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Understanding Memory – towards Total brand Recall

You could first try out a small experiment. Show the following ads to people outside the industry and (probably the next day)  ask them for the name of the brand which was being advertised. In most cases, you would find varying levels of recalls for the brand.

Now, also take a couple of minutes and try to memorize the following 5 words – Lion, Banana, elaborate, keen, Fire.



Brand Recall – Importance of Brand Linkage, ROI

There are still multiple views on whether Recall is even a measure to individually target. There is some evidence that there isn’t a clear correlation between higher levels of recall and sales. However, there are quite a few categories where a higher mind share is a basic requisite to staying in the game.

Especially if you would be spending $ 4 Mn  for every 30 secs on Superbowl, we should be sure that the highest impact of the ad is routed towards your sales – and not the category’s… (or even worse, your competitors !). Before we dive into best practices, we need a quick understanding of Memory, types of memory and its impact on advertising.

 Memory – The nuts and bolts of the Operation

When we think of anything or experience something, a set of neurons light up in the brain. The more frequently these neurons fire together, the better the links (synapses) emerge – resulting in stronger memory.  

Memory could be of the following types:

  • Short term – This would typically be similar to remembering a phone number for a short period (till it is punched into the keypad) and then discarded once the usage is no longer necessary. This can be strengthened by repetition  – but do note that despite repetition, this can be broken if attention is carried away (say someone speaks to you while you are trying to remember the phone number).
  • Long term – This is longer term and more  deeply imbibed. This is strengthened by repetition and strong emotional experiences (higher involvement or excitement / stress).

Memory is also classified under two broad heads. Reflect upon them and try to find which levers are important for your category:

  • Declarative Memory – This can be accessed through verbal queries and you would get quite articulate responses. This is further split down into
    • Semantic Memory – Our knowledge of facts (1+1=2), meanings (mammals vs reptiles), categoric information (Cars run on gasoline), etc.
    • Episodic Memory – What we learnt during from episodes of our life. Here, depending on the nature of the event, it could be heavily imprinted in memory (eg. a first kiss vs. a mundane office meeting).
  • Non-Declarative Memory – These information cannot be retrieved through verbal cues as they have been learnt subconsciously. This could deal with knowledge of ‘riding a bike’, ‘shaving’, ‘picking vegetables’ etc. – which are learnt over long periods of time.
    • Procedural Motor Skills – The knowledge of riding a bike, you most likely will not be able to articulate how you learnt the skill. It deals with knowledge of ‘how to’ (declarative memory deals in ‘what of’).
    • Priming – One stimulus influences response to another related stimulus. What you hear or see before a decision point can light up different (but related) parts of your brain, inducing you to act differently.
      Here’s a test – Complete the word GR___ ?
      Would your response be the same if you heard- (Red, Blue, Yellow, GR____ ) vs (Apple, Banana, Orange, GR_____), before the question? That’s Priming.
    • Classical Conditioning – This is quite a deep topic in itself, but in a nutshell, after repeated pairings of a stimulus (which at first is neutral) with another stimulus (which actually causes the physical response), the body begins to react later to just the neutral stimulus.

Let us also understand “Why and how do we forget?” which can throw some light on the subject:

  • Encoding Failure – If the information to be remembered needs processing with a lot of conscious effort, the information can quickly be forgotten from short term memory.
  • Insignificant levels of repetition can result in decay of the first learning. Forgetting rapidly occurs with time, but eventually levels off. We would even keep trace memories of some brands we had experienced during childhood.
  • Do you recollect all the 5 words given to you in the beginning? Chances are you would recollect more of the nouns, vs. the other verbs. This is because they created a ‘mental image’ as soon as you read them. Similarly, brand communication that fails to imprint a visual image in the mind (either unique or linked to the brand concept) would have greater decay.
  • ‘Retrieval cues’ are vital in aiding associations and clear recall at a later stage. This could be in the form of mnemonics, mascots, advertising themes, etc. These cues would “fire together” even before the brand name is flashed on screen.
  • The ‘mental image’ also proves that we remember things which are more visual.
  • The Familiar – We are able to remember best when we are familiar with the context. An interesting example is a chess board with the pieces left in mid-play – experienced chess players need just 5 secs to remember all pieces and their positions ! This is because they are familiar with the information and are immediately able to organise it into manageable units. In a way it is also ‘meaningful information’ to them.
  • Receiver’s ‘Self Concept’ – When we see / hear things which go against our core beliefs, we tend to dimiss the information entirely – just like the mind tries to suppress painful memories – to protect the self and reduce anxiety. Essentially, we are biased towards encoding more and more of information that reinforces our beliefs and neglecting the information that goes against it. Hence, the receiver may “forget” information, which goes against their self concept.
  • Clutter – As the consumer experiences newer stimuli or gains other information, the older information tends to blur.

Nutshell – Ways of Improving memory

  • Repetition
  • Meaningful information
  • Retrieval cues
  • Mnemonics
  • Reduced interferences

Towards higher levels of brand recall

What follows are some points which we should consider in case we are gunning for increased brand recall. Do note- we are not delving much into ‘gaining attention’, which though important, we shall delve into separately.

Repetition – This is the surest way to increase Brand Recall. With enough repetition – post a certain threshold level, information can get imprinted for the long term. Your repetition would be ineffective till you cross that certain threshold, but post the threshold, the communication would register. This would be imprinted in the short term and endure decay when off air. However, with another round of repetition, this would again improve to previous levels (higher, this time). Academics have felt that the efficient way for students to memorize anything in the long term is for them to rehearse it with progressive levels of time (once a day, once in 2 days, once in 4 days, etc.).

Using these pieces of info, we can put together the most efficient way of scheduling media – with progressive gaps between media bursts.

Efficient Media Scheduling - Impact and retention rates

Mnemonics – These include symbols, logos, slogans, jingles, punchlines, mascots, etc. This helps, as (over time) whenever the mind sees the communication the neurons start firing the brand name in receiver’s head. These are the very reason mental images / retrieval cues work so well in remembering information.

Visual menmonics - Brand Mascots

Communication Style: A particular ‘style’ of communication aids familiarity and when they are successfully done across multiple executions, the viewers sees it as a repetition of the same campaign (but with refreshing new visuals). You could take the successful Mastercard ‘priceless’ series as an example here.

Effective Length of the Commercial – This concept was first conceived by Stewart & Furse in 1986. What this means is if your ad is of 45 sec length, but doesn’t link to your brand till the 15th second, the effective length of the commercial is 30 secs. (the first 15 secs are wasted monies !). It is all about the duration the neurons are firing together. If the viewer has no clue about the brand name till the end, it may be a concern. The links could come from either packs, logos, mnemonics, style,…. just about anything.

Take the Gorilla ad shown earlier as an example.

Effective Length of Commercial

Now, this is an important concept, especially if your ad (i) doesn’t have mnemonics, jingles, etc which are owned by the brand (ii) doesn’t have a communication style that is attributed to the brand (iii) is for a product that is not very unique within the category (iv) is highlighting an attribute that the brand doesn’t already stand for (hard suitcase => Samsonite ? American Tourister?).

Using Creative Magnifiers (most recalled high points of any ad, a concept made popular by Millward Brown) – These ‘high points’ of your commercial are useless if they do not get attributed to your brand. If the viewer is able to recall different elements of the ad but is not able to link it back to your TVC, the creative magnifiers are weak. The creative magnifiers must play dual roles of  linking to the brand as much as to the message.

  • The brand has to be integrated into the most stimulating / involving points of the ad and not get overpowered by the stimuli. We will delve into this in detail soon.
  • Some times, celebrities create the same issues by overpowering the brands. The brand and the celebrity need to be positioned similarly or need to exhibit similar archetypes, for synergy behind the investment.
  • The brand must be integrated before the ‘conceptual closure’ of the ad – for eg. if it is a funny commercial, the point where the punch line is delivered (and the viewer can say “Oh, i got it” and think “Now i can not pay attention to whats ahead”).

Ad Size and length – There are many numbers from different studies floating around, but you would see many studies that bring out similar findings – such as, A 15 sec spot only generates 64% impact as much as the 30 sec spot, which in turn generates only 80% of the 60 sec spot. Similar impact is seen by shifting to larger sized print ads.

Finally, just ask yourself a question – Can a competitor replace my product’s logo and packs in my ad with his’ and still have a relevant ad? If yes, you have a problem.

Suggested Further Reading:

Exploring Psychology, David G Myers. (specifically, the chapter on memory)

The Advertised Mind, Erik Du Plessis.

About Face: The secrets of emotionally effective advertising, Dan Hill.



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