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Episodic and Semantic Memory: Which to Prioritize?

In our previous blog, we covered the basics of how memories are stored in the brain long-term. To take it one step deeper, there are different kinds of long-term memories. Understanding the differences between them is important for marketers who want to nail their messaging and elicit the desired consumer behaviour.

Episodic and Semantic Memory

Conscious, long-term memories can be divided into two categories: episodic and semantic. Episodic memories are memories from our life events and experiences. They are concerned with when and where an event occurred, and how it relates to us. Semantic memories are the factual and conceptual knowledge we have about the world.

As an example, asking consumers about a specific clothing brand might elicit different responses. Some consumers might say that they remember their friend wearing a specific brand at a party and how impressed they were with how that friend looked. That’s episodic memory. Other consumers might comment on how they know the brand has ethical manufacturing processes and high-quality fabric. That is semantic memory.

Why Do Marketers Need to Know This?

A 2017 study wanted to understand the implications of these two types of memory for marketing. To do this, the researchers compared people who had used or owned a particular brand before to people who hadn’t and asked them to complete a series of tasks that would ascertain how well they remember the brand, what they remember about it and their perception of the brand. The study uncovered a number of interesting findings.

It became clear that, even if someone isn’t a user of a brand, they can still have episodic memories of it through second-hand experiences. For example, if they have a friend who has used that brand and spoken to them about it. Word of mouth can shape someone’s episodic memories of a brand – even if they haven’t personally interacted with it. This is important for marketers to consider: it’s why brand reviews and testimonials are an effective marketing tool, as is using influencers to promote the brand using their personal experiences with it.

The study also found that semantic memories significantly predict consumers’ perceived quality of the brand, while episodic memories predict consumers’ positive emotional response towards the brand (i.e. brand affect). In layman’s terms: knowing more facts and statistics about the brand made people feel like it was of a higher quality, whereas having more personal experiences associated with the brand had a positive effect on people’s emotions towards it.

What does this look like for marketers?

If your brand is focused on being seen as high quality and worth the price, your marketing should feature semantics – facts and unique selling propositions (USPs.) If you’re just looking for an overall positive affect towards your brand, create episodic memories of it for your customers. Ideally your marketing communications should be doing both, as studies have shown that both rational and emotional messaging improves purchase intention - but often more focused, single-minded messaging that hones in on either establishing semantic or episodic memories can be more effective, especially when marketing resources are limited.

Semantic memories are of course easier for marketers to control with traditional marketing techniques: facts and USPs are simple to communicate. It’s much harder to create episodic memories, which are subjective and often highly individual experiences based on a huge number of factors. One way of creating both episodic and semantic memories for a brand is to create opportunities where consumers become active partners in forming and disseminating brand knowledge. This could mean user-generated content, where you engage with your customers through encouraging them to create exciting and interesting content about your brand, or experiential marketing, where you create a whole new personal experience for customers rather than following more traditional mass-broadcast advertising avenues. If you’re not sure what these look like, we’ve highlighted some of our favourite examples below:

For user-generated content, Starbucks let their customers take the wheel for their famous cup designs. In 2014, Starbucks encouraged their customers to doodle on their takeaway cups and share the results under the hashtag #WhiteCupContest. The winners would be used for limited edition cup designs in Starbucks stores across the globe. This competition allowed customers to participate in building the brand and creating memories with it that go beyond mere experience. It also created second-hand episodic memories as people who don’t interact with the brand directly but still appreciate interesting art could check out the competition on social media and select their favourites.

Similarly, Adobe started an Art Maker Series where they asked designers to share the work they created using adobe products. This resulted in a wide range of super interesting designs with which they were able to show off their products’ capabilities. Adobe products can be quite expensive, so it was critical for potential customers to view them as worthwhile and have positive brand experiences, while Adobe also showed their appreciation for existing customers. Through user-generated content, Adobe was able to create positive episodic memories for both potential and existing customers.

Experiential marketing, by nature of usually being in-person, allows you to be specific with the customers and audience you are targeting, as well as the emotion you’re trying to elicit. However, that doesn’t mean you have to think small.

Red Bull, which has built its brand around extreme sports and pushing the limits, was able to create episodic memories in over 3 million individuals by broadcasting the highest parachute jump in the world. In 2012, professional Skydiver Felix Baumgartner launched into the stratosphere to jump to earth from an altitude of 128 000 feet. This is one of the greatest sporting stunts in world history – one that many viewers will never forget watching – and it is firmly associated with the Red Bull brand.

On a smaller, more intimate scale, Delta used experiential marketing to elicit a very particular emotion in their customers: calmness. Delta knew that many of their customers were stressed or rushed and they wanted to position their brand as a place for calm and tranquility. At a 2015 TED conference, Delta gave attendees an orb. Upon entering the designated Delta area, people could place their orb on a pedestal in front of their seat, put their hands on biometric sensors, and watch the orb change colour according to their heart rate. They were encouraged to slow down, relax, and lower their heart rate to change the colour of the orb. This was a relaxing experience for attendees, who were encouraged to keep the orb in order to remember to slow down when feeling in a hurry.

With this highly personal experience, Delta not only created positive episodic memories with their brand, but they were intentional about associating a specific emotion with their brand, which also created positive emotional affect.

While memory is just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to effective marketing, knowing more about it can help marketers gain a deeper understanding of their field. Experiential marketing can often seem like an expensive gimmick, and it can easily become that if you don’t understand exactly why you’re doing it: to create lasting episodic, emotional memories of your brand. Understanding what you’re trying to accomplish in terms of memory can also inform the kind of information you gather to inform your strategy.

With experiential or more traditional marketing, it can be difficult to know if you’re eliciting the correct emotions in your customers. With neuromarketing technology, you can be more sure. Facial coding technology can read the micro-expressions of customers as they experience a touch point of your brand, and report back on every second of that experience. This allows you to optimise your marketing to create the best possible emotional experience for your customers.

If, after reading this article you’re wondering how you can capitalise on episodic memory to create the biggest impact possible, this is a great option for you to explore.


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