Brands must demonstrate a far greater understanding of the complex and crucial role memories play, often unconsciously, in the choices made by consumers.
Understanding the present and predicting the future
From the moment we are born, we use memories to help us understand the world around us. We understand the present and predict the future consequences of our actions based on memories of previous experiences: in the words of Tennessee Williams. "Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you hardly catch it going."1
Imagine if there was such a thing as brand amnesia, when the catalogue of associations and memories you had built up about brands had been wiped. The supermarket would become an (even more) terrifyingly bewildering place. We would have nothing by which to navigate our way through our choices, no reference points against which to orientate ourselves and no context against which to judge different options. Memories, therefore, also play a vital role in our brand choices - we make decisions based on memories of previous experiences and associations with the brand, which help predict the outcome of our choice. Hence, memories provide familiarity and security, and even when we are seeking exciting new experiences, we use existing memories of similar experiences to indicate whether a choice will have the desired (positive) outcome.2
Getting brands remembered
The primary role of any brand communication is therefore to contribute something to enhance people's memory of the brand, preferably for a prolonged period of time. But in the panic ensuing from an increasingly overcrowded media environment, the main concern of advertisers has become how to get a brand noticed at all, with seemingly little concern for the longevity and impact of the communications on longer-term memories of the brand. The issue of brand salience is occasionally considered,3 but this still tends to be in terms of what new message can be used next to get attention and keep the brand front of mind. This merely results in new message after new message being layered over each other, with little consideration for what has gone before or the resulting impact of the communications on the memory.
In everyday parlance, the term "memory" describes an event consciously memorised and/or relatively easily consciously recalled and articulated - for example, memorising notes for a presentation, or remembering a funny thing that happened on the Tube on the way to work. And this is generally the extent of brands' concern with "memory", too. As a result of the desperate desire to get a brand noticed now, disproportionate emphasis has been placed on the importance of immediate, consciously retrievable memory. Do people remember seeing the ad? What do they remember about it? Are they remembering the message we want them to remember? All of this tends to be the focus of pre-testing and tracking research. And there is a role for this type of memory. But these "easy wins" of easily consciously recalled memories are just the tip of the iceberg, and are not necessarily what we should be looking for in terms of what is really going to drive consumer preference and behaviour.
Implicit or non-declarative (unconscious) memories are not as readily consciously retrievable or as easy to articulate, and so do not receive the same level of attention from advertisers as conscious memories. However, it is these which are arguably a much more powerful and useful resource in communication, and should, therefore, be given much more consideration. It is implicit memories which provide us with the emotional "gut" responses4 which are so influential in our brand preferences and decision-making, as they are instantaneous, effortless and unconscious, and so not subject to rational scrutiny.5 Implicit memories are also more easily processed than explicit ones, as they require no cognitive resource, and are not just about what people recall, but how they actually behave, as they are a driver of urges and actions.6 They are also linked with Robert Heath's Low Attention Processing theory, as they are influenced by the passive incidental associations he described. So it may not be an explicit message or line which influences behaviour, but images and implicit memories passively associated with product7 (although some level of cognitive, explicit learning is always required to achieve brand linkage).8
Hence there is so much more to memory than immediate conscious recall which needs to be considered: unconscious (or implicit) memories, long- and short-term memory, positive and negative, and didactically and experientially learned memories. All these need to be understood and applied to form a new way of thinking about the role of memory in brands and communication. This paper will therefore outline (as far as it is known and understood) the physiological and neuroscientific explanations of how memories are formed, stored and retrieved, the application of this theory to the formation of brand perceptions, and some relevant psychoanalytic thinking on the subject, to show how memory in its fullest sense can and should be used to create more powerful brand memories in the future.
The role of conscious memory
The current desire to keep pushing on with new messages of news to keep a brand front of mind therefore results in the consideration of memory in communications development being limited to techniques for getting messages consciously assigned to memory. This concern has its roots in the original hierarchy of effects models such as AIDA (attention drives interest drives desire drives action). Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, not least Heath's theory of Low Attention Processing (that messages and associations can find their way into the memory without your having noticed or paid conscious attention to their source),9 there is a residing belief among many advertisers that a consciously registered and remembered product message must be at the heart of any communication which is to drive any action on the part of the consumer.
There are various ways in which such conscious memory formation can be aided in communication. As we all know from our own experiences of exam revision and preparing for presentations, memorisation is aided by repetition. Memories are essentially pathways in the brain, so, to use Heath's analogy, just as a route through a field of grass will become clearer and clearer the more it is re-trodden until it becomes a distinct and easily followed path, so repeating a route to a memory creates a path of least resistance in the brain which becomes increasingly easy to follow.10 Writing something down (whether a speech or phone number) also helps us to consciously assign it to memory. So, any situation in which a consumer has to similarly internalise, process and regurgitate something will also help it stick in the memory. Simplification is another important tool: rather than trying to memorise lots of detail word for word, gradually whittling it down to core "marker posts", which come to represent the detail previously surrounding them, means these are all you have to remember (as when using cue cards in a presentation). These marker posts act as navigation tools to help you find your way back to the memory, and consequently have to be in a cohesive order to tell a story. Memory champions construct stories linking their lists of things to be memorised in a linear pattern, so that all they need is the starting point, and it all flows from there (as with mnemonics).
In communications, we can therefore aid the formation of conscious memories by adhering to the same principles - setting out clear marker posts in a coherent order by telling a continuous, cohesive story. There are also specific executional elements which can be used as brand marker posts. Rhymes, music, mood and colour are just a few examples of things which can become strongly associated with a brand, and hence cause it to be recalled when seen or heard in isolation. Such cues can therefore help drive brand salience, as the more separate cues there are strongly connected to a brand, the more frequently one of these will be encountered in isolation, bringing the brand to mind of its own accord11 - for example, the colour red for Coke, or the letter "M" for McDonald's. However, there is evidence to suggest that such elements which aid recognition of ads through conscious memories12 may actually hinder the formation of potentially more useful implicit memories.
There are also various types of conscious memories which can be used as executional devices in themselves. Nostalgia is often used to evoke powerful existing positive memories from the past to be associated with the brand, as in the "harking back to the good old days" in the Hovis ad. "Flashbulb" memories contain amazing amounts of detail surrounding the experience of a dramatic or traumatic event, which can therefore be reproduced to prompt a powerful identification with the situation ("remember where you were when ..."). This can subsequently be associated with a brand - as in the KitKat 1966 World Cup ad. And self-referral ("remember when ...", or "you know how ..."), implicating the audience in a particular memory (whether genuinely experienced or not), can create "false" memories or the sense of communal memory of having been part of something. But the key to effective evocation of memory is authenticity, and there is a limit to the ways in which these can be used to the benefit of a brand without appearing false or exploitative.
So there are ways in which memory is taken into account in current communication, albeit limited to the conscious memorisation required by a hierarchy of effects model. But there have also been models developed subsequent to this which do assign greater importance to the role of memory, dating back as far as Andrew Ehrenberg's reinforcement model of the 70s13 and, more latterly, Tim Ambler's model of Memory Affect Cognition. However, these all seem to fall by the wayside when it comes to putting them into practice. The fact that many of the most powerful forms of memory are not accessible to consumers for retrieval and articulation, and that attempting to elicit them through questioning has an irreparable effect on their content and form through the phrasing of the question and other factors, makes memories an infuriatingly insubstantial entity for advertisers seeking concrete evidence of the effect of their media spend. As the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza observed: "Men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined."14
The science bit
The case for memories is not helped by the fact that no-one is actually quite sure how they work at all. As Richard Dawkins says in The God Delusion, anything man cannot explain for himself, such as how memories are formed, we put down to God's doing.15 However, there are obviously theories as to how memories are formed in relation to the physiology of the brain, how stored memories are then physically manifested in the brain, and how brand perceptions are constructed relative to all this. And despite coming from different schools of thought and even different disciplines, there is a consistent theme across all of these. This is that memories are not consistent entities. They are not "carbon copies of the experiences that created them", but "reconstructions at the time of recall, and the state of the brain at the time of recall can influence the way in which the withdrawn memory is remembered".16 Hence, a memory is a construct of lots of different bits of other memories and associations which are drawn out by the stimulus presented, and will be subject to alterations, omissions, additions and exaggerations according to the situation in which it is recalled.17 For example, your fifth birthday party might be recalled as a negative memory if the image of a bouncy castle prompts you to remember falling off it and grazing your knee at the party. But a completely different memory of the same event could be prompted by an image of the Hungry Hippos game given to you by your best friend, which you played with for hours afterwards, with an entirely different set of positive emotions attached.
When we are presented with an object, the symbol or cue presented is consciously registered as an explicit memory in a part of the brain called the hippocampus (part of the limbic system, which contributes to memory formation). This has a limited capacity, and can only hold a few pieces of information at once for short periods of time. So, to give the explicit memory meaning and emotional significance,18 it is matched with implicit emotional memories stored in the amygdala (also part of the limbic system, and which is responsible for processing emotional reactions as well as memories), which make us understand what it is we are looking at.19 For example, when we see an image of an apple, the visual cue is registered in the hippocampus, and matched with memories from the amygdala about what to do with it, what it tastes like, and memories of past experiences of apples, so that we understand the significance of what it is. The hippocampus is therefore like a cloakroom attendant, who receives your stimulus "ticket" in his little booth, while the various items matching your ticket are retrieved from the cavernous coat rack of the amygdala.
The implicit memories stored in the amygdala also act as heuristics, or short-cuts, to help our decision making. By instantaneously matching the stimulus provided with memories of past events and their outcomes, the amygdala provides us with an immediate emotional reaction before a conscious evaluation and response has time to occur. For example, when we see something which looks like a snake, it is the amygdala providing associations with snakes and danger which makes us react physically by jumping back as a precautionary measure, before we have had time to consciously evaluate whether the object is in fact a snake or just a stick, and what the implications and required response might be if it is.20 The amygdala is therefore also the source of the "gut reactions" we experience when we are faced with a brand choice, which prevent us from spending all day rationally weighing up the pros and cons and possible outcomes of each option21 (like the chess-playing computer Deep Blue, which very quickly rationally assesses every potential move and its consequences in order to choose the right move to make). So, by ensuring that the right positive memories are there to contribute to this initial gut reaction, we can help put a brand ahead of the game before rational consideration of other factors, such as price or assessment of competitors' attributes, have had time to come in to play.
Memories are physically manifested in the brain as a chemical trace called an engram.22 A brand is therefore made up of a series of engrams linked together from all the various bits of stimulus and experiences encountered to do with the brand. And not all of these will be purely positive. There are also likely to be negative memories, possibly derived from outcomes of previous experiences. These negative memories form "somatic markers", which, when activated by a piece of stimulus, arouse an emotional response as an alarm bell warning us against that action or choice. So (similarly to the amygdala), somatic markers help us make decisions more efficiently by reducing the number of possible options with an instant emotional response.23 Equally, positive somatic markers help draw attention to potential positive outcomes, even if they are subsequent to initial unpleasantness. This then makes the unpleasantness worth enduring.24
A recent paper by Millward Brown has attempted to apply the theory of memory formation to the development of brand perceptions.25 It proposes that brand perceptions are comprised of implicit memories, called "tags", from three different "modules": knowledge (associations and things we know about the brand), feelings (emotional information used to evaluate and assign a value to something) and actions (what you do with it - eat it, play with it, etc - and the physical action this requires). In order for a brand to achieve consideration at the crucial time of decision (that is, achieve salience), the correct tags from each module must achieve access to the mental workspace in order for the "representation" of the brand to be formed and consciously recognised.26 This, according to Millward Brown, points to a need for a set of strong, clear tags, in order for a representation to be quickly and easily constructed, and the brand bought to mind.
Memories are what you make of them
What all of these theories have in common is the idea that a memory is not one consistent cohesive entity, but is made up of a series of memories and associations combined together. One overarching analogy for the memory of a brand is therefore the idea of a "brand molecule" made up of a selection of different memory "atoms"27. For example, McDonald's used to conjure up memories and associations with burgers, plastic tables, clowns and ketchup. These, in turn, link with fat, discomfort, children's parties and stains. And so on, including memories of actual experiences, communication messages, things other people have said, etc. Part of the power of memories is therefore their very inaccuracy - it's not the reality of what they recall which matters, but what they mean to you. What something reminds us of can be far more important than what it is.28 Hence, brands must appreciate that any message they want to communicate, and indeed consumers' perceptions of the brand overall, will never be stored or remembered in its pure form, but as part of a much more complex and constantly evolving construct.
Advertising is consequently not just about providing new information to create new memories, but (perhaps more importantly) drawing out existing conscious and unconscious memories to work with to create new meaning and understanding. Hence, advertising can be likened to a kind of brand psychotherapy, as both are concerned with changing minds by taking an unproductive old story (existing brand memories), a promising new story (new elements presented in communication) and a powerful format in the guise of a dream (or piece of communication) to bring someone to a new understanding.29
Learning from your experiences
The observation that all thought activates the content of the memory, meaning that everything is filtered through one's own experience and there is no such thing as objective knowledge, was also made by the post-Freudian psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. From this, Bion also drew a distinction between learned (or "didactic") thought, and "experiential" thought. Didactic thought comes from an external source and is consciously acquired (ie. through explicit memories). Experiential thought, on the other hand, originates internally from your own experience (implicit memories), and while its inception is unconscious, it can be made conscious if the thinker is receptive to it and can vocalise it. As this originates in a personal emotional response to an experience, it changes the learner in the process, whereas didactic learning merely adds to their stock of information from an outside source.30
There is obviously a role for both types of learning within communications, although the balance in general lies too far in favour of the didactic variety. But there are some interesting exceptions. The Daz "Doorstep Challenge", although containing an explicit didactic message about the quality of cleaning, also points to more experiential learning. Women were depicted as having found out for themselves how good Daz really is at getting whites white. This then gave the brand permission to communicate this message explicitly (and didactically) to the wider viewing audience through testimonials. In contrast, the side-by-side competitor comparison demo (the Procter & Gamble mainstay of product efficacy) is entirely didactic, with the consumer expected to actively receive and accept this incontrovertible evidence of product superiority. This is indicative of a desire on the part of advertisers to present the brand in the best possible light, as purely good, contrasted with a competitor who is purely bad. But if (as we've seen) our perceptions of the brand are comprised of a selection of memories which will include negative as well as positive elements, such a relentlessly positive approach will not fit with our own experiences, will not feel "real", and will result in didactic rather than experiential learning.
Paranoid-schizoid behaviour in brands
This tendency to convey only positive messages and cues in communication also results in brands falling into what Melanie Klein (another post-Freudian psychoanalyst) defined as a paranoid-schizoid state.31 This is when things are compartmentalised as definitively all good or all bad, and it is impossible for the same object to be seen to contain elements of both - in other words, when there is an incapacity for ambivalence.32 Putting a brand on such a pedestal not only risks it having further to fall and consumers being less forgiving of it when, in reality, it fails to live up to idealised expectations, but also means it does not fit with the memories of our own experiences. This can result in cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable sensation of something you are told not fitting with previous beliefs, and the subsequent alteration of these beliefs in order to alleviate the discomfort. This results in the reality of the complexity of the experience being distorted and the paranoid-schizoid state being maintained so that we do not allow ourselves to learn from our experiences.
But by permitting ambivalence to arise through the acknowledgement of bad as well as good elements and memories, a brand will not only sit more comfortably with the consumer's own experience, but will allow the mind to grapple with conflicting elements and come to its own conclusion through its own experiential learning. This, therefore, involves greater mental (if unconscious) engagement and significance than merely assigning a purely good didactically received message to memory. Another parallel can therefore be drawn here with the process of psychotherapy, where the therapist provokes and provides both good and bad elements for the patient to work with, but as long as the experience is fruitful and provides new learning, on balance the experience is good and assigned as a positive experience (learned experientially) to the memory.
Ambivalence in advertising
Advertising arouses ambivalence by its very nature. As soon as it intrudes into whatever activity a consumer is engaged in at the time, feelings of annoyance based on memories of dull advertising of no interest or entertainment value will be at odds with feelings of curiosity based on memories of ads which have provided useful relevant information or rewarding entertainment in the past. But ambivalence can also be aroused by the execution itself, whether explicitly, consciously and didactically or implicitly, unconsciously and experientially. Ambivalence can be provoked explicitly through the overt message of the ad. For example, in the McDonald's ad in response to the Super Size Me film, by acknowledging where the film was right about certain negative aspects of the brand, it earned the "right" to point out where the film was wrong and highlight more positive aspects of the brand. These conflicting positive and negative elements resulted in feelings of ambivalence and allowed consumers to come to their own conclusions through experiential learning. But ambivalence can also be induced in less conscious, more subtle implicit forms through cues, symbols, tonality or the emotions evoked by communications.
Consider the most popular, successful and enduring campaigns in advertising history. R Whites' "secret lemonade drinker", despite having an explicit message about how irresistible it was, also had negative implications of illicitness and addiction implicit in the execution - sneaking around in the night secretly indulging. Smash, in using the Martians device, suggested that although modern and convenient, the product was also overly processed and unnatural. More recently, Guinness, in an age where convenience and instant gratification rule, actively highlights the fact that you have to wait ages for it to be served. Honda's "grrr" openly provokes negative memories of diesel engines. And rather than pretend that everything is rosy, Tesco purposefully acknowledges that it's sometimes hard to make ends meet, and although Tesco can help, it can only help a little.
The Andrex puppy, one of the most enduring and successful icons in advertising history, also has implicit ambivalent associations. According to Heath, it has been the imagery of the puppy representing family and home which has driven the brand's success and given it the edge over Kleenex (and its quilt imagery), despite both sets of imagery ostensibly conveying softness. However, on further consideration, a puppy seems an odd symbol to choose to represent a brand in a category to do with cleanliness. Puppies are notoriously unruly and messy, not to mention un-toilet-trained, and the ads often depict it as actively causing a mess and using up lots of toilet roll. Hence, although the scenarios depicted ostensibly evoke happy, comfy family scenes, it may well be this underlying hint of messiness and resulting ambivalence in a category focused on cleanliness which has really driven its appeal. It is possible that the puppy came into being at a time when housewives were becoming sick of the expectation of everything being nice and clean and tidy all the time and hence were ready to accept acknowledgement that it didn't always have to be like that.
This ability to tap in to and articulate memories and associations which people have been thinking, but not had the confidence to acknowledge (to others or even to themselves) is potentially extremely powerful. As Bion asserted, not allowing yourself to think your thoughts is unhealthy, as it means you are constraining yourself, denying what you know and not using it to understand where you are and what to do.33 But in order to effectively give voice to such previously unvoiced thoughts, the context of the socially accepted norms and expectations against which the expression of individual memories may have to fight need to be taken into account. These social expectations are the "collective memories" (as defined by CG Jung, a contemporary of Freud), which, although publicly accepted, are not necessarily explicitly formed, and can therefore shift and change.34
Is dirt really good?
Persil's "dirt is good" campaign is a deliberate (and brave) case of a brand arousing ambivalence by actively embracing as positives the culturally accepted negatives of the collective memory of the category. But it is not working. Yet. There may well be a latent ambivalence in mums who feel torn between being a good mother in the eyes of society by keeping their kids clean, and being a good mother in the eyes of her kids by letting them have fun getting mucky, as well as millions of mums who think that, actually, a bit of dirt on their kids isn't such a bad thing. But the cultural collective memory that dirt is bad, and the expectation that to be a "good mother" your children must be spotlessly clean, are just too strongly ingrained to permit this to be explicitly voiced.
The Canadian brand Sunlight's attempt to own the territory of dirt has been more successful. The idea used here was that Sunlight is an excuse to get dirty, hence putting the emphasis on the process in which you get dirty, rather than the dirt itself. For Persil, however, the negative memory and the ambivalence it arouses are too closely affiliated with the product message and too explicitly and didactically communicated. But for Andrex, the negative associations are sufficiently implicit to allow ambivalence to arise unconsciously and be learned about experientially in the audience's own mind. Interestingly, the Persil on-pack material seems to try to dial back the explicit message of the advertising. It explains the idea further, closing the circle by explaining that getting dirty is part of life and that's all right because Persil will get everything clean again. The child on the front depicted having fun jumping in puddles is still spotlessly clean (due to the puddle being of a mineral water-like quality). And the kids on the back painting each other are actually painting a cardboard box "costume", keeping the dirt at a safe distance, with the image in black and white making it less obvious how dirty they have actually been allowed to get.
It might, therefore, have proved more effective for Persil to have kept the ambivalent elements within the execution, and the explicit conscious message in safer territory more acceptable to the collective memory and expectations. This is what Daz has achieved to great effect in the "cleaner close" campaign. Here, rather than dirt being fully embraced in the product message, it is kept at a safe distance within the creative vehicle of soap operas. This allows ambivalence to arise as a result of the conscious explicit product message of cleanliness being set against a background of the grubby goings-on of a soap opera. However, this was never the primary intention at the inception of the campaign. The original strategy was simply to entertain housewives with the kind of TV they like to watch. And although the soap vehicle does provide fantastic opportunities to directly juxtapose the grubbiness of soaps with the cleanliness of the product on an explicit level, there is also another unforeseen, more implicit level of ambivalence. Soaps are a "dirty" form of television and a bit of a guilty indulgence; watching soaps is an indulgent "waste" of time, and this is being set up against one of the "more useful" activities its viewers feel they should be doing instead - laundry.
The ambivalent element of the puppy in the Andrex campaign was also unpremeditated, as there was never supposed to be a puppy in it at all. The original script in 1972 featured a little girl, but it was thought that a girl trailing toilet roll over the house (to illustrate its soft, strong and long qualities) would encourage wastefulness in children. So the puppy was introduced as a last-minute substitute, which has proved in retrospect to have been a stroke of genius. This is not to say that without the ambivalent associations of puppies the campaign would not have been a success. The puppy is a lovable character in itself, and the "soft, strong and long" message may well have been a strong enough positioning in its own right. But the ambivalence is an interesting element to consider. If a fully grown (but equally lovable) dog had been used instead, would it have been as powerful? Dogs have similar associations of muckiness, but not in quite the same way as puppies, and the puppy again keeps the implicit negatives that little bit further away by being forgivable because it's "just a puppy", just as you'd forgive a child for "not knowing any better". Similarly, "dirt is good" would never even be entertained as a thought were it not tempered with the context of children, for whom dirt really is good.
All the examples cited so far have (coincidentally) been from categories to do with cleanliness, where it is easy to see how the positives of cleanliness can be juxtaposed with the direct "enemy" of dirtiness to create ambivalence. But (as illustrated by the historical examples given previously) ambivalence can still work in other categories without such strong opposites, and by provoking ambivalence in response to the emotions elicited as opposed to the message. This is not just about using surprising or different (negative) emotions as suggested by the "Sadvertising" theory,35 but a more complex mixture of contrasting emotions (or expectations of emotions) within the same ad, from which we have to decide how we feel. The Sony Bravia "balls" ad presents us with a scenario which we would expect to evoke manic, panicky, hectic emotions - millions of tiny, unpredictable bouncy balls hurtling down a hill. But, instead, what we experience is incredibly calming, the balls having been slowed down and brought "under control", with a calm, tranquil soundtrack. Hence, the treatment of the ad causes us to experience different emotions to those we expect based on what we are seeing, provoking ambivalence in the way we feel and causing us to take notice and try to understand why we're feeling the way we are. The sequel "paint", therefore, was not nearly as powerful, as the images and soundtrack were too closely matched to each other and to our expectations of what that situation should feel like - dramatic, booming and loud.
This is not to say that an ad will not work without an element of ambivalence. But (especially in certain categories) there is a wealth of more negative memories, insights and associations currently being ignored which offer an opportunity to add depth to the brand and create a more significant, impactful memory of it. Procter & Gamble is particularly guilty of a paranoid-schizoid attitude to its brands (with the notable exception of Daz), using research methodologies to root out and eliminate any remotely negative elements of an execution. But for many of its brands (in the personal hygiene and beauty categories), this ignores so many emotionally powerful and resonant negative insights and memories which could be put to use. On a brand such as Always, for example, there is a huge opportunity to tap in to a wealth of negative but incredibly powerful insights about periods (which are, after all, for the most part, a negative aspect of women's lives). But these are ignored in favour of purely positive product benefits, solutions and happy, smiley executions - completely side-stepping the reality of our experience and memories.
Remembering the good bits
Unsurprisingly, when asked to recall their strongest memories of ads, what people recount is overwhelmingly positive.36 In many cases, the advertising most strongly recalled comes from their childhood, and what they recall liking about it was its being fun, bright, upbeat and often with a catchy jingle (in many cases, whole verses of jingles being recalled word for word some 20 years on!), with no underlying negative or ambivalent elements recalled at all. This could be because, among children, entirely positive and happy advertising is what appeals, and it is only as adults that we require things to be tempered with negativity to fit the reality of our experience and grown-up cynicism. But it's also possible that a positive, enjoyable experience is more likely to be retained as an easily consciously recallable memory in order to relive the enjoyment in future.
Heath's research has shown that positive experiences are more easily processed than negative experiences, using less cognitive resource, and are therefore learned better, as they are not consciously registered to be protested against. Negative experiences, on the other hand, elicit greater attention as a defence mechanism, so that more cognitive resource can be directed to arguing against them. So although negative elements can initially provoke greater attention, they are less likely to be effectively "learned" and assigned successfully to the memory than positive elements. Hence, arguably, using both positives and negatives to elicit an ambivalent response provides the best of both worlds, with the negative gaining conscious attention, but the positive achieving the lasting effect consciously recalled from the memory.
Research as brand 'therapy'
In order to know what positive and negative memories to provide and evoke to provoke ambivalence, we need to understand what memories already exist in the consumer's mind. Often in a pitch situation, when our own memories of a brand are limited, we do start from scratch thinking about what the brand means to people and what their existing memories might be. But once this initial investigation is complete and the business won, all too rarely do we pause to look back and do the same sort of evaluation as to what memories are currently in consumers' minds. A "brand therapy" exercise should therefore be carried out at regular intervals, through individual depth interviews using projective techniques such as Wendy Gordon's free associations and psycho drawings37 to get beyond the more easily accessed and articulated memories usually used to rationalise our behaviour, to the more implicit memories which are the real drivers of our actions.38
Psychoanalytic principles already form the basis of much qualitative research theory and technique, but there is still more we can apply to aid our understanding of memories. Psychoanalysts should be brought in as consultants to help planners and moderators understand how to identify and interpret symbolic references elicited in brand therapy sessions (for example, by talking though a shopping experience in great detail, as a patient would recount a dream to their analyst), to reveal the unconscious meanings and memories behind them. Subsequently, during creative development, they would also be able to help creatives understand the unconscious implications and symbolism of the executional details of their work.
Of course, what we learn from individuals in such research will be tempered uniquely by their own personal set of memories and experiences. However, by accumulating learnings from a larger group of individuals, commonalities will become apparent which we can form into what Bion called "communal myths": articulations which adequately encapsulate on a broad level experiences which still have meaning for the individual.39
This process of brand therapy should not just be carried out among consumers, but also the creative teams. Just as a therapist's training involves going through therapy themselves in order to understand their own psychological baggage and how this might impede the impact of the patient's experience on them, and hence their ability to get to know the patient experientially, so creatives need to understand and recognise their own "brand baggage", which will inevitably colour their interpretation of the brief and the work they produce.
Towards a more backward-looking brief
The importance of memory in the formation of brand perceptions and the impact of new messages requires a new emphasis in the creative brief. Rather than being focused on what new thing we want to say, greater emphasis should be given to what exists already. For example, new sections within the briefing format would include:
- The lasting effect we want to have on the memory.
- Prevailing memories of the brand we want to evoke and the cues required to do this.
- The emotional context required to facilitate recall of the correct memories.
- Any explicit message we want to communicate, and how this fits with existing memories.
- The contextual collective memories surrounding the brand.
- Potential ambivalent associations we could evoke.
But, as well as the actual cues we need to provide (or avoid) in an execution, creatives need to consider other elements which can influence what memories are recalled and created, by setting up particular expectations, biases and contexts.40 Mood, tonality and language as visual cues can all play a part. For example, the use of what Malcolm Gladwell terms "priming words" (eg. "grey" and "bingo") can set up expectations or a context (of "old" associations) within which subsequent messages are interpreted and memories are recalled.41
The emotional context (evoked through language, music or visual stimulus) can also influence what memories are recalled,42 and is also important in that emotional events are bestowed with special prominence in memory (possibly due to greater attention being paid at the time of encoding, and/or an enhancement of memory consolidation after the event has passed). Hence, provoking an emotional response increases the likelihood of effective memory formation, and may also change the subjective quality of the memory, making it more robust than mere familiarity.43
The placement of certain elements at different points within an execution can also have an impact on what is recalled. For example, if the brand is revealed at the start, we will automatically start recalling associations and memories of that brand, through which all subsequent elements of the ad will be interpreted before being assigned to memory. But if the branding is left to the end, we are freer to establish new associations and memories in isolation from the brand without such colouration from existing perceptions and expectations. So, the question should always be asked: What difference might it make to the memories recalled and created if things were arranged a little differently?
It is, therefore, executional details which are key to utilising the power of memories, with the idea providing a skeleton construct from which to hang them. This means that as much, if not more, consideration must be given to the execution as to the idea, in terms of strategic input and guidance, creative development time and research.
Once the final execution has been developed, rather than rushing off to decide on the next thing we want to add to consumers' memories, we need to take stock of what existing memories have been refreshed and what new ones added in this latest piece of communication, so that these can be borne in mind for the future. This should be recorded in a communication memory tree, to chronicle the existing explicit and implicit memories used and the new ones created in every piece of communication, and allow us to see every time which memories from the past can be used to build a stronger brand memory in the future.
Even a completely new brand embarking on its very first piece of communication must therefore consider what memories are being laid down which will continue to influence all subsequent memories of the brand, far into the future.
Building memories for the future
Brands need to acknowledge that the messages they communicate are not stored as "snapshots", but as composites of other memories. They must give far greater consideration to what memories already exist and the impact of these on new messages, and accept that they will be both positive and negative. They must resist falling into a paranoid-schizoid state, and allow ambivalence and experiential learning to occur in order for the brand to provide an experience which fits the reality of our memories.
All of which will allow memories of the past to help build stronger memories for the future.
1. Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain, p278.
2. Antonio Demasio suggests that when we are faced with a decision, we use the criterion "How will I feel if I do that?" But as Du Plessis points out, no-one really knows how they will feel in the future, since it depends on something which has not yet happened (and might never happen), so we rely on similar past experience to give us a guesstimate of what our feelings will be. Erik Du Plessis, The Advertised Mind, p88.
3. Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp, Brand Salience - What It Is and Why It Matters.
4. The Emotional Brain, p181.
5. Both explicit and implicit memories are stored in the long-term memory which forms the vast majority of our memory, as all experiences are retained in some way here. But there is also the working or "short-term" memory, so called as this is a temporary storage mechanism in which several pieces of information can be simultaneously held, to be compared and interrelated. This is where the symbol of a piece of stimulus will interact with the matched associations from the long-term memory and where the subsequent active processing involved in thinking and reasoning occurs. The Emotional Brain, p270.
6. Tim Perfect and Sue Heatherley, Implicit Memory in Print Ads.
7. Alastair Goode, The Value of Implicit Memory.
8. Robert Heath, The Hidden Power of Advertising, Admap, June 2001.
11. Brand Salience - What It Is and Why It Matters.
12. Implicit Memory in Print Ads.
13. Ehrenberg proposed that: "Advertising's main role is to reinforce feelings of satisfaction (memories) with brands already being used." Quoted by Robert Heath and Paul Feldwick, 50 years using the wrong model of TV advertising.
14. Quoted in The Emotional Brain, p267.
15. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p132.
16. Cited by Robert Heath in Low-Involvement Processing.
17. The Emotional Brain, p210.
18. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, p20.
19. The Emotional Brain, p30.
20. Ibid. p165.
21. Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error, p172.
22. Giep Franzen and Margot Bouwman, The Mental World of Brands, p19.
23. Descartes' Error, p173.
24. Ibid. p175.
25. Graham Page and Jane Raymond, Cognitive Neuroscience, Marketing and Research.
26. Millward Brown claims that, contrary to Low Attention Processing, a tag must be actively (consciously) engaged with at the time of encounter in order to successfully enter the limited space of the mental workspace. However, there is no hard evidence for this, whereas Heath's Cognitive Emotive Power Test does indicate that an unattended to emotional response is more highly correlated with an increase in brand favourability than attended to and cognitively processed information.
27. John Grant, The Brand Innovation Manifesto.
28. "The logic of the emotional mind is associative - it takes elements that symbolise a reality, or trigger a memory of it, to be the same as that reality. That is why similes, metaphors and images speak directly to the emotional mind." Which is why, if the emotional mind follows this logic of one element standing in for another, things need not necessarily be defined by their objective identity. What really matters is how things are perceived. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, p294. This appealing to the emotional mind is also described by Freud in his theory of the primary process of thought. Anthony Storr, Freud, Past Masters series, Oxford University Press, 1989.
29. Howard Gardner, Changing Minds p154.
30. Donald Meltzer, The Kleinian Development, p87-88
31. RD Hinshelwood, A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought, p156.
32. Here I am taking the definition of ambivalence as that defined by the Swiss psychologist Eugen Bleuler in 1911: the co-existence of contradictory impulses derived from a common source, or the coexistence of positive and negative feelings towards the same object (as opposed to a state of non-feeling).
33. Wilfred R Bion, Learning from Experience, p84.
34. Anthony Storr, Jung, p39.
35. David Bonney, Sadvertising.
36. Primary research conducted among Leo Burnett employees, March 2007.
37. The Mental World of Brands, p356.
38. Duckfoot Research has also pioneered research techniques to help us identify the feelings which make a brand or piece of communication "feel right" - ie. what the existing perceptions are and how new communications need to fit comfortably with these.
39. The Kleinian Development, part III, p64.
40. The Emotional Brain, p210.
41. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, p53.
42. There are also implications here for state-dependent learning, where something is learned in one situation and is subsequently remembered best when in a similar state. Though the likelihood of wanting to replicate the state in which we would want a brand recalled (ie. when at point of purchase) in communications is minimal! The Emotional Brain, p211.
43. Adam Anderson et al, "Emotion enhances remembrance".
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