Building on consumers’ memory structure, not breaking it

Guest post from Prasad Narasimhan, our Managing Partner for Asia, based in Bangalore, India. 

Marketers are starting to recognize that distinctiveness is key in driving penetration & hence growth. But what sort of distinctiveness is most effective? A key consideration is how much of your mix should reflect the existing perceptions of your brand locked in consumers' "memory structure", and how much should break with this.

Breaking memory structure

Marketing teams are told they need to lead the way on their brands, and having a clear vision is of course important. But being too bold can be risky when this tries to break with the memory structure of a brand. Why is this the case?

We first process any new stimulus from a brand (advertising, packaging, activation) "implicitly", as Phil Barden explains in his book ‘Decode’. This is a subconscious reaction based on our intuition & past experiences locked in memory structure. This happens well before our rational mind kicks in. 

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If a brand's marketing breaks with the memory structure, the risk is that it will not be implicity processed, as it is in conflict with what we know about the brand. Some of the key reasons for breaking memory structure include:

  • New broom syndrome: the rapid turnover of marketing directors means tinkering with the brand more often than is good. This means valuable brand properties that took years to build may be ditched in the search for novelty. For example, Tetley abandoned their Tetley men in 2001 after nearly 3 decades of use. However, they later brought them back when they realized that this was an essential part of consumer association with the brand, as we posted on here.Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 16.56.50
  • Brand ego tripping: In our desire to build brands, we can develop a disregard for the consumer, telling ourselves that it is our job to lead them, but then leading them too far. An example of this is WalMart's unsuccessful attempt to go upmarket and sell jewelry and champagne, as we posted on here.

Building on memory structure

Once brand teams recognize the importance of consumers memory structure, they are better able to balance continuity with change, creating what we call "fresh consistency". They are more aware of what can change & by how much. They remain consumer informed even as they strive to be consumer leading.

Some brands go one step further and give the consumer a role in building on existing memory structure. An interesting example of this approach is the Government of the Philippines campaign titled “More fun in the Philippines”. The agency created a range of surprising executions that celebrated the cultural & physical diversity of the islands in a charming & real way.

The campaign resonated instantly because it reflected a fundamental truth; Filipinos are naturally amongst the most fun people in the world. The ads made people smile, and it worked for the brand & business.

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But this truth runs much deeper. Filipinos are fun-loving people despite all the poverty & the inequity around them. They are also incredibly resilient even in the midst of the worst natural disasters like floods & typhoons that hit them with unforgiving regularity every year. This attitude is unique to them, and they celebrate it.

What unfolded next was an incredible phase 2 of the campaign, where consumers  have been involved. They helped create executions reflecting the loveable resilience of the people. The brand is even more vibrant for this, spawning new ads on a regular basis.

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In conclusion, be sure you understand the distinctive memory structure of your brand in terms of both positioning and brand properties. Then, try to build on this when creating new marketing activity, rather then seeking to break it altogether.