Advertising amnesia: why brains beat bytes

Never mind technology, long-term brand-building relies on human memory, says 101's Laurence Green.

When surgeons in Hartford, Connecticut, performed a radical bilateral medial temporal-lobe resection to alleviate Henry Molaison’s epilepsy in the summer of 1953, Henry lost not just parts of his brain, but his memory, too. At just 27 years old, Henry was consigned to live the rest of his life perpetually in the present.

From that point until his death 55 years later, Henry was unable to store or retrieve new experiences. He couldn’t learn new words or songs, forgot whom he was talking to as soon as he turned away and was content to complete the same crossword puzzle over and over again, the clues presenting a fresh challenge each time.

By dint of his condition, long life and apparently easy temperament, "HM" became one of medicine’s most celebrated patients. On his death, Henry’s brain was sliced into 2401 slivers and preserved for future study, the neurological equivalent of the cancerous cells taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 – cells derived from them are still used in biomedical research today.

Henry’s story, as told in Suzanne Corkin’s Permanent Present Tense, is an extraordinary one. It also – quite accidentally – offers a timely lesson for the advertising business. Because, unless my experience is unusual, it seems that many advertisers have begun to treat their audiences as if they have Henry’s brain, and not the fully functioning variety. They are advertising in the "permanent present", rather than building memories that will be monetised by purchases made in the future.

Unchecked, that’s a problem for our business, because the real win for brand-owners remains payback over the long run.

Brand-builders are in the memory business. With bittersweet irony, we seem to have forgotten this.

The single most important development in the history of the branding and advertising business was not the advent of commercial television, nor even the invention of the internet. It is not programmatic, and definitely not Pokémon Go. No, the critical phenomenon on which our industry is built dates back millennia, to our very evolution as humans: our extraordinary ability to encode, store and retrieve information. Otherwise known as remembering stuff.

More specifically, it’s our long-term memory that is the brand-builder’s friend. The storage in our short-term memory – used, for example, to remember a phone number, when we used to have to remember such things – has a strictly limited capacity and duration, which means that information is not retained indefinitely.

Miller’s law, formulated in 1956, suggested our working, short-term memory was limited to about seven items. More recent estimates conclude that we can cope with no more than four or five. Either way, things have to be removed from our short-term memory to make room for more. And very little of what we store there makes its way into long-term memory.

By contrast, our long-term memory can store much larger quantities of information for a potentially unlimited duration (sometimes a whole life span). Its capacity is immeasurable. It is, in short, a thing of wonder. And it’s where we keep our impressions of brands – among other, much more important, things.

It’s precisely because we keep stuff there for a long time, sleeping but readily activated at "point of sale", that our long-term memory is so valuable to brand-owners as the gateway to, and guarantor of, future sales.

Our long-term memory means that brands that delight do not just do so in real time – they leave a trace.

Our long-term memory means that brands that delight – or even just deliver – do not just do so in real time. Our needs or wants duly satisfied, we remember them for next time, keep them on our mental shortlist, perhaps even mention them to friends. They leave a trace. And their hold on our "memory structures", as professor Byron Sharp calls them, keeps those brands’ competitors at bay.

Our long-term memory means that brands’ advertising gets remembered, too, rather than just working in the moment to open and/or close an immediate sale. It reinforces those memory structures, and in so doing means advertising is still working months or even years after exposure. That’s why half of all advertising payback crystallises more than a year after advertising exposure.

"Brand memories are stored in a way that resembles an untidy, overstocked cupboard," Millward Brown South Africa chairman Erik du Plessis once wrote. "Hearing the brand mentioned, seeing the logo, watching an ad – any of these can turn the key and open the cupboard door. As the door opens, memories and associations will tumble out."

We instinctively know this to be true, both as consumers and advertising practitioners. Indeed, we could argue that without long-term memory, brands would simply not exist, since there would be no human or commercial impulse for them to do so.

But the modern mania for "real time" blinds us to these truths and their consequences. Too often, we line up our advertising against too short a time horizon, chasing custom around the internet to close a sale that may already have happened (invading our audience’s personal space as we go), rather than courteously opening a future sale, as we do in other media.

No wonder ad-blocking is all the rage.

In the broadcast era, loosely defined as the second half of the 21st century, advertisers – or at least their agencies – implicitly assumed brand advertising worked over the mid to long term. It was an entirely appropriate assumption. Even though their media agencies were buying audiences in the millions, they knew that only a tiny fraction was actually in the market for their products that day, week, month or even year. (Purchase frequency in most categories is remarkably low; we replace our cars, on average, every five years.)

But what those advertisers also knew was that, viewed over the longer haul, the "rolling awareness" stored in our long-term memories could build mighty brand franchises based on familiarity and favourability. That we would all need a razor or want a cola sooner or later, and that our brand choice would be made on the basis of the impressions we had stored over the years, rather than just the "information" directly in front of us.

Instead of dramatically affecting consumers’ immediate behaviour, enlightened brand-builders understood that advertising was really good at the ongoing reinforcement of favourable impressions, however vague. And this so-called "weak theory" of advertising could, in fact, deliver remarkable returns over time.

Memory made it possible.

In the new "narrowcast" era, by contrast, too many advertisers assume that advertising works immediately, and only immediately. Certainly the proximity of advertising to purchase (sometimes just one click away) has never been closer.

For some brands, some of the time, it is entirely appropriate to assume this and behave like that. But for the vast majority, the lag between ad impression and purchase remains vast. Those brands will invariably be better served by copy that respects that truth – advertising that plants some memorable seed for the future, rather than shaking the tree in the hope of meeting immediate sales objectives. Advertising that treats the consumer as a future prospect to be courted, rather than an immediate customer to be mined.

The best practitioners are concerned only with effectiveness, immune to both fashion and nostalgia.

To use classic sales-funnel language, we seem to have forgotten that advertising excels at upper-funnel stuff (enlarging the pool of considerers, the key to brand growth, according to Professor Sharp and the Ehrenberg Bass Institute). Instead, we increasingly point our dollars at lower-funnel "conversion" activity. Here, the return is perhaps more immediate and obvious (it’s certainly more measurable), but materially less valuable than the future flow of dividends that a genuine brand franchise throws off.

Put another way, we’re in danger of confusing what used to be known as "classified" and "display" advertising. Classified was what we read (or placed) when in the market for something as buyer (or seller). Because its premise was immediate action, it made sense that its natural habitat was the newspaper, especially local ones.

Display advertising started from the opposite premise: this was what advertisers placed when we weren’t in the market for something specific, when we didn’t know that we needed or wanted something. It was used to entice us in to that market or – more often – to plant, or water, a seed of preference for when we were. Because sooner or later we were going to be buying more cereal or deodorant, a new phone or even a new car.

The internet’s extraordinary advantages in terms of scale and speed meant that search stole classified’s lunch pretty much overnight. It is, quite simply, where we go when we know we need something (or are "in the market"). But its claim on display advertising, as the venue for advertisers in upper-funnel mode, is less absolute. Other media still do a pretty good job of "stocking the cupboard".

Procter & Gamble’s recent repurposing of its Facebook budget and Facebook’s own subtle pivot in its pitch to advertisers both signal an overdue correction, for those players at least, back toward the broad. From lower funnel to upper; from classified to display mentality.

Creating memories among the many is not the enemy of action by the few, and may in fact be its pre-condition.

We live in thrilling times for marketers and their agencies. The digital economy and "The Great Acceleration", a phrase coined by writer Robert Colville, present extraordinary challenges to lumbering incumbents and equally extraordinary opportunities to others.

The smorgasbord of media options for advertisers is bigger and broader than ever, and shows no sign of contracting any time soon. The siren calls of the new and shiny, but often untested, must be considered alongside the proven credentials of the old. Partisanship toward either is unhelpful as today’s advertiser contemplates their choices: the best practitioners are concerned only with effectiveness, immune to the opposing forces of fashion and nostalgia.

But as we rummage enthusiastically in the new bran tub of programmatic, data and social, we would do well to remember our "bias to now" and the inconvenient truth that brands pay back over time. However energetically we seize the day and chase today’s sale, we must – above all – leave a trace in our customer’s long-term memory. That’s where brands live, and long-term brand-building means a flow of future sales.

The message to advertisers echoing down the ages from an operating table in 1953 Connecticut is this. Don’t just advertise to Henry: do something memorable.

Laurence Green is a founding partner of independent advertising agency 101.

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