This essay originally appeared on Percolate.

Brands want to be chosen by customers, and marketing as a discipline is aimed at increasing that likelihood. As a growing body of academic research shows, almost all customer purchases are at least partially memory-based. This means a critical priority in marketing and advertising is creating and reinforcing positive brand memories, associations that lead customers to buy. Multiple studies(1,2) show brand recall strongly correlates with brand selection, and is often triggered by in-the-moment needs. Strong brand and product memories translate to sales.

But how do executives ensure their teams are effectively marketing for memory? Here, a four step approach is recommended:

(1) Understand the mechanics of consumer memory – What makes a brand distinct and memorable?

(2) Perform a ‘memory audit’ of your brand – What elements and associations are memory strengths? What are weaknesses? What’s the competitive landscape, and how is your current market share (and share of voice) influencing memory rank?

(3) Strengthen your brand anchors – What are the key brand elements and associations that provide a foundation for scalable, consistent campaigns to build brand memory?

(4) Develop a communications system – How do you organize an operating architecture to develop and deploy messages that reinforce the brand?

Understanding the Mechanics of Consumer Memory

Many factors play a role in what we remember. They include how much we’re paying attention to something, how new and engaging it is, the emotional connections we have with the experience, and, interestingly, even the timing of neuron rhythms in the brain(3). Memories also have different life spans: the shortest memories last only milliseconds, whereas long-term memories can last hours, days, even years.

However, a memory is not a single, finite object. Instead, each memory is created by interconnected neuron activity in various parts of the brain. Different groups of brain cells specialize in specific types of information processing, and as one brain cell sends signals to another, the connection (synapse) between the two grows stronger. The more signals sent back and forth, the stronger the connection. That’s why memory begins with recognition, but is encoded through repetition, just like learning to ride a bike or play the piano. All other things equal, the more we experience a familiar thing, the more likely we are to remember it. And once a message or image is fully embedded in our long-term memory, it has true staying power. Formal recognition tests show a particularly important image or sound can be recognized decades after it was last experienced.

These same principles are true when we encounter brands and their messaging. After breaking down a brand’s elements, the brain starts to match the visual patterns it detects to previous experiences with similar patterns stored in memory. This includes associations like “I’ve shopped at that store,” or “this logo reminds me of this other thing.” When neuroscientists at ISMAI and the Technical University of Lisbon showed a group of people a set of fictitious and real logos, then used an fMRI to monitor their brain responses, the real logos activated additional parts of the subjects’ brains that contribute to memory and meaning, whereas the fictional logos did not. These types of associative connections are built through repeated brand exposure. Separate fMRI studies show familiar brands can even trigger biological reward signals that activate the dopamine system, which influences pleasure and motivation in the brain.

An interesting first question then, is are there any properties or characteristics about a brand – independent of its marketing, culture, people, and operating history – that help make it more distinct and memorable? In a recent study on image memorability(4), researchers found that color is weakly predictive of memory. Brighter, warmer colors like red and orange are marginally easier for subjects to remember versus colder hues like blue (ρ = -0.16), suggesting brands with warm, bright visual elements may build slightly stronger memory associations. Researchers also found objects that include words are more memorable than objects with no semantic meaning. Specifically, images or logos accompanied by one label or snippet of text are significantly more memorable than a picture alone (ρ = 0.50).

Overall however, intrinsic brand attributes are much less influential for building memory than extrinsic brand experiences: the sensory experience of seeing an Apple Watch commercial, remembering the excitement of your first MacBook purchase, seeing people nodding to white headphones during your morning commute, or reaching into a pocket a feeling the contours of your iPhone. Logo, branding and identity guidelines matter, but ultimately what matters more is what businesses do with them.

Performing a Memory Audit of your Brand

Brand audits are fairly common in marketing. Traditionally, a brand audit will analyze elements like brand strategy, standards for brand imagery and voice, and adherence to them across different regions and channels. Much less common is the idea of a memory-focused brand audit, where a simple framework is proposed below.

Stage 1 – Map the customer journey

A memory audit starts with consumer understanding. Who are they, what do they care about, and what’s their typical lifecycle for buying your brand? This can follow a more traditional customer journey sequence of awareness, education, consideration, purchase and renewal or re-purchase, or it can be tailored to the interaction stages you’ve identified with your brand’s specific buyer persona(s) and sales cycles.

Stage 2 – Connect customer lifecycle steps to memory context and retrieval cues

It’s common for consumer marketers and brand managers to measure unaided brand awareness, which tests the ability to recall the brand. Where the vast majority of market research falls short is its ability to understanding how, when, why, and where the brand is evoked in a consumer’s day-to-day experiences and thoughts, particularly because a great deal of this evocation is unconscious.

The mindset and decision-making process of your target customer is different at each discrete phase of the buying process. As someone gains exposure to your brand and moves down the path to purchase, what are they thinking about? What do they associate with your brand compared to a competitor? What memory triggers are associated with purchasing behavior? Your goal should be to identify and understand the primary feelings and associations that advance a customer to their next purchase step.

In one study, 150 people were given a glass of orange juice to drink. Some of the subjects were given juice consistently rated “good,” while others were given a different juice nine out of ten agreed tasted “bad.” An hour later, half the group was shown advertising that indicated the juice they drank was made with high quality ingredients to deliver a fresh taste. When the two groups were asked to describe the juice they drank, only 26% of people who saw the ads correctly remembered what their glass actually tasted like, compared to half of the control group. The ads changed how they remembered the original experience, even down to the words they used to describe it.

Whether you sell orange juice or automobiles, identify your equivalent of “high quality ingredients,” “fresh taste,” and its complementary media – the key benefits the brand must reinforce. These associations operate on a more subconscious level than your brand’s promise, purpose or product positioning, but represent a critical part of the behavior chain. Generating consumer retrieval cues for them should be a central goal of your advertising.

Stage 3 – Audit brand strategy and delivery vehicles for memory impact

Once you understand the effect – or, in this case, affect – your marketing and advertising needs to deliver, the next challenge is identifying how to program it systematically.

A brand is an idea system, the sum of different associations that creates a common identity. This system is brought to life through a network of elements that range from mission statements and editorial guidelines, to fonts and color palettes, all the way to office decoration and customer service interactions. The tighter the network and the more distinct each element or interaction, the easier it is for customers to remember the brand.

A memory-focused brand audit tests seven important questions across business documents, communication channel analysis, stakeholder interviews, competitive research, and other inputs. Two of the questions are global in scope. The remaining five focus on in-market brand tactics.

Seven Questions to Assess Brand Memory-Building

Global (Strategic)

1) Big Story: Does the brand have a single global story, mission or theme that’s consistent across all communications?

2) Identity System: Does the brand have a distinct verbal and visual system that’s represented and repeated across all communications?

Local (Tactical Execution)

3) Consistency: Do campaigns and each of their communication elements reinforce the same brand system?

4) Clarity: Will customers associate these communications with the brand?

5) Impact: What retrieval cues are these campaign communications delivering, and are they being delivered through the most emotionally engaging form(s) of media available?

6) Reach: Where and in how many different places will the brand’s target audience be exposed to these communications?

7) Frequency: How often will the target audience be exposed to these communications?

Every brand has a system, and every effective advertising campaign has a communications architecture designed to capture consumer attention and build memory.

Strengthening Your Brand Anchors

Performed thoughtfully, strengthening your business’s anchor brand elements to better activate customer intent will deliver powerful business results. When Barry Herstein left American Express to become CMO of PayPal in 2007, he launched a research program to identify customers’ most positive associations with the service. His study found PayPal’s strongest memory association was ‘speed’ — PayPal was winning mindshare as the fastest way to transfer money and buy things online. With these insights in hand, Herstein launched a global rebrand to align the brand’s identity and positioning more closely with speed. Within months, the new, “faster” PayPal brand saw signups, click-throughs and email response rates to its digital messaging increase 300-400%.

The primary anchor elements of a brand are its vision, mission, and values – the three attributes that underpin corporate identity and purpose. For Nike, its vision is to “create products, services and experiences for today’s athlete, [and solve] problems for the next generation,” which guides a mission to “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” while upholding values like innovation, sustainability, and design.

Every subsequent move the brand makes, from its iconic swoosh logo and culture-shaping slogans to product releases and athlete endorsements are engineered around these foundational pillars. Other key brand anchors like market positioning, brand voice, and visual identity can only be cultivated successfully once every employee and team understands the brand’s true purpose.

The Six Identity Anchors of a Brand


(1) Vision
(2) Mission
(3) Values
(4) Marketing Positioning
(5) Voice and Tone
(6) Look and Feel

The effect of strong brand anchors may be clearest when a business visibly changes one. Decades of market share leadership and consistent advertising have made Coca-Cola’s anchors so rich that the brand intentionally removed its logo from soft drink cans in the Middle East during the month of Ramadan.

The blank, minimalist cans brought attention to prejudice and social stratification, relaying the message “labels are for cans not for people.” But customers still identified the cans as Coca-Cola, thanks in part to the brand’s signature red and accompanying white swirl, and beverage sales increased across the region.

Building a Communications System

Today, brand anchors and memory associations – as well as the inconsistencies and missteps that erode them – travel faster than ever. Ecosystems like Facebook and Google are borderless, and their global reach stretches into the billions. In this new media landscape, brand strategy must incorporate structure that channels the brand’s purpose and systemizes its verbal and visual cues. Consistent repetition of content that triggers a positive emotional response is the foundation of building favorable brand memory, and marketing leaders needsystems and creative supply chains to deliver it.

One of the most important steps to meaningful brand reinforcement is strengthening the bridge between global brand anchors and the local teams, agency partnerships, and campaigns that distribute them. This connective middle layer or “brand operating system” should balance consistency and flexibility, giving local markets global toolkits, resources, and brand guardrails, while still enabling regional customization and agility. This system should support consistent brand guidelines, digital asset management practices, brand approval workflows, and cross-team and cross-channel planning.

At global CPG giant Unilever, the parent of brands like Dove, Axe, and Lipton, a multi-year project is underway to centralize all marketing asset management, image editing, and digital content review into a single, standardized process across all of its brands and regional, worldwide. While this initiative is still ongoing, Unilever has already captured efficiencies and economies of scale that reduce its operating costs by millions of pounds annually. Even more importantly however, Unilever’s new global standards ensure customers always see brands that are consistent across TV, retail, social media, and print – in other words, ones that are better engineered for consumer memory.

More and more, studies confirm that customers’ actions and tastes are significantly influenced by memory-driven brand preferences. By better understanding how memory works, building strong, stable, top-level identity anchors, then developing a communications system to reinforce those anchors, your brand can shape rich, relevant memories that guide purchasing decisions. Ultimately, brands that effectively market for memory will speak louder, travel further, and mean more to the people who buy them.

Sources:

  1. Nedungadi, P. and Hutchinson, J. W. (1985) ‘The prototypicality of brands: Relationships with brand awareness, preference and usage’, in Hirschman, E. C. and Holbrook, M. B. (eds.) ‘Advances in Consumer Research’, Association for Consumer Research, Provo, UT, Vol. 12, pages 498–503.
  2. Holden, S. J. S. and Lutz, R. J. (1992) ‘Ask not what the brand can evoke: Ask what can evoke the brand’, Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 19, No. 1, pages 101–107.
  3. Rutishauser, U., Ross, I.B., Mamelak, A.M., and Schuman, E. (2010) ‘Human Memory Strength Is Predicted by Theta-Frequency Phase-Locking of Single Neurons’, Nature, Vol. 464, pages 903–907.
  4. Isola, P., Xiao, J., Torralba, A., Oliva, A. (2011) ‘What makes an image memorable?’ IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR). pages 145-152.
  5. Walvis, T. (2008) ‘Three laws of branding: Neuroscientific foundations of effective brand building’, Journal of Brand Management, Vol. 16, pages 176–194.
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