Understanding Consumer Memory

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There are many factors that play a role in the things we remember. They include such elements as how much we’re paying attention to something, how new and engaging an item may be, what emotional connections we may have with the object or experience, and, interestingly, even the very timing of our own neuron rhythms in the brain. Additionally, memories also have different life spans: the shortest memories last only milliseconds, whereas long-term memories can last hours, days, even years.

However, a memory is not simply a single, finite object. Instead, each memory is created by interconnected neuron activity in various parts of the brain. That means different groups of brain cells have to specialize in specific types of information processing. As one brain cell sends signals to another, the connection (synapse) between the two grows stronger. The more signals are sent back and forth, the stronger the connection. That’s why memory begins with recognition, but is encoded through repetition, just like learning to ride a bike or play the piano. All other things equal, the more we experience a familiar thing, the more likely we are to remember it. And once a message or image is fully embedded in our long-term memory, it has true staying power. Formal recognition tests show a particularly important image or sound can be recognized decades after it was last experienced.

These same principles are true with various brands and their ability to install an ingrained message. After breaking down a particular brand’s elements, the brain starts to match the visual patterns it detects to previous experiences with similar patterns stored in memory. This includes associations like “I’ve shopped at that store,” or “this logo reminds me of this other thing.” When neuroscientists at ISMAI and the Technical University of Lisbon showed a group of people a set of fictitious and real logos, then used an fMRI to monitor their brain responses, the real logos activated additional parts of the subjects’ brains that contribute to memory and meaning, whereas the fictional logos did not. These types of associative connections are built through repeated brand exposure. Separate fMRI studies show familiar brands can even trigger biological reward signals that activate the dopamine system, which influences pleasure and motivation in the brain.

So, an interesting first question: Are there any properties or characteristics about a brand – independent of its marketing, culture, people, and operating history – that help make it more distinct and memorable? In a recent study on image memorability, researchers found that color is weakly predictive of memory. Brighter, warmer colors like red and orange are marginally easier for subjects to remember versus colder hues like blue, suggesting brands with warm, bright visual elements may build slightly stronger memory associations. Researchers also found objects that include words are more memorable than objects with no semantic meaning. Specifically, images or logos accompanied by one label or snippet of text are significantly more memorable than a picture alone.

Overall however, intrinsic brand attributes are much less influential for building memory than extrinsic brand experiences: the sensory experience of seeing an Apple Watch commercial, remembering the excitement of your first MacBook purchase, seeing people nodding to white headphones during your morning commute, or reaching into a pocket a feeling the contours of your iPhone. Logo, branding and identity guidelines matter, but ultimately what matters more is what businesses do with them.

What are you doing with your colors, logos, words, products and services to make them stay in memory?

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