Successful brands do several things well but from a communications perspective there is one common factor. A successful brand makes a greater number of people think about buying their product or service compared to their competitor, at the key moment of purchase.
Making brands "mentally available" is the raison d’être for the communications industry, but how effective is modern marketing at delivery this? Not particularly.
A study of 143 UK TV campaigns revealed that in a startling 84% of cases, consumers were unable to correctly identify which brand the advertising was supposed to be supporting. Pro rata this up and business could be wasting anywhere up to £8bn every year on advertising that simply has no effect.
We wanted to identify what marketers could do to make their brand more salient than the competition, so we worked with neuroscientist Jack Lewis (Ph.D.) of Neuroformed to identify better ways of communicating - based on how our brains really work.
The power of surprise
We are incredibly good at filtering out most of what is going on in the world around us - and this includes advertising. There is a dedicated part of the brain (the anterior cingulated), that monitors our environment for unexpected or "surprising" events. When we are surprised there is a massive spike in brain activity and among other things this leads to an improved memory of the event in question and if that happens to involve a brand, then that can also becomes more salient.
There are lots of ways brands can surprise consumers: the submarine that popped up on a Milan street to promote an insurance firm this month is a case in point. The key is coming up with new, unpredictable ways of creating genuine surprise that will be remembered and shared.
Consistent over time
That's not to say there's no value in consistency. Memories are created by changing the network of neurons in the brain. Each time we create a memory or revisit an existing memory, this network of links is changed. But it’s far easier for the brain to strengthen existing memories than start to create a new set.
Powerful brands are consistent over time, maintaining a set of defining features - Coca-Cola being a prime example. By using distinctive and ideally emotive attributes to form a brand signature, memories can be updated, rather than newly formed. This gradually builds powerful brand concepts and impregnable emotional associations.
Marketers need to review what makes their brand distinctive and make those features prominent and permanent throughout all their communications.
Integrate across different channels
The ‘matching luggage’ debate has been rumbling on for years: is it important for a campaign to look consistent across different channels? Our research found that it's crucial. Most advertising is processed by what is referred to as System 1, which means that it is absorbed at speed and without much conscious thought.
Consumers need to be able to link the different elements of a campaign together, in the moment – linking the paid, owned and where possible the earned elements of a campaign together helps consumers strengthen the brand in their memories.
Target moments of 'Cognitive Ease'
Incredibly there is a wealth of research that shows people are more easily persuaded when they are in a good mood or in a state of "cognitive ease". Dr Lewis points out that this makes biological sense; when you are in a good mood it is a sign there is no danger in the immediate environment, so it is safe to let your guard down a bit. This has a profound impact for communications and targeting people in moments when they are in a positive frame of mind, could make a significant impact into the efficacy of communications.
Everyone loves to be the first in the know and, according to Dr Lewis, this is actually hard wired into the brain. To be seen regularly sharing information that is ‘ahead of the game’, is to rise up the social pecking order and when people receive social recognition it sparks off powerful reactions in the brain’s ‘reward system’.
Our research suggests that if you want things to spread, the recipient of a message must feel like "this is news to me and to my friends". This has a real impact on behaviour and makes people much more likely to pass information on.
Context is crucial
We can all think of a £1 coin, but can we think of what it says on the coin? People struggle to recall that detail in spite of an almost infinite level of exposure.
We don’t remember because memory isn’t just about repetition, it’s primarily about building a network. We attach new memories to stronger, existing memories, building knowledge through the context in which information is received.
These help build ‘schemas’– set patterns, ideas, and expectations based on contextual cues. We have a schema for breakfast, or for a family holiday, or for a nice restaurant. Things that don’t have a regular home in these memories aren’t remembered.
These connections help us sift through the overload of information we’re exposed to. We forget or ignore that which doesn’t fit with them, creating short cuts to that which does.
For brands, this is crucial. Without a connection to other stronger memories and moments – the dominant drivers of decision making – brands can never be truly "mentally available". Think of how Bisto embedded their brand in a classic family context. Ask yourself: Where does my brand fit in the routine of consumers now? What are the contexts most likely to make them think of it?
Extend the reach
Memories fade with time if they are not revisited. This memory effect means that advertising has a much bigger role to play with "light" consumers as advertising is potentially the only contact they have with the brand.
This dramatically changes the targeting approach of most brands as there are many more light consumers. The big implication is that the consumer base is almost always much larger than you might think.
If you look at the penetration of Stella Artois for example (based on TGI data), you may be surprised that only 9% of the total drinkers are 18 to 24 year old men (the core audience for most lager advertising). What might surprise you even more is that 14% of the total base are women aged 45+. This has a profound impact on who you should target with your media, and paying the premium to access the young male audience may not be the most effective use of the media investment.
Ian Edwards is head of strategy at Aegis Media's Vizeum UK