Beyond the Semantic: Leveraging Episodic and Implicit Memory to Boost Your Brand
The Brain Behind Brands: An Introduction
Undoubtedly, branding is a top management priority for most companies, but it can be a difficult concept to grasp. After all, brands are not physical products or services, but rather exist solely in the minds of consumers.
A key aspect of branding is brand knowledge, which refers to the thoughts, feelings, experiences, and beliefs that customers associate with a business or company. This knowledge can help create brand equity through brand recognition. Therefore, understanding brand knowledge is crucial for building strong and effective brands.
To begin discussing brand knowledge, let’s note that it is defined as the personal meaning of a brand that is stored in the consumer’s memory (Keller, 2003). This highlights the importance of memory in understanding brand knowledge. Consumers' knowledge of a brand is somehow stored in their brains, so understanding how the human memory systems work can help build brand equity.
Based on this assumption, this blog will explore how understanding the human memory systems can help create brand knowledge and thus build brand equity.
The Multiple Memory Systems in the Brain: A Closer Look
As you can see in the diagram above (see also Squire and Zola, 1996), the human long-term memory is not a single store, but is divided into multiple components. Specifically, long-term memory is broadly divided into declarative and non-declarative memories, each with its own sub-components.
Declarative memory, also known as explicit memory, is the type of memory that can be brought into consciousness and expressed overtly. This type of memory is propositional in nature, meaning it can be "declared" and relationships between memories can be inferred. Non-declarative memory, on the other hand, is accessed unconsciously or implicitly through performance rather than recollection. It is also referred to as implicit memory.
Skills such as riding a bicycle and habits are examples of non-declarative memory. Once acquired, the body moves automatically, but this does not mean that the skeleton and muscles steer the bicycle by themselves. Memories in the brain are accessed and used unconsciously.
Declarative memory, on the other hand, is what we most often think of as memory in daily life. It is further divided into two subcategories: episodic memory and semantic memory. Episodic memory is the memory of personal events and experiences, often expressed in terms of ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘with whom’ and ‘how’, while semantic memory involves facts, meanings and concepts that are commonly regarded as general knowledge.
This distinct classification is not just for convenience, but rather reflects how the memory system in the brain is organized and works. Each type of memory is processed by separate brain regions or networks. Hence, for example, damage to a particular part of the brain can make it difficult to recall semantic understanding of words, objects, and people, while still being able to remember past events and memories, and vice versa.
Beyond Semantic Memory: Implication to Marketing and Branding
The existence of multiple memory systems in the brain means that marketing activities are likely to benefit from targeting each memory differently. For example, episodic memory is easily transformed and remembered relatively quickly, while semantic memory is relatively well retained once established, but requires more effort and time from the consumer to learn. Procedural memory, meanwhile, requires even more time to acquire but is extremely robust, remaining even in later stages of amnesia and Alzheimer's disease.
In the context of both branding and marketing, it's important to note that too much emphasis is placed on semantic memory, which refers to the network of memory elements such as colors, music, jingles, celebrities, fonts and symbols, as well as taglines, product information, concepts and value propositions.
Some brands simply repeat their name to make it memorable, while others try to persuade customers by highlighting detailed functional features, specifications, RTBs, and differences from competitors. A possible counterargument might be that they also consider emotional benefits. However, even such approach typically tries to persuade consumers by rationally explaining emotions, which is still likely to involve semantic, rather than episodic, memory.
To effectively use multiple forms of long-term memory, it would be more beneficial to engage consumers not only with functional features, RTBs, and physical brand assets that are stored in semantic memory, but also to create episodic "experiences" and build implicit memory.
Episodic memory involves remembering when, where, with whom, and how a product or service is used, as well as the emotional experience it brings. This type of memory is crucial for brand knowledge because it is easy to remember, requires little effort from the consumer and can be seen as a personally relevant matter that is naturally associated with emotion. Storytelling and providing immersive experiences, whether virtual or real, would be the practical examples.
Meanwhile, implicit memory involves habitual thinking, which is automatically and implicitly triggered by "cues" such as specific context, colors, sounds/jingles, and smells. It takes time to link these cues to a recall of a brand, but once they are connected, they work automatically, mostly subconsciously, and contribute to brand recall, even when the consumer is not consciously aware of it. This applies not only to purchase behavior, but also to the rest of daily life.
Creating Consistency through Memory: From Understanding to Action
Consistency has been considered a key to effectively communicating and building a brand. This means maintaining consistency over time, across touchpoints, and among all elements of the brand asset. The function and benefits of the product or service should be reflected in the color and form of the product or packaging, and the feelings and emotions evoked by using the product or service should also be considered. In addition, to help consumers with limited cognitive resources, the use of a metaphor can sums up these associative elements in an intuitive way.
The approach of building brand equity through episodic memory is beneficial to this consistency, as it allows consumers to encode all elements of the brand holistically into their long-term memory. This inherent consistency can be further strengthened in a top-down manner by having a clear value and purpose for the brand that benefits society and the environment. Additionally, implicit memories including habits can be created by associating cues with the brand, leading to automatic recall of associated elements, and increasing the mental availability of the brand.
In summary, we have reviewed the role of different forms of long-term memory in the branding process and connecting various brand assets in a consistent and associative manner. Brand equity will be enhanced by considering not only semantic memory, but also episodic and implicit memory.
Keller KL (2003) Brand synthesis: the multidimensionality of brand knowledge, Journal of Consumer Research, 29: 595 – 600.
Squire LR, Zola SM (1996) Structure and function of declarative and nondeclarative memory systems, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 93: 13515 – 13522.