we might think of emotional memories as being crystal-clear in our minds, research shows that those memories are just as susceptible to manipulation or distortion as any other memory, if not more so.

In stressful situations, the brain will prioritize information it deems pertinent – such as direct threats or especially appealing rewards – to the exclusion of information that seems less necessary. For example, if you witness a robbery, you are more likely to focus on the weapon the assailant is holding – the direct threat to you – than you are on the perpetrator’s face. This makes a description difficult to accurately give the police after the fact. Put more simply: if you’re studying last-minute for a test and you are highly anxious, your brain doesn’t magically retain the information you’re trying to study any better.

While it isn’t a huge consideration for marketers that their consumers won’t remember every fine detail within their emotional advertising, it’s definitely a good warning not to stress customers out in the name of invoking an emotional response. For example, if you have a pop-up on your website inviting people to subscribe to your newsletter, the emotionally loaded click-away options like “No, I don’t want to be a better marketer” or “No, I don’t care about supporting small businesses” aren’t doing you any favours. Chances are, anyone actually feeling guilty over that might now be too stressed to be able to navigate your website for what they’re looking for, or they may click away altogether in favour of a more positive experience.

It's important to do an 'emotional audit' of your marketing material to insure your brand is coming through as one to remember.

References and further reading:

Cerf, M. and Garcia-Garcia, M. Consumer Neuroscience (2017). MIT Press.


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