Building memories requires repetition, whereas refreshing them is easier, which is why advertising is always more effective for brands people already know, argues Faris Yakob, in an exploration of the research around memory structures and why ads should typically run for much longer than they do.

Brands are simply a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer [Feldwick]. I waxed lyrical on this definition in my last book, suggesting that it wasn’t quite sufficient because there is an inherently social aspect to brands. Bullmore pointed out that the ”image of a brand is a subjective thing. No two people, however similar, hold precisely the same view of the same brand,” but I wrestled with this too. 

While true, as it is of literally everything, there must also be a common understanding to make a brand a brand. As Bullmore also wrote, "Brands... are made and owned by people... by the public... by consumers” in their totality, rather than individually. But we can all agree that it’s something inside people’s heads. As Jenni Romaniuk more eloquently and succinctly puts it, “humans might be made from stardust, but brands are made by memories.” 

These memories are a function of the totality of interactions a person has with a company but we use advertising to shape them. In Ehrenberg-Bassian language brands are memory structures. Making a brand easy to think of by attaching positive associations and feelings to it creates cognitive fluency and thus favorability. How then are we to make memories? 

Different models have been applied to this task because there are different kinds of memory, even if we still don’t understand exactly how they are encoded in the brain. Things you can clearly bring to mind are ‘explicit' memories. That is often what we test for in research, (hence unaided vs aided awareness vs consideration metrics), by asking questions like: What brands have you heard of, have you heard of this one, and would you buy it? There are also ‘implicit’ memories, which are acquired and used unconsciously. There is a lot more going on in your subconscious than is dreamt of in your waking mind and some of it impacts decision making. 

The neuroscientist Antony Damasio’s research shows that emotions play a crucial role in decision making because making decisions in real life is staggeringly complex. It involves making assessments of the “incentive value” of actions in every specific situation but we have to decide between numerous complex and conflicting alternatives, with a high degree of uncertainty about the impact of most of them.

Nothing in real life is simple or binary, not even Coke or Pepsi (What about Dr Pepper? What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe you drink sparkling water now anyway). When you are in a supermarket trying to pick out toilet paper when you haven’t bought most of them before you simply don’t know which is best for you. It’s hard on its own and even more difficult when multiplied by all other things on your shopping list, which is why we let the somatic markers kick in, and bias us just enough to grab something and move on. Emotions are the lubricants of reason. 

Regardless of how we formulate it and how it functions to influence purchase behavior, it occurred to me recently that we might learn a thing from people who are masters of memory. Victoria Gross is one of the best trivia contestants on the planet and is currently “The Queen” on ABC’s The Chase. She isn’t a savant; she worked to build her skill and uses what is called the ‘spaced repetition’ technique, which itself is predicated on some canonical research into memory by Hermann Ebbinghaus. 

He was interested in how we forget things. His experiments suggested that memories weaken over time and that the biggest drop in retention happens soon after we learn something. It may seem obvious upon reflection but he also discovered that how information is presented affects how memorable it is to you and that your cognitive and emotional state also impact how well you’ll remember. All of which seems extremely relevant to those of us in advertising. His findings have been replicated as recently as 2015 and are widely used and highly regarded, hence The Queen using the technique. The most important discovery he made was that by being re-exposed to the same stimuli or information at key points in the “forgetting curve” you significantly reduce the rate at which you forget. 

Forgetting starts again after each exposure but it’s slower than before and therefore the gaps between exposures can be longer as time goes on. So you learn something, review it the next day, then two days later, then a week later, then a month later, then two months later, then six months later and so on. When we look at this insight with our media planning heads on it suggests that a very specific and seemingly unusual communication cadence would be optimal to create memories and thus build brands. Effective frequency over time should operate to interrupt forgetting curves with spaced repetition. 

Recent research from Kantar, System1 and Analytic Partners across 50,000 pieces of creative demonstrated that the effect simply doesn’t wear out. We get bored of our ads because we see them approximately ‘one million’ times more than consumers do. Interestingly this principle holds in pet food. Pet owners like to give their pets variety but only because they get bored of buying the same brand, not because it’s better for the pets. Perhaps we need to eat our own dog food. If the ad is good, we can and should use it again and again, and now we also know how to flight it in the optimal way to build brand memories. 

For the last few years clients we work with have been very concerned about maximizing 1+ reach. This recommendation from Ehrenberg-Bass is a corollary of their crucial insight that growth comes from new or at best light customers, because there are always more of them. However, since the purpose of advertising is to build and refresh memory structures and we now know forgetting curves are inevitable, that seems to suggest that we should at least reconsider the role of frequency. 

Building memories requires repetition, whereas refreshing them is easier, which is why advertising is always more effective for brands people already know. Ads should be used for much longer, since there is no evidence of wear out. Campaigns should last much longer too, with a burst upfront followed by drips at ever increasing intervals for at least a year and ideally longer. Make sure you read this again tomorrow, and then a week from now, just to make sure this all sinks in.