How Distinctive Brand Cues Are Formed In The Mind

Carmen SimonDecember 20, 20164 min

The purpose of our communications, particularly in business, is to have people eventually act on something we say.

For example, we hope that the next time potential clients have a choice of vendors, they hire us instead of someone else. The trouble with this is that they are busy with many other things, and we may be one small speck against a crowded background.

The continuum we are after is for people to notice cues, search their memory, and act on intentions. This means we must work at creating and training the association between the cue, memory, and intention. At the point of decision, Point B, it’s not just reactivating the same stimuli that counts; it is reactivating the association between stimuli and intention that counts. fMRI studies show that when we repeat the encoding of the same stimuli (we are shown the same things over and over), there is less activation of the hippocampus. However, when we reactivate the associations between the stimuli, there is greater activity in the hippocampus, and this is what leads to more accurate memory retrieval.

To encode links between cues, memory, and intentions, you can explicitly state them, or you can ask others to state their own intentions: “When I am in situation X, I will perform action Y.” Both work equally well, whether stated verbally or in writing, and are superior to not having any intentions and simply expecting people to perform something from their own memory. Studies show that prospective memory is more effective when it follows the formula of written instructions + imagery. For example, “When I receive a prospect’s information, I will check his or her LinkedIn profile” (and we see a picture of someone’s LinkedIn profile). Any modality of instructions has the possibility to improve prospective memory when you show people “how” to do something. Research findings remind us that even asking people to imagine for 30 seconds that they will do something in the future improves the likelihood of its execution.

It is critical to encode distinctive cues that are not associated with anything else in long-term memory except you or your cause. At Point B, a cue must be distinctive enough so people don’t confuse us with someone else, particularly the competition. We must be humble enough to realize that at Point B, people are typically preoccupied with other things: the right prospective cue is extremely important.

How do we gauge if our cues meet the mark? Consider these guidelines:

1. The nature of the cue. The more the cue corresponds to the memory itself, the stronger the memory. For example, if, in your mind, Kleenex represents tissues and only tissues, then saying “tissues” may quickly bring to mind the brand Kleenex. If someone says “lightbulbs,” you may not immediately think of Philips because the company stands for a lot more than lightbulbs. What we bring to mind is always cue dependent, whether we provide the cue ourselves or someone else does. Weak connections do not activate specific memories.

2. The strength of the cue. If someone says “beer” but you are not a beer drinker, then that cue does not bring about a particular memory. Cues become strong with enough exposure and repetition.

3. The number of connections of that cue in our memory with other elements. If someone says “beer,” how many brands come to mind? If you address an audience and say “predictive analytics,” are you the only vendor that comes to mind? Can you find a word or term that only you’re associated with in your listeners’ brains? People find it hard to form if-then plans if the number of cues increases.

4. When the cues you use to attract attention at Point A are similar to what people encounter later at Point B, the cues are more likely to signal action.

5. Physical properties of stimuli such as unusual colors, textures, size, motion, loud sounds, harmony, or orientation of objects can force people to look “despite themselves.” These types of cues work because they do not require much cognitive effort.

6. Create cues that are linked to existing habits (e.g., associating new information with a software application people already use). Attention driven by habits is potent because people can sustain it on their own, and once habits are formed, they do not require much cognitive effort.

7. Use cues to direct attention inward and prompt audiences to focus on habitual thoughts. When you engage your audiences in reflective attention, you promote long-term memory because of a process called elaborate encoding.

8. Link your message to people’s most important goals. Unlike reflexes or habits, goals require cognitive effort, but attention 
is still possible because goals are fueled by needs. Consider acknowledging that an audience may have conflicting needs, such as uncertainty versus structure, people versus privacy, and survival versus transcendence.

9. Tie your message to a current but unfulfilled goal. People tend to pay greater attention to and remember more of what is not finished because the brain seeks closure.

10. Link cues to social desirability because impression management is a strong motivation driver. People tend to pay attention to what makes them look good in front of others.

11. Ensure that people have enough willpower to pay attention to you (e.g., present important messages early in the day).

12. Strengthen the association between cues, memory, and intentions.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Carmen Simon, PhD, founder of Memzy and the author of Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions. Shared with the permission of McGraw-Hill Professional.

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