There’s one company manifesto I love.
“They remember the familiar and they remember the new.
They remember the expected and they remember the surprise.
They remember the generic and they remember the specific.
They remember the simple and they remember the complex.
They remember the calm and they remember the conflict…” etc.
Memzy was a company that used brain science to create more memorable content, be that for marketing or training purposes.
The point of their manifesto, of which the above is a small extract, was to point out the inevitable contradictions that lie in how we, as human beings, remember stuff. There’s no hard and fast rule as to what we will, or won’t remember. Human memory is fickle, unreliable and inconsistent.
As much as many people love this analogy, human memory is nothing like computer storage. Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s not as portrayed in the sweet Disney Pixar film, “Inside Out”. As Elizabeth Loftus, the American cognitive psychologist and expert on memory, explains, our memory is more like a Wikipedia page that we, and others, can change. It’s constructive and reconstructive, and constantly in flux.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at some of the research…
👉 Your memories can’t be trusted
There’s a great short video on this topic that I’d encourage everyone to watch. It’s on The Guardian’s YouTube channel here.
The essence of what the video explains is that our memories can’t be trusted. They are subject to constant change, be that via photos, videos, other people’s memories, or simply the passage of time. What we think happened at any one time in the past can be very different from the reality that we lived through.
This is mainly because memories live as networks that are distributed across the brain (again, not the computer storage analogy). When they’re recalled, they’re subject to a number of different changes and influences, resulting in unstable, and often incorrect, memories.
👉 Hacking your memory
Because memory is so unstable and fickle, it is, fortunately and unfortunately, open to manipulation. As Loftus explains in the aforementioned video, external stimuli can transform and even contaminate our memories.
On a positive note, this can be great for things like PTSD treatment. However, in the wrong hands, it can be extremely dangerous.
Just think of the criminal justice process – remember the interview manipulation that happened to Brendan Dassey in the Netflix docuseries ‘Making a Murderer’?
You may also find it eye-opening to know that, according to work carried out by the Innocence Project, around 70% of wrongful criminal convictions in the US involve inaccurate eyewitness testimony.
And the research doesn’t end there…
In one study published by the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review in 2002, Wade and colleagues examined the extent that people were susceptible to falsely recall an episodic memory, by altering real childhood photographs that they had obtained of participants from their families. They put the photographs into new images, for example, into a hot air balloon trip, knowing that the participants had not, in fact, experienced the event that they were creating.
When they were shown the image of themselves as a child in a hot air balloon, many participants, over 50% in fact, produced a rich and detailed recall of this entirely fictitious event.
Related to this evidence for the reconstructive nature of memories is recent work by Demis Hassabis and Eleanor Maguire on the constructive nature of recall. In a study published in 2009, they showed that the same network of brain regions (the medial temporal lobe and the hippocampal structures) that we use when we recall real episodic memories, are also used when participants create an imaginary event in their minds.
👉 Your memories are biological, not emotional
There’s an interesting line of thinking here that is still very much under investigation – it’s all part of the big blood/brain barrier debate and how much of what goes on in our brains is connected to what’s happening in the rest of our bodies. And, when it comes to illness, which comes first!
A paper published in 2020 by Tang and colleagues demonstrated that inflammation (often linked to illness) can impair the functioning of the hippocampus, an area of the brain where a lot of memory making is done. This has fascinating implications for the argument that memories are indeed just biological constructs rather than anything more spiritual or emotional.
However, the topic of emotion in memory is a prickly one. It’s one that many marketers and advertisers will relate to as it’s often touted as the holy grail of making campaigns and adverts more impactful and memorable!
But it’s not quite that simple. In fact, research from Brandy Bessette-Symons, an assistant professor in the Ithaca College Department of Psychology, has found that emotion actually makes memory more unreliable, and that as humans, we often tend to attach a ‘false memory effect’ when we see pictures or images of other humans.
👉 The marketing conundrum
So where does all this leave us when it comes to the commercial world of marketing?
A world that, for years now, has been hinged on creating emotional connections between brands and consumers, and on creating content that we believe is so memorable as to result in purchases and profits.
Thankfully, there are some ‘ethical’ practices we can still use in marketing to make our campaigns and content more memorable.
Here are the Big 5 Guidelines to follow.
🎨 Impactful design
The old adage is still partly true – a picture is worth a thousand words. And the brain processes visual imagery in a much shorter amount of time than it does text. Using amazing design in your marketing and content will maximize what your reader remembers alongside any great copy they’ve read.
🎉 Balance familiarity with novelty
People want enough to relate to, and enough to surprise them. With marketing campaigns and content, the crux is about balancing the familiar with the novel. It’s how a lot of song-writing and music composition works – you take a common refrain and use it as your hook, then add new melodies around that to surprise and inspire the listener.
💡 Think imagination, not emotion
As we’ve seen, emotion can be a difficult one to get right, and may even work against your marketing, especially if you get it wrong! A better route to take is via ‘imagination’. Now, design can really help towards this, but there’s also the trick of ‘storytelling’ that you can use. This can be through actual past stories you want to tell, or it can be through more simple analogies – anything that effectively brings your point to life and helps make your content more memorable.
🖥️ Try out interactivity
We’re all just big kids really – we love getting our hands dirty and trying out things for ourselves. So why not apply this to our marketing too? Create interactive content that customers can actually click on or play with. This could be in the form of simple clickable pdfs, or, if you’ve got more $ to spend, wizard tools, calculators and quizzes.
🔢 Tread carefully with repetition
Yes, repetition helps to embed ideas and concepts. But ever heard of that other well-known phrase, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’?
No-one likes ‘in your face’ marketing. You wouldn’t want to see the same advert repeated 5 times over each ad break, would you? So tread carefully with your frequency and don’t give in to the social algorithms, which, like crack cocaine, encourage you to post more and more often. Better to do high-quality, less frequent and more memorable content than repetitive drivel that just becomes that annoying background noise.