Memory Triggers: What Branding Is Really About

When you were a kid you dreamt of being someone. The dream was not about measured ambition or social status; it was about a blind, immature passion to be someone important — someone who was big, clever, grown up in the grown-up world. I always dreamt of being a mad scientist.

When I finally graduated from the Royal College of Art in London with my master’s degree, the general consensus from the working public was that designers would always be children, designing album covers and letterheads with crayons and playing by themselves all day.

“Communication is not a science, it’s an art form!” was our standard retort in this sticks-and-stones sissy fight. We defend our profession with this bluff because we can’t quantifiably say why it’s true. When you can’t prove something is correct and project the outcome of a test, that’s when you fall back on this poetic defense.

Well, I have good news for all of us design children. Get out of the playground and into lab coats; I duly declare us all mad scientists.

Here’s why: As designers, we are working every day to relate to and trigger the most complex system on the planet. To even calculate the internal wiring of this standalone device, some estimate, would take longer than the predicted lifespan of our known universe. That device is our own brain — the target of everything we do.

Its capacity is beyond our human comprehension, as Professor Wadman of the neurobiological department at the University of Amsterdam told his first-year students. “Just compare the brain to the biggest system man has ever built, the communications network. Imagine you live in a small village of 30,000 houses; everyone has a phone line running from his door directly to every other household. So each house has 29,999 lines running from it. This is a vastly complex system of immeasurable cross-linking and redundancy. Picture this system… now multiply this to every human on the planet… now take 50 of these globes and link them in the same way… this is approaching the neural networks of a small child” (adapted from “The Mental World of Brands” by Giep Franzen and Margot Bouwman).

We still, in this day and age, cannot tell you how the higher functions of the brain work. We cannot reliably predict how each of us interprets and responds to stimuli; and most alarming is the fact that we cannot even tell you accurately how we retain all of our experiences — we don’t know the basics of memory.

What we do as communicators is try and guess the responses to certain stimuli; we shadow-box using our own experience but without understanding what’s going on inside, speculating as to what the response might be. Our goal is retention, attraction, and understanding, but what these boil down to is “memory triggers.”

The foundations of all brand success are relationship and emotion — how we communicate our messages to the audience. We look for specific target groups, we mine for demographic profile audiences, but biologically we are all identical. We start life as children with exactly the same hardware, and the scars incurred as we pass through life are what bring about our identity. So here are the eight types of memory that have been identified:

  • Episodic. The memory for experiences and events in your own life. Brands that can access a brand truth centered on participation with their products will have enormously more potential to be remembered and used in the higher cognitive functions. These keystones — such as the driving ability of a BMW or the quality of leather in a Bentley — have enormous potential and are used constantly by their owners. From the tag line in their advertising to the tactility of their key-ring fobs, every point of contact repeats the message to remind you of the experience.
  • Factual. The memory for learned facts. If you can’t interact with a product then the retention of key messages is greatly reduced, and it becomes a harder story to sell. But like muscle groups, the neural pathways get stronger by repetition. When childhood memories are repeated enough times, you absorb the story as your own. History is taught, not lived. Brands that have messages that you can’t physically relate to — such as the freshness of tea or the vitamins in milk — have a harder and more costly route to retention. These will need to use many different methods of repetition to capture the audience.
  • Semantic. The memory of meaning. We use semantic and contextual information to correctly place brands, and they themselves will use an already existing memory trigger to gain a foothold in your life. Shell, for example, is the outer covering of a sea creature and a petrochemical giant; the word’s context will help you correctly place the use of each.
  • Sensory. A visual memory. Most people, especially right-brain types such as ourselves, can picture over 10,000 brands in our “mind’s eye.” This vivid trigger can be awakened by many senses, such as smell and taste. If we can visualize a bottle of Beck’s with condensation dripping down it from our episodic memory, then we make the next step of visualizing the taste pattern triggered by the beer. The brain does not work in negatives, so if I tell you not to think of the smell of newly cut grass, already your mind has awakened all the pathways and memories you have of it, and only a percentage of these will come to the surface of perception and cognitive thoughts.
  • Skill. Response and repetitive sets. Although this type of memory isn’t one that brands can claim a link to, it is one they want to associate with. “Just Do It” from Nike is the pinnacle of the association of a brand with skill.
  • Instinctive. Mechanical functions. Natural impulses such as the need to suckle and ability to walk are given to all of us. And although McDonald’s is not there yet, it is trying to gain womb access.
  • Collective and past life. The last two throw the study of neurobiology into question. I do think there are hidden common triggers that we can use as a basis for communication. Where to look for them is the problem.

I believe that to do our job we need to understand the target of our attack and use the mechanics of the brain to their best advantage. We have pledged our working life to the pursuit of the “flash of recognition” when someone out there understands what we are trying to say. Tapping into this is not just about blind inspiration; it’s the work of mad scientists who have practiced this art and are no longer shooting memory triggers in the dark — they have been to target practice. Good hunting.

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