Memory 101: Everything a Marketer Needs to Know
Should the scenes and scenarios for home product ads take place in the home (where the product is used) or in the grocery store (where the product is purchased)? Why do we trust a brand more if a celebrity endorses it, or if it sponsors an event we’re interested in? Is the mere frequency of playing an ad effective in creating purchase intention, even if immediate brand recall is poor? These are all important questions for marketers to know the answers to, and they all share a common theme: memory.
On the surface, it seems obvious that marketers should have an understanding of memory and how it works: everyone wants their brand to be memorable. However, memory informs much more than just whether people will recognise your product on the shelves. Memories are responsible for the success or failure of several creative marketing techniques, which is why it’s critical for marketers to understand how memory works.
In our next five blog posts, we’ll be covering different aspects of memory that are critical from a marketing perspective. To get started, we’re going to cover the key parts of the brain responsible for memory, and how marketing techniques are unwittingly structured around them.
Memory is defined as the ability to process and store information, retain that information, and be able to recall and use that information at a later stage.
When things first happen to us or we learn something new, they are short-term memories. If the brain considers them important to us, it converts that information to long-term memory so that we can recall it as needed later. The brain must be careful about what information it expends energy on to convert into long term memory. There are two key areas of the brain related to memory that you should know about: the hippocampus and the neocortex.
The hippocampus is located deep in the brain, just above the brain stem. It is one of the most interconnected areas of the brain, with one of its key functions being memory. Specifically, the hippocampus is responsible for encoding short-term memories into long-term memories. Short-term memories (also called working memories) are the information that you get from your immediate and recent surroundings. Your brain decides which parts of that information are important, then encodes that into long term memories so you can recall that information as needed later. The brain is also very selective about what information it expends energy on to convert into long term memory.
A classic example of how the hippocampus works – and why it’s important – is patient HM. He had his hippocampus surgically removed in order to stop his debilitating seizures. As a result, he couldn’t form any new memories. He could remember his childhood and events leading up to his surgery and he could learn new skills with his hands, but he couldn’t form new memories of his day-to-day life. His doctors had to reintroduce themselves every time they walked into HM’s room, even if they had just had a conversation with him a few hours before.
The hippocampus tends to sort memories based on where they happened. This is why you can walk into your childhood home and suddenly remember parts of your childhood that you thought you had forgotten, or why when you’re at the grocery store you suddenly can’t remember what you were there to fetch: you encoded that information in your home, so it’s harder to recall it in a different environment. Consequently , many home cleaning products tend to have their ads set in a kitchen, laundry room or store environment so that you’ll associate their brand with that kind of location.
The neocortex is the outer area of the brain. It has a variety of functions besides its involvement in memory, such as language and hearing. This is by design: memory is critical to many of the functions your brain carries out, like being able to communicate or understand a sound that you are hearing. The neocortex is where long-term memories are stored after being transferred from the hippocampus.
Unlike the hippocampus, which sorts memories according to where they happened, the neocortex stores memories in “associative memory networks.” To understand this, it’s helpful to think that memories are less like a card catalogue of information and more like a network. Memories that are strongly associated are stored closely and connected, so that when one memory is activated, it can trigger other pieces of information, too. For example, if you hear the word “orange” you might think of the fruit, the taste of that fruit, the colour, your beloved childhood cat, and the Dutch football team. The information associated with “orange” was activated all at once.
The way the neocortex organises memories is why it’s important for a brand to develop as many positive, linked associations as possible. If you sell running shoes, you want your brand associated with absolutely everything that could be associated with the action of running. You also want to build and own unique brand assets that also have a strong association with running - everything from your corporate identity (brand name, logo, fonts, colours, sounds/mnemonics) to the sports events, personalities and influencers you sponsor. This seems obvious but it’s why Red Bull sponsors extreme events - there is a perfect fit between both the brand promise and intrinsic benefits of the product (extreme energy) and the adrenaline and excitement of extreme sports . Similarly, Rolex sponsors tennis and yachting events so that they are associated with affluence and the sight of a winning athlete or a sleek boat brings a Rolex to mind. There are many more ways that this network of memory storage informs marketing techniques, including:
Implicit Memory and The Mere Exposure Effect
Even if we don’t specifically remember information, because it hasn’t been encoded into long-term memory, we can be aware that we definitely saw it at some point. Studies show that, even if you don’t remember a brand or seeing ads for it, you would still recognise it as familiar because you’ve been exposed to it. Not only that, but we tend to feel more positive about information that we’re familiar with. For marketing, this means that purchase intention increases with how familiar someone feels with a brand – even if they can’t remember when or where they were exposed to it.
British Channel 4 demonstrated this with a simple but fascinating study. They asked participants to rate two photos of their significant other and two photos of themselves. The only difference between the photos in each set was that one was the mirror image of the other. Participants rated the non-mirror image photo of their partners and the mirror image of themselves as more attractive. Why this combination? Because participants are more familiar with seeing their significant other as-is, whereas they see themselves most often in the mirror. People have a higher affinity for the versions they’re most familiar with.
For marketers, this shows why it’s so important to get your brand out there, even if you feel like people aren’t noticing it or engaging with it. With the mere exposure effect, you can create familiarity just by being noticed in as many places as possible and getting eyes on your brand as often as possible. This is why “impressions” are a useful metric on social media: they have a cumulative effect. Consumers are more likely to choose a brand that they’re vaguely familiar with over one that feels totally new.
This is just a small aspect of how memory works in advertising. In the next couple of blogs, we’ll be exploring the different types of memory, story-telling in advertising, emotional memories and how brands can strive to be as memorable as possible.
Cerf, M. and Garcia-Garcia, M. Consumer Neuroscience (2017). MIT Press.